The Advanced Art of Stop-Motion Animation: An Interview with Larry Bafia & Webster Colcord
WEBSTER: When I was doing my own commercials, I would wear several different hats and try to do the best animation I could in the end. That was a challenge, when I had my own company. Working for Henry, it was a challenge being a smaller fish in a big pond and having to learn the protocol of that kind of production. On my first day there, I was scolded in the hallway by Bonita DeCarlo in the puppet department for bringing one of the puppets up for repair. She thought I was too young to be on the animation team! (Laughs.) Later, she apologized, of course, but it was against the rules for anyone other than a fabricator or an animator to hold a puppet. It was very different from working on smaller projects, where you handled every aspect of production.
In terms of animation style, I had initially learned to animate in a rather intuitive way. There is a famous quote from a Good Morning America interview with Chuck Duke, when he was working on Vinton’s Chips Ahoy! commercial. He was being asked about animating a chunk of chocolate and said, “You just keep a rhythm in your head, and that should get you there.” There have been similar statements made by Ray Harryhausen and even by Richard Williams to the effect of finding a rhythm and thinking about where you’re going as you animate straight ahead, and Tom St. Amand would always say, “A good armature should sort of animate itself.” With stop-motion, whether you plan it or not, you just get your hands on the puppet and work it out as you go along. But there were animators on James and the Giant Peach who planned their movements more like cel animation, so that was something I had to adapt to. Even at PDI, with their early CG software, we used a spreadsheet and had to type in numbers to plan out our animation. It was the only way to do it, but it was counterintuitive to have to analyze what you were going to animate before you even started. But I think I became a better animator between James and Monkeybone because my experience animating CG at PDI forced me to be more disciplined.
LARRY: Even if you look back at some of our old exposure sheets from Vinton’s, sometimes on a commercial I would only have one track that maybe had some notes about the beats and accents in the soundtrack. But on other projects, sometimes the director would want the live-action reference analyzed on the sheet to the point where you would even plan out where you needed to animate a blink. So, it varied based on style, but also on the animator. In the beginning, we wanted to have all those notes because we had to be so precise on every frame, but after a while you learn how to get into a rhythm, especially if you have a feel for the character.
WEBSTER: Yeah, it depends on the shot, the animator, and the director. Henry Selick would block out the whole shot in editorial sessions with the animator, so you often end up doing what Henry would do if he was the one animating it. But at the same time, I had been talking recently with Richard Zimmerman and Justin Kohn about the animation from The Nightmare Before Christmas, and they said the animation on certain things, like Sally’s hair as it blew through the wind (in the opening sequence), would typically be done straight ahead, with no surface gauges at all. Sometimes, when you’re in the moment on an organic follow-through motion like that, you can just do it very quickly and you get a better result. It’s just you, the puppet, and the rhythm.
LARRY: I think that’s one of the hardest things if you were trying to teach someone stop-motion—to be able to see where something is going to be three or four frames ahead of that particular pose.
KEN: It’s neat to hear you both mention how the different methods of working complement each other. Much has been said by animators about how their stop-motion experience helped them transition into CG, but it’s also interesting to note how CG helps to create better stop-motion.
LARRY: Even when we started in CG, we were arm wrestling with the tools. We didn’t know to set key frames and then look at the interpolation between them since we only knew how to animate straight ahead.