The Advanced Art of Stop-Motion Animation: An Interview with Pete Kozachik, ASC
PETE: Coast Effects made most of their money on commercials, but they would also bring in low-budget features to keep Phil Kellison happy, since he liked to work on those. We would use stop-motion whenever we could, even if it was just a spaceship, or whatever. It was a small part of a larger company, consisting of only a dozen or so of us, so we all did a little bit of everything. If a star animator like Laine Liska was too busy, sometimes I would animate something, and they would just tell the client that Laine did it. At one point I had brought a motorized spaceship prop I built to the set, and the cinematographer suggested that since I had built it, I should shoot it. This led to me transitioning from animation to more work in camera, motion control, and photography. After a few years at Coast, I answered an ad for a cameraman at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) and moved up to the Bay Area to work on feature films.
KEN: How did you end up getting involved with The Nightmare Before Christmas?
PETE: I had worked with Phil Tippett on Willow while at ILM, and ended up working for him exclusively at his own studio for the last two Robocop films. I essentially brought motion control to Tippett Studio and spent some serious time there, at a point when they were starting to gain more momentum. Phil Tippet’s studio worked organically, a lot like Coast. That’s not too surprising, as he was an earlier alum from Coast. Henry Selick had been renting space there for his short film Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions, which we shot as a pilot for MTV. Around that time, Tim Burton asked Henry to direct Nightmare, and based on the strength of Slow Bob, approved the idea of bringing me on as director of photography.
At exactly the same time across the studio, Phil Tippett was gearing up to shoot stop-mo dinosaurs on Jurassic Park. He made a tempting case for me to work on JP, doing this really cool stuff with dinosaurs, and I said ‘yeah I know, but Henry’s got this thing going where it’s not just effects, it’s a whole movie.’ So we went back and forth on it, but I ended up going with Nightmare because I felt it was a great opportunity to tell an entire story with stop-motion, which I had never done before. It is a major commitment to jump onto a show like that, because you are basically throwing about 3% of your life into it, so it had better be good. It becomes a much bigger part of your life than making shots for a single sequence.
KEN: On a stop-motion film, how is the decision typically made whether to do effects practically on set or in camera, versus doing it later in post-production?
PETE: I’d like to say it comes down to personal taste. When Henry Selick and I work together, the personal taste would usually be to do as many effects in camera as possible, but there are practicalities to consider too. Back when we were shooting on film, and there was no such thing as digital compositing; you got better quality if you did everything in camera, but that doesn’t really hold water anymore. Composites used to be hugely expensive, and now they’re not. It used to be worth risking a re-shoot as opposed to having a grainy film composite, or an “optical” as it was called then. On a film like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, shots would be done in camera, and spending months of laying images onto the same negative.
These days there is a lot more green-screen shooting going on, which I think is good, because then the animators can focus exclusively on their performance, rather than all the steps of multiple passes through the camera. Directors have a lot more freedom now too, so rather than being told that elements have to be shot with all sorts of restrictions, they can call for more ambitious shot designs, and darn near anything can be lined up digitally into a seamless composite.
On Nightmare, we did our best to get a lot of effects in camera, so we used a lot of front and rear projection directly on set, in order to add real flames to the torches, and things like that. My personal take is that stop-motion should have some degree of real-world physics in it. Elements like water splashes, smoke, and fire are from the same world that the puppets are, and I feel it can be a richer experience for the audience using elements that are shot in real life. I also still respect films that go with the cute approach of using cotton or stylized cartoon animation for smoke, and we’ve done a few things like that in our films too. I remember enjoying that kind of approach as a kid, watching things like Gumby.