The Advanced Art of Stop-Motion Animation: History of Stop-Motion Feature Films: Part 3
While these independent features were hitting the festival circuit in 2009, the first big stop-motion feature event for mainstream theaters that year was Coraline (Figures 1.42), released in early February. The evolution behind the film began when famed horror/fantasy writer Neil Gaiman fell in love with The Nightmare Before Christmas and was inspired to work someday with director Henry Selick. He wrote Coraline as a novel, inspired by his own daughters, and sent the manuscript to Selick, who also fell in love with the story and wanted to make it into a film. The story was about a young girl named Coraline who discovers an alternate world through a door in her new house. Everything in this “other” world seems to be much more enticing than her life in the real world, but it soon unravels into a nightmare that Coraline must find a way to defeat.
The project went through many years of finding the right studio, distributor, and medium to bring it to the screen. Choices to make it live action, computer animation, stop-motion, or a combination of these finally came to a head in 2006, when production as a fully stop-motion feature finally began at Laika Studios in Portland, Oregon. Laika had been Will Vinton Studios before it was taken over by Phil Knight in 2002. Coraline would be the first feature produced under this new regime. The crew was a unique combination of talent, combining many who had worked consistently with Selick since his MTV days with local Portland artists and others from around the globe.
The film was the first to use two new technologies for stop-motion filmmaking: rapid prototyping and stereoscopic photography. Rapid prototyping was a method for printing out 3D computer models of replacement animation and props into physical resin materials in order to combine the technical smoothness of CG into a stylized stop-motion set. Stereoscopic photography was a method for actually shooting the stop-motion sets in 3D by taking left- and right-eye images of each frame and aligning them for stereo 3D projection. (Both of these techniques are described in more detail in Chapter 3: Building Projects and Chapter 4: Digital Cinematography, respectively.)
Even with this new technology and state-of-the-art compositing effects, every effort was made to keep Coraline as hand-crafted as possible. Amazing miniature work was done in the puppet fabrication department, in the realms of posable hair, tiny knit sweaters, and innovative animated plants for a fantastic garden sequence. Focus Features did an incredible job marketing the film through a creative website and effective advertising, and the anticipation paid off upon the film’s release. Audiences and critics alike gave it glowing reviews, making it a great success. As a whole, the awesome vision of Gaiman and Selick made Coraline a masterpiece that set the bar much higher for what the art of stop-motion could accomplish, in its design, story, animation, and technical innovation.
It is fascinating to note that the nearly 80 years of history behind the theatrical puppet feature began with Starewitch’s Tale of the Fox and has come full circle with Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (Figure 1.43). Anderson did admit that the Starewitch film inspired the look he wanted for his film. Based on the classic children’s book by Roald Dahl, the film tells the story of Mr. Fox and his attempts to save his family from being captured by his human arch enemies. Anderson took great liberties with expanding the content of the book into enough story material for a feature in his own signature style of deadpan humor, flat compositions, and eccentric characters. The puppets were fabricated by MacKinnon & Saunders, with elaborate facial paddles for very detailed but subtle animation. Also, aesthetically, Anderson wanted to maintain the crawling fur that would occur when the animators touched them.