The Advanced Art of Stop-Motion Animation: An Interview with Pete Kozachik, ASC
KEN: What would you say are the differences and similarities between shooting for live-action and shooting for stop-motion?
PETE: The thing we have been trying to do, with all of the crews I have worked with, is to emulate the same film language and techniques as are used in live-action. Most of the time it can be done, in terms of lighting, composition, lens choices, color, contrast, camera movement, and things like that.
On Nightmare we were first experimenting with camera techniques that were fairly well accepted in the live-action world. As we experimented, we often wondered if it was going to end up being a bad fit. As an example, the character of Sally (with no disrespect to the puppet builders) is essentially a crude representation of a woman. There are visible signs like seams, brushstrokes, or other imperfections that make it obvious to the audience she is only a few inches tall. So the question became, can we take this puppet and give it the 1930s/40s glamour treatment with the lighting and camera, or will it just look ridiculous and ghoulish? Well, to our surprise, it worked! Through using diffusion filters and other techniques, there were many shots in the film where we treated Sally the same way we would have treated the romantic leads in Hollywood’s golden age.
The differences between live-action and stop-motion lie in the disciplines you have to apply to setting up a shot. In live-action it can be OK to rig setups somewhat precariously, with the understanding that they only need to last as long as the take, so there is a certain amount of serendipity involved. In stop-motion, you need to consider the long haul when setting up a shot. The demands are greater these days, and nobody finishes a shot in one day anymore. A shot may take several days or even weeks, so there can’t be any opportunity for things to slowly change over the passage of time, like a light bulb slowly getting dimmer, a set warping from the humidity, or a camera slowly losing its position. It’s the same with light leaks. Back when we shot on film, even if we had a good camera (and usually we didn’t), it was wise to bag the whole camera so that some little unseen crack didn’t slowly leak in light and fog each frame.
The other thing to think about is access for the animator. They will be walking back and forth several hundred times during a shot, so you don’t want to have too many c-stands or cables getting in their way. Chances are, if there’s an obstacle, they will step on it or bump it, and it’s really hard to get things back to where they were. A lot of visual effects work in stop-motion has to deal with getting elements into a shot that couldn’t be there while the animator was at work. When possible, devices like trap doors or walls that can be pulled apart and back together between frames can be designed into the set instead.
Another unique element of stop-motion is that in order to get shots out in a timely manner, we need multiple crews. On Coraline I had about 30 people who were broken down into about 8 or 9 different units. They were primarily cameramen, electricians, and assistants, plus some tech support people, so there is a lot of parallel processing going on. We had about 40 sets all going at the same time, simply because we had to. You couldn’t live long enough to finish that show with just one crew.
So it’s also really important that every single crew person goes to dailies, not just the lead crew members. Everyone needs to see what others are doing, so the shots cut together properly. Part of my job as DP was to make sure communication was indeed happening between sets, because it takes effort to walk 200 feet through a maze of sets to check out a set on the other side of the building. There were some electronic aids there, used for sending still frames to other people’s computers, but direct communication is still vital.
KEN: What are your thoughts on the future potential for this new stereoscopic technology that was used on Coraline, and 3D movies in general?
PETE: I’d like to see 3D used in the same way that music, color, and sound have always been used in film. It needs to get to the point (and I think we are getting close now) where it is no longer the main reason for going to the show. I can remember back to the point where almost half of the movies I went to as a kid were black-and-white, and we would sometimes choose which movie to see based on whether or not it was in color. That’s ridiculous, of course, and I would say the same for 3D. But there is room for everybody, and hopefully we will also start to see films where everyone agrees that 3D won’t add much to it. Then we can spend our resources on more time on set, better filmmaking, and things like that. 3D is a great technique, and I’m glad that Coraline was made that way, as it makes it more fun to watch. But I’ve talked to people who didn’t see it in 3D, and they liked it too.
KEN: What are your thoughts on the future potential of stop-motion as an art form?
PETE: Stop-motion has done a lot in the near century it’s been in use, mostly on the fringe. It started as a visual effect technique and then it got blown away in 1993 with Jurassic Park. All the same, I would still love to see or work on a classic Harryhausen-style monster movie in stop-motion, so we’ll see what happens. Stop-motion’s best future is most likely in the niche it’s forming into now, which is stylized imagery that has something different going on than CG animation. Luckily, most people know what they’re looking at now, thanks to MTV and the glut of media and information we now have. Because of that, stop motion can be appreciated for itself.
Ken A. Priebe has a BFA from University of Michigan and a classical animation certificate from Vancouver Institute of Media Arts (VanArts). He teaches stop-motion animation courses at VanArts and the Academy of Art University Cybercampus and has worked as a 2D animator on several games and short films for Thunderbean Animation, Bigfott Studios, and his own independent projects. Ken has participated as a speaker and volunteer for the Vancouver ACM SIGGRAPH Chapter and is founder of the Breath of Life Animation Festival, an annual outreach event of animation workshops for children and their families. He is also a filmmaker, writer, puppeteer, animation historian, and author of the book The Art of Stop-Motion Animation. Ken lives near Vancouver, BC, with his graphic-artist wife Janet and their two children, Ariel and Xander.