The Advanced Art of Stop-Motion Animation: An Interview with Pete Kozachik, ASC
Pete Kozachik has worked in the film industry for over 30 years as an animator, visual effects artist, and cinematographer. He was the director of photography and visual effects supervisor on The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach, Corpse Bride, and Coraline. On the latter two films, he was instrumental in adapting the technology behind the first uses of digital SLR cameras and stereoscopic photography for stop-motion. He also grew up in Michigan, like me, so for this reason and so much more, I’m glad to have his contribution to this book.
KEN: Can you tell me about your background and how you got started in stop-motion?
PETE: As a kid I had seen both King Kong and Seventh Voyage of Sinbad within a few weeks of each other, and they got completely seared into my cerebrum (or wherever those things get seared). It wasn’t clear to me at the time what I was looking at, but it affected me so much. I remember sitting with my mom in the theater at age 7, watching Sinbad, and out of concern that it might have been too scary for me, she leaned over and suggested the creatures on screen might have been giant robots. So for the next few years I had it in my mind that the U.S. government had a secret fleet of giant robots with rubber suits on, and let Hollywood use them.
Then at some point I saw a photograph of Ray Harryhausen posing next to his Cyclops and Dragon puppets, and it all became clear. I realized those figures weren’t as big as I thought they were, so it was something I felt I could do. There wasn’t any information out there about how Ray’s films were made, but I managed to experiment enough to start making my own stop-motion films. By the time I was in high school, we had moved to Tucson, Arizona, and I showed some of my films around town. This got me some jobs working at various TV stations, mostly shooting and working with some industrial filmmakers. After graduation from University of Arizona, I put my name out as an animator, picked up a few years of work on commercials and industrial films, made a reel, and then headed to Hollywood in the late ’70s.
I got lucky enough to start working for Gene Warren, and later with Phil Kellison, both having backgrounds in stop-motion. Phil was a director at Coast Special Effects and became one of my early mentors in the craft. I ended up working there for several years, and it was such a valuable learning experience. I had it in mind to watch the animators work, but stop-motion animators are actually not that interesting to watch, because they move very slowly and it’s all just going on in their heads. But I remember one of my first nights there, cleaning up after someone’s shoot, and opening up a drawer with a row of Pillsbury Dough Boy heads. I was so totally transfixed by that, because these heads seemed too precious to even look at, and I’ve never really lost that fascination.