The Advanced Art of Stop-Motion Animation: Building Puppets: Part 4
When animating realistic dialog, the face moves as a whole in order to portray both the words and expressions that give them further meaning (Figures 3.102 to 3.107, showing various expressions for Isomer). That's also true even when the character isn't speaking at all. The human face is obviously the most expressive part of our bodies and is virtually always in motion expressing moods, thoughts, ideas, comfort, and concerns. A personal rule of mine about animating is the idea that “stillness equals death.” Even if only in the tiniest increments possible, I made my best effort to keep every part of a puppet moving at all times.
Outside of the facial controls, the animation for everything else on the body, eyes, and eyelids is done by touching the puppet. I also have a clay tongue that slips into the mouth when I need it, as there is no point in mechanizing that. Isomer has replacement plastic eyelids, and Trevor’s eyelids are just clay. My cable technique will continue to be refined, and my dream is to eventually fit the control box inside the puppet.
A detailed tutorial for the inner workings of Ron’s cable control system can be found on his blog (http://wobblytripod.blogspot.com), as well as other behind-the-scenes looks at his work and how to order a copy of In the Fall of Gravity.
Another emerging technology being implemented into various aspects of stop-motion puppet and set construction is rapid prototyping, or 3D printing. The basic concept behind this technique is to create a 3D computer model and have it printed out as a physical replica. The technology behind rapid prototyping has many other uses and implications in itself, but the film Coraline helped put it on the map for use as an animation technique. The area of the film where it was used the most was the facial animation on certain main characters. The faces on characters like Wybie, Coraline’s Mother, Other Mother, and Coraline herself consisted of thin replacement masks that were removed and replaced for each frame of the animation.
Replacement animation for facial expressions is a technique that has been around since the very beginning of the stop-motion medium. It likely grew out of the logic behind hand-drawn animation, where every frame consisted of a separate drawing that was different than the one before it, and each drawing was replaced under the rostrum camera for shooting. Adapting this idea to stop-motion meant that every frame would consist of a separate face that was replaced for each frame. The earliest known use of replacement faces appears to be from the MoToy Comedies by American filmmaker Howard S. Moss in 1917. Most of these films are lost, but the few that exist feature a dopey character with exaggerated facial expressions (Figure 3.108). A small number of in-between faces would help to transition from one key expression to another for a caricatured effect. Later evidence of replacement faces is found in the Kinex Studio short films from 1928 to 1930, in the characters of Snap the Gingerbread Man and a recurring witch character (Figure 3.109). It is not entirely clear what materials were used to create the faces for the characters in these early films, but they appear to be sculpted in clay and then either baked or molded. To keep the consistency between faces, it is likely that a clay sculpt was made and cast out in a mold, and then a tiny transitional change was made in the sculpt for each sequential cast. These puppets usually had only one or two in-between faces between each expression. The New Gulliver in 1935 also used the technique, with a decidedly more crude clay appearance.
George Pal took the idea of replacement animation to another level by carving entire puppets out of wood and replacing the whole puppet for each frame. Later feature films produced by Pal would re-visit the replacement face technique with varying complexity and design ideas, including Wah Chang’s work on Tom Thumb and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm. Commercials for the Pillsbury Doughboy and Speedy Alka-Seltzer brought replacements to TV production, and in more recent years the technique re-surfaced in some of the puppets for The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. In these cases, faces were sometimes rigged with magnets on the back to help them snap onto the head and keep them registered in place. Obviously, it was very important to have a numbering and labeling system for the different faces because many of them would only have a subtle difference in appearance. The advantage to replacement faces has always been the ability to achieve a fluidity and range of expression that is not possible with just one static head. The challenge behind them is the incredible amount of work involved in sculpting each individual piece and in keeping them properly registered on screen. The materials used, whether clay or plastic, would often warp over much time and re-use on set, which would cause major problems in keeping their look consistent.