The puppets in all of these early feature films were typically crafted out of foam latex, plastic, wood, fabric, or other rubber materials. The use of modeling clay as a material for creating puppets and sets began in several experimental stop-motion films in the 1910s and 1920s, then faded into obscurity for several decades. It would not be explored again until Art Clokey brought his iconic Gumby character to television in the 1950s, and it was further brought into popularity by Aardman Animations and Will Vinton in the 1970s. Nobody had attempted to use clay animation in a feature-length format until a company named Stowmar Enterprises embarked on an animated version of Walt Kelly’s popular comic strip Pogo. The production rights for Pogo were arranged in partnership with Walt Kelly’s widow Selby by executive producer Kerry Stowell and screenwriter/director Marc Paul Chinoy. Armed with a $2 million budget, they went into production on a clay-animation feature called I Go Pogo from 1979 to 1980. Also involved in the early stages of the company were Charlie and Stephen Chiodo, a team of brothers from New York who had grown up making their own animated films. I Go Pogo was produced in Arlington Virginia, right outside Washington, D.C., and production was set up in an office space in the Crystal City’s Crystal Underground shopping mall. At one point, they had a storefront area where the character-fabrication department was situated; although the windows were covered in paper for the sake of privacy, one face-sized hole was cut into the door. Crew members called this storefront area “the fish tank,” and mall shoppers would discover on their own that an animated feature was secretly being made inside.
In an opening sequence featuring Mr. Mole and the Deacon chatting in a cave, I animated a great scene of the Deacon leaping off a table onto a stalactite (Figure 1.19), which then crashed down onto the table. I also did a 20-second shot of Albert the Alligator (Figure 1.20), who gets his finger stuck in a knothole, and then his entire head, with his head squishing and popping through. But the director, Marc Chinoy, cut out those visual gags and left in all the heavy dialogue scenes.
Despite a modest marketing campaign in the papers and on television, I Go Pogo did not get the proper theatrical release that was intended through 21st Century Distribution. It was instead quietly released directly to VHS and Betamax videotape as an exclusive title for Fotomat (Figure 1.21), and the tapes were sold through their photo pick-up shacks in parking lots. It was picked up for another video release as Pogo for President by Walt Disney Home Video in the early ’80s and aired a few times on HBO. (A few edits were made to different video and television releases—for example, Chiodo’s knothole sequence added back into the Disney version.) Despite these brief appearances, the film has since faded into obscurity. Although it was well animated and had some very funny sequences, many fans of the original Pogo strip feel that the film did not capture the essence of the characters or the political satire to its full potential, and that it was largely bogged down by too much dialogue. The Stowmar producers did not continue into other animation ventures, but their Pogo feature did at least provide a launching pad for many in the creative department and provided an interesting footnote in the canon of Kelly’s beloved creations.
Clay animation finally made its way to movie screens a few years later, in 1985, when Oscar-winning animator (and founder of the term “Claymation”) Will Vinton created his first Claymation feature film, The Adventures of Mark Twain (entitled Comet Quest in the U.K.). Vinton’s studio in Portland, Oregon, had already made a big name for itself producing award-winning short films that pushed clay animation to a level of filmmaking. The Vinton style was that everything on screen was made of clay, from puppets to props and sets. Animator Barry Bruce had refined Vinton’s signature style for fluid lip sync and clay morphing, and techniques for clay painting on glass were developed by Joan Gratz. These animated methods were all brought to fruition and further development in their first feature, which told the story of Mark Twain himself (Figure 1.22) traveling in a magical zeppelin to meet his destiny with the arrival of Halley’s Comet in 1910. Tagging along with him on his journey were his own characters Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Becky Thatcher, who explore the many secret passages of his flying machine and encounter many surreal adventures. Most surreal of these is a terrifying sequence based on Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger, where Satan appears to the children in a morphing Noh theater mask. As Twain recounts some of his other works like “The Diaries of Adam & Eve” and “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” the film switches gears to illustrate these particular tales with more inspired Claymation. Many of the techniques used on previous short films needed to be streamlined for to be more efficient because of the feature-length format. Multiple copies of characters were cast out of molds, stronger armatures were developed, and replacement systems were developed for lip sync, including the mustache of Twain himself. The Adventures of Mark Twain was praised by many animation enthusiasts for its inventive visuals and was an important step toward bringing the clay medium from its familiar short formats into a more epic scope for the big screen.
Elsewhere in the world, other stop-motion features were released to small audiences and festivals for limited releases throughout the 1980s. Rennyo and His Mother was the first feature-length film by Kihachiro Kawamoto in Japan, released in October 1981. It captured in puppet animation an ancient legend of the figure of Rennyo, who restored Shin Buddhism to Japan as a promise to his mother, who had disappeared when he was a child. In 1982, Otto Fotky in Hungary produced a stop-motion feature called The Adventures of Sam the Squirrel, and the same year saw a Czech puppet feature of Robinson Crusoe and a stop-motion mixed media feature from France called Chronopolis, a surreal science-fiction epic.
In the U.K., Cosgrove Hall Studios was making a strong name for itself in creating animated content, mostly for television. Amidst the many shows the studio produced, it scored one of its biggest hits with the stop-motion feature adaptation of The Wind in the Willows in 1983, based on Kenneth Grahame’s classic book. The film followed the book’s adventures of the characters Mole, Rat, and Badger in their attempts to rein in the wild antics of Mr. Toad. A highlight of the feature was the incredible amount of detail that was crafted into the miniature sets and puppets. Patterns for kitchen crockery and magazines were created in miniscule scale to create the atmosphere described in the original book. Each puppet was constructed in latex over delicately constructed ball-and-socket armatures, including mechanisms for very subtle facial expressions. Part of the team behind The Wind in the Willows would be the first collaboration between Peter Saunders and Ian MacKinnon, who teamed up to eventually form the world’s premier puppet-fabrication studio for countless other productions. Also part of the small animation team was Barry Purves (Figure 1.23), who would later go on to be an award-winning key player in British animation himself. The Wind in the Willows was a huge critical success and went on to win a BAFTA, an Emmy, and many other awards. A stop-motion TV series based on the film continued from 1984 to 1987, as well as a spin-off series and TV feature centered more on the adventures of Mr. Toad.
In the former East Germany, a couple of stop-motion features (and many more shorts) were produced in the 1980s by a studio named DEFA, with direction by Gunter Ratz. A feature called Die Fliegende Windmühle (The Flying Windmill), based on a book by Guenther Feustel, was released in 1982. This colorful film is about a little girl named Olli who receives a bad grade in school and runs away from home, ending up going on an adventure in a flying windmill with a dog, a horse, and a mad scientist. The film was interpreted by some as socialist propaganda disguised as a children’s film. Whether this is valid or not, the film has a cult following among those who remembered it from childhood. Ratz directed another feature to East German theaters called Die Spur Führt Zum Silbersee (The Trace Leads to the Silver Lake). It was essentially in the style of an American western and based on a book by Karl May, who was famous for western stories written in the 1890s. This animated version was closer to the original book than a live-action version that had been produced in the 1960s. Like typical Hollywood western films, the historical elements of the stop-motion Silbersee feature were not completely accurate, given that May had never visited the U.S., and East Germany did not receive exposure to these westerns for several decades. Following a limited East German theatrical run in 1989, the film was aired on public television to all of Germany following the Berlin Wall collapse in 1990. It was first aired as five episodes over the Christmas season, and would be shown a year later in one piece. The poor box office for its initial release scrapped Ratz’s plans for another feature called The Ghost of Llano Estacado.
Czechoslovakia brought one of its most notorious feature films to the screen in 1988, directed by another one of the country’s most famous directors, Jan Svankmajer. It was a stop-motion/live-action adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, simply titled Alice. While still based on the classic Lewis Carroll story, it is decidedly more surreal even than Lou Bunin’s version and the polar opposite of Disney’s. Svankmajer’s vision was to adapt the tale with nightmarish imagery, including puppets made of socks, living animal skulls, taxidermy specimens, and animated meat. One of the most disturbing and iconic images from the film is the introduction of the White Rabbit, made from a real stuffed rabbit, who pulls his pocketwatch out of his chest cavity and leaks sawdust. Alice became a cult classic and inspired a whole genre of surrealist stop-motion with dark themes and found object animation.
It was during this same time period that Tim Burton and Henry Selick were both working at Disney, clearly disillusioned about the idea of “drawing cute foxes” for the 1981 feature The Fox and the Hound. The atmosphere at the studio was one of trying to move forward into new territories, but lacking the chemistry and confidence to push them far enough. After Selick left to pursue stop-motion films in the San Francisco Bay Area, Burton managed to make his stop-motion short Vincent (1982) at Disney and created concept art for a story titled The Nightmare Before Christmas, which remained owned by the studio and tucked away in its archives. As ground-breaking as Vincent was, circumstances caused Burton to leave the studio and go forth to change the face of filmmaking elsewhere (through Batman and other early features).
Meanwhile, Will Vinton’s Claymation specials and commercials helped create a boom of popularity in stop-motion clay animation in the late ’80s, and many clay animators honed their talent on the Saturday-morning show Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. These popular shows helped set the stage for the original clay superstar Gumby to make his comeback in a new TV series. Art Clokey brought together a unique cross section of talent for his new show, and for many it was their first big break in the stop-motion world. The team of animators who came together on this show included Mike Belzer, Stephen Buckley, Angie Glocka, Tim Hittle, Eric Leighton, Lionel I. Orozco, Anthony Scott, Trey Thomas, and Richard Zimmerman.
This band of new talent would ultimately join forces with others on The Nightmare Before Christmas (Figure 1.27), which was given the green light by Disney’s Touchstone Pictures in 1990. Tim Burton chose his former Disney comrade Henry Selick to direct the film, based on his experience in stop-motion and brilliant attention to detail. It was a deeply personal project for Burton—a culmination of his love for the stop-motion specials he loved as a child and his story about Jack Skellington (Figure 1.28), the king of Halloween Town who decides to replace Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. At the heart of all the creepiness and nostalgic vibe to the film was a poignant love story between Jack and his admirer, Sally.
Nightmare was produced in 40,000 square feet of warehouse space in the San Francisco Bay Area over a span of 3 years. This was the first time a stop-motion feature was produced with a high level of budget and wide range of experienced talent in the medium. Disney was back on top, animation was cool again, and stop-motion had been riding the wave of its first major golden age in all of its facets: clay, puppets, and creature effects. Nightmare combined nearly every puppet and filmmaking technique that had ever been used for stop-motion, including front/rear projection, double exposure effects, casting in foam latex, ball-and-socket armatures, replacement animation, and strong character performance. The production design was incredibly strong, and another unique feature was the extensive use of modern motion control to make the camera a moving part of the story. Topping it all off perfectly was an unforgettable score and songs by Danny Elfman, a regular collaborator on Tim Burton’s films.
At the same time as production was occurring on Nightmare, the film Jurassic Park was being produced with the intention of including the highest level of stop-motion dinosaur effects ever used. Tests in new breakthrough computer animation technology would ultimately nullify the use of stop-motion for the film and put the nail in the coffin for the creature-effects technique when released in the summer of 1993. However, The Nightmare Before Christmas, released later that year, proved that the idea of moving puppets frame by frame could finally work for a feature, and that it would still have a bright future ahead of it. Director of photography Pete Kozachik (see full interview with Pete in Chapter 5: Interview with Pete Kozachik, ASC) describes the significance of the film:
Nightmare came along at just the right time, and it was the show that managed to keep stop-motion from completely going away. There was a popular wisdom among the stop-motion effects geek community that we all wanted to do a full stop-motion feature, but nobody would take out a loan to finance it. The interest would mount up too much in this slow-moving process, whereas you can just do it much faster in live action and not go broke paying back the loan. But in this case, Disney put out enough money to produce what was initially supposed to be a low-budget stop-motion feature. A bunch of us got together and threw everything we had at it, figuring it would never happen again, so let’s make it something special. We spent 6 weeks just on the first shot (which was of Jack skiing down the snowy hills and onto a train in Christmas Town) and didn’t know how we were going to produce hundreds more shots to finish it, but we got there.
The success of Nightmare was strong in its initial release and only continued to grow in the coming years on DVD and beyond. It was unique for the time it was made and remains unique by today’s standards. Based on the unique vision and great pool of talent that were displayed in the film, Disney had instilled confidence in Henry Selick to direct a follow-up feature in stop-motion, James and the Giant Peach, based on the famous book by Roald Dahl. Many of the same crew members from Nightmare re-grouped to work on the new feature, including British animator Paul Berry as animation supervisor. Tim Burton was also involved as a producer, but James was a film that brought the design and personal style of Selick more to the forefront. Much like Selick’s earlier work for MTV, James combined elements of puppet animation with cut-outs, computer animation, and live action. From the outset, it seemed intended to be an experimental mix of mediums; the original idea was to combine a live actor as James throughout the whole film. This led to consideration of a completely stop-motion film, and it ended up being stop-motion framed by opening and closing live-action segments.
James and the Giant Peach is a delightful film with some outstanding visuals and inspired animation (including a cameo appearance by Jack Skellington), although it did not match the same level of success as Nightmare. Also, by the time of its release in 1996, audiences were still reeling from the new CG innovations by Pixar’s Toy Story and the wave of films inspired by Jurassic Park’s ground-breaking effects. Even Disney’s other traditional features of the time, Pocahontas (1995) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), were coming off as formulaic to most, and audiences were beginning to drift into new areas of interest. The relationship between Disney’s company Miramax and Henry Selick also became strained, as plans for another feature called Toots and the Upside Down House were abandoned. Selick moved forward on a new stop-motion project based on a graphic novel called Dark Town, which was eventually re-named Monkeybone. Although that film contained some amazing stop-motion character sequences, the end result released in 2001 became more of a strange live-action film that did not fare well at the box office.
Amid this renaissance of computer-generated visuals and new ways to make movies, the stop-motion puppet feature continued its mixed bag of popular hits and other limited release obscurities. The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb was a 1993 release from the U.K. directed by Dave Borthwick of bolexbrothers, which mixed puppet animation with pixilation of live actors. Tom Thumb himself is a sickly little puppet figure who escapes from an experimental science lab and embarks on a journey to return to his parents. The style of the film is gritty, surreal, and reminiscent of Svankmajer, the Brothers Quay, and the darkest Czech films.
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.