Most of the stop-motion animation produced in the past century of which most audiences are has been done for either short formats or special effects. The earliest stop-motion films were merely experiments in moving objects before the camera, like Bewitched Matches (1913) and The Automatic Moving Company (1912). The former was actually a stop-motion sequence for a live-action short. American puppet films lasting only 7 to 12 minutes were produced by Kinex Studios for home viewing and by George Pal for theatrical distribution, while the Czech movement of puppet film shorts began overseas in Eastern Europe. At the same time, stop-motion effects for creature sequences in live-action fantasy films began with the innovations of Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen, moving onto Star Wars and countless other films of the 1980s. Independent short films such as Will Vinton’s Closed Mondays and Co Hoedeman’s Sandcastle would also gain recognition in festivals and win Best Animated Short Film at the Academy Awards. Another vessel for stop-motion in short format worldwide was television, which brought us Gumby, Morph, Colargol, the California Raisins, and many other characters, series, parodies, and commercials.
Whether it was for a short film or a brief fantasy sequence in a feature, these stop-motion efforts were designed to hold the audience’s attention only for a brief moment, a mere bridge getting them from one feature of entertainment to another. The short format for stop-motion is a double-edged sword in the opportunity it has lavished on the medium. For the most well-executed stop-motion sequences, such as Harryhausen’s 5-minute skeleton fight in 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts, the shorter format provided a solid frame to place as much quality as possible into them. Often there was not enough time or budget to create the same amount of animation for more than what any feature film required, so all available resources were applied to creating these short moments of beautiful entertainment.
At the same time, the jerky quality inherent in many of the early examples of stop-motion photography made it difficult for audiences to sit through more than a few minutes. If the technique distracted the audience from the story or character development, stop-motion could not be utilized as much more than a novelty.
Combining quality stop-motion animation with a format long enough to truly involve an audience on an emotional level, through a longer story arc of about 70 to 120 minutes, proved to be a very difficult task to pull off in its early development. The number of stop-motion features produced would often have several years of dormancy between them, depending on the country. The time-consuming nature of stop-motion in general, combined with the extra effort needed to produce more than 1 hour of it, has partly contributed to this sporadic output. The commercial success or failure of these films would also have an impact on how often they would arrive since it was also difficult to finance projects of this magnitude.
Feature-length projects, which are simultaneously the most expensive and profitable form of filmmaking, often set the bar for success of any medium in the animation field, regardless of their popularity in shorter formats. In 1937, Walt Disney took the world by storm with the phenomenal success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It was not the first animated feature ever made (chronologically), but it was the first to set the standard for what the animation medium could achieve in a feature-length format. For decades afterward, the Disney studio was far ahead of what others tried to achieve in producing animated features, in terms of artistic innovation and commercial success. For a time, there were other features such as Yellow Submarine (1968), Ralph Bakshi’s Fritz the Cat (1972), and Don Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH (1982), which went into artistic directions that Disney was failing to delve into at the time. However, few of these films, as fun as they are, reached the same level of mass commercial appeal as the timeless classics of Disney animation’s golden age.
It would be company branches owned by Disney that would help to bring the animated feature back in vogue, through landmarks like Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Pixar’s Toy Story (1995), and even Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Nightmare, of course, was a major turning point for stop-motion as the medium’s first feature-length project to receive worldwide distribution and a huge following for years after its initial release. Meanwhile, in the years following, CG features by Disney/Pixar (Finding Nemo, WALL-E), DreamWorks SKG (Shrek, Madagascar), Blue Sky (Ice Age, Horton Hears a Who!), and others grew to dominate and saturate the feature market. The CG boom of the past decade expanded to the point of prompting rumors of the extinction of more traditional techniques of hand-drawn and stop-motion, partly fueled by Disney’s misguided decision to abandon the hand-drawn medium for features. Yet this rumored extinction was not necessarily the case; these traditional features were simply coming from different places. Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli kept hand-drawn features alive in Japan, and the critically acclaimed Persepolis took the medium into a much more personal realm of expression. In 2005, two stop-motion features, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, were brought to the screen within 2 weeks of each other.
The year 2009 provided a unique renaissance for all media of feature animation, including successful CG releases like Up and Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, Disney’s return to hand-drawn animation with The Princess and the Frog, and a fresh approach to the medium by the brilliant The Secret of Kells from Ireland. Also having an equally strong voice in 2009 was an unprecedented run of five stop-motion features to be released, each differing greatly in style, technique, and distribution. The two mainstream releases were Henry Selick’s Coraline and Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, both appealing to family audiences. The festival circuit welcomed the more adult sensibilities of Adam Elliott’s Mary and Max, Tatia Rosenthal’s $9.99, and A Town Called Panic by Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar. The variety in personal styles within these films and the timing of their releases within the same year are unprecedented for the medium of stop-motion. The fact that more features using stop-motion are already following in their wake indicates an exciting trend that the stop-motion feature film has truly come of age. It could be that the art form finally has an opportunity for the presence it deserves, amidst the vast canon of cinema that is brought to audiences worldwide each year.
Features made with two-dimensional cut-outs or that use stop-motion as a special effect within live action have a history of their own, and their influence is still felt by today’s filmmakers. King Kong alone inspired an entire genre of fantasy filmmaking, and has rightly had several books and articles written about its influence. The history of the feature-length stop-motion puppet film is also an interesting story to unravel, and it is worth investigating to see exactly why it has taken nearly a full century for this format to reach the potential it is now enjoying. To clarify the focus of the films I am referring to, this is specifically a look at films that fit into the following categories:
A running time of anywhere from approximately 61 to 120 minutes
A theatrical release (actual or intended) into festivals or cinemas
The exclusive use of three-dimensional puppets, models, or clay figures throughout the entire film.
A few films are also included that combine puppets and live action but focus on a whole cast of puppets through most of the film’s running time. For the sake of beginning to document this history in the limited space of a single chapter, here is a look at how these puppet features have evolved.
The level of detail and subtlety in The Tale of the Fox (Figures 1.1 and 1.2) is outstanding, especially for the time it was made, and the story is filled with humor, action, and a great deal of well-crafted entertainment. The puppets, which Starewitch called “ciné marionettes,” were capable of fantastic facial expressions and varied greatly in size. The smallest puppets were a little more than 1 inch tall, and the Lion King was the tallest puppet in the film, standing nearly 3.5 feet. As many as 75 individual puppet characters were featured in the film, and in many scenes they shared the screen in very elaborate battle scenes, reported to have involved 273,000 different movements. This is even more impressive when considered that it took Starewitch only 18 months to complete the film (from script and scenery to shooting) and that his crew was simply his family. He worked alone with his daughter Irene, who was his lifelong collaborator, and his wife Anna and younger daughter Nina helped when necessary. This is unique considering most features take more time and people to create, even with more technology than what was available at the time. In terms of chronology, The Tale of the Fox was indeed the first fully animated puppet feature to be produced, and technically the first to be released as well, although it was delayed by several years because of technical problems with the soundtrack. Although the animation was complete by 1930, it would not be shown to audiences until 1937 in Germany and 1941 in France. In the meantime, during these delays, Starewitch continued making shorter puppet films.
Starewitch’s The Tale of the Fox finally premiered in Berlin in April 1937, now with a fully funded German soundtrack, and it was a big success. Months later, on December 2, 1937, Germany would see another stop-motion feature released called Die Sieben Raben (The Seven Ravens), made by brothers Ferdinand and Hermann Diehl. Based on a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, it told the story of a young maiden whose brothers have been turned into ravens by a curse. The girl tries to break the spell and ends up being sentenced to burning at the stake for witchcraft. The film mostly featured human puppets, and lots of dialogue (in German, of course) was used to tell the story. The craftsmanship of the extremely realistic replacement mouths, which appear to be done in clay blended into the faces, is stunning for the time it was made. The animation and lip sync are brilliantly done and complement the acting of the puppets for a very naturalistic effect. Aside from a few minor fantasy sequences, the film is mostly simple dialogue scenes with human puppets and has a live-action feeling to the staging, even to the point of matte shots that combine live-action flames next to the puppets. However, an interesting prelude to the film shows a live actor taking a jester puppet out of a box and assembling it, before the jester comes to life through stop-motion and begins narrating the story. It was a common theme of the Diehl brothers to show the process of stop-motion in this manner, as if signaling to the audience right away that they were watching a puppet film. They also used the technique in their short films featuring Mecki the Hedgehog, who would come to life after being sculpted right on his workshop table. Because most films exist only within themselves and would not show the actual process, this was a unique approach to the puppet film. It seemed to suggest to the audience right away what they were actually watching, while at the same time creating a very realistic and believable world in miniature.
The 1940s brought very little to the screen in the format of full-length puppet features, possibly because of World War II dominating at least half the decade in many countries. Ironically the war did play a part in the first stop-motion Technicolor feature to be made in Britain, which was a training film for the Admiralty called Handling Ships in 1945. The film was made by the newly founded Halas and Batchelor studio, which was primarily making propaganda and training films at that time. Handling Ships used stop-motion animation of model ships to demonstrate their proper piloting and navigation. Although never released to theaters and not exactly a “puppet feature,” the film was a landmark for introducing a technique to a country that would become one of the leaders in stop-motion animation.
Another stop-motion feature made in the 1940s that barely had a screen release was a Belgian puppet version of The Crab with the Golden Claws, based on a comic book of the same name featuring a young reporter named Tintin, and produced by Wilfried Bouchery. The film faithfully follows the story of Tintin’s run-in with a group of drug cartels, the introduction of Captain Haddock, and a crime-fighting adventure through the Sahara Desert. The comic characters were realized as very simple puppets that appear to be made of wood or plastic with real fabric clothing; tiny paper mouth shapes appear to have been used for their dialogue. The low production values for the film are obvious—several shots are barely animated at all, with characters simply frozen into poses or sitting still in boats that were shot floating in live-action water. The editing and screen direction were equally crude, with camera angles changing and rarely cutting together properly. All the same, the film was screened to a special group of guests at Brussels’ ABC Cinema on January 11, 1947. Another public screening followed in December 1947, but then Bouchery declared bankruptcy and fled the country. The Cinematheque Royale de Belgique archived a copy of the film, and it was recently released on DVD in France.
The story behind producing the first stop-motion feature in America is particularly unique. It began in the late 1930s with a Broadway producer named Michael Myerberg, who had gained a reputation for lavish showmanship to get his projects off the ground. He had become business manager for conductor Leopold Stokowski and was responsible for getting him involved with Hollywood films, including Disney’s Fantasia (1940). Excited by the creative potential for combining music with animation, he approached puppet animator Lou Bunin to develop an incredibly ambitious animated feature. Starting in 1942, Stokowski, Myerberg, and Bunin would spend 3 years planning a feature film that would adapt Richard Wagner’s 14-hour opera The Ring of the Nibelungen into 4 hours of puppet animation. The project called for extremely elaborate puppets of gnomes, trolls, dragons, Valhalla warriors, mermaid-like creatures called “Rhinemaidens,” and several epic battle scenes. They got as far as a full operatic voice cast, storyboards, sets, several puppets built by Bunin, and a completed animation sequence. Universal was prepared to produce the project until one of its executives raised concerns over the association to Adolf Hitler’s admiration for Wagner’s music. With the country ever deeper in the war effort, the ambitious project was abandoned, and Myerberg and Bunin parted ways.
Myerberg began plans for another stop-motion feature called Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp, based on the classic Aladdin tales. With his associates Peter Lanucci and Herb Schaeffer designing the armatures, Myerberg developed intricate puppets that employed magnetic feet that would adhere them to metal sets. The armatures also had a unique switch built into the limbs to help the animator lock them into position after moving them. Clay sculpting and character design by James Summers and foam latex casting by George Butler completed the puppets, which Myerberg called “Kinemans.” Myerberg, in true showman fashion, began embellishing false information for potential film distributors about how the Kinemans were manipulated by a mysterious electronic process that cost thousands of dollars, used secret formulas, and could achieve more than 800,000 human expressions.
After 6 months of work on Aladdin and signing a British actor named John Paul as director, Myerberg abandoned the project and decided to move forward with adapting the story of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, which he felt was more marketable. Rather than being based solely on the original tale, it would be an English translation of the 1892 opera version written by Engelbert Humperdink. His crew set up a studio in a synagogue in New York’s Lower East Side, partly because it had a balcony that allowed the directors to oversee all the sets from high above. Hansel and Gretel: An Opera Fantasy (Figure 1.3) would become not only the first American stop-motion feature film, but also the first animated feature produced in New York and the first to be based on an opera. Professional Broadway and opera singers would contribute their voice talents, including Anna Russell as the evil witch Rosina Rubylips.
Some who had worked on various stages of Hansel and Gretel continued into other stop-motion ventures. Don Sahlin and Kermit Love tried getting a live-action/puppet feature version of Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester produced in London, with animated mice puppets. It was never realized, but Sahlin continued into more stop-motion on George Pal’s tom thumb (1958) and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1963) and would later become a puppet designer for Jim Henson’s Muppets. Lou Bunin, after parting ways with Myerberg, ended up producing his own stop-motion/live-action version of Alice in Wonderland in France in 1949 (Figure 1.6). Although framed by completely live-action bookend scenes, most of the film taking place in Wonderland was made in puppet animation, with actress Carol Marsh as Alice matted or cut into the scenery. The film was funded by the J. Arthur Rank Organization, directed by British radio/TV pioneer Dallas Bower, and shot by noted French cinematographer Claude Renoir. Bunin animated many of the puppet scenes himself and also had the help of former Disney animator Art Babbitt, who designed several walk cycles for the puppet animators to use for reference.
Neither film fared very well at the box office originally, although Disney’s version has become the more popular version over time. However, many, including Bunin himself, felt that the stop-motion version was truer to Lewis Carroll’s original book, capturing the famous illustrations by John Tenniel and showing a clear contrast between the real world and Wonderland. The sets were wonderfully surreal and abstract, with curved shapes and open compositions similar to the cartoons of Warner Bros., likely because they were designed by Gene Fleury and Bernice Polifka, who had worked for Chuck Jones at Warner Bros. One particularly clever special effect involved a row of mirrors to re-create the Lobster Quadrille dance sequence, which made two lobster puppets reflected in the mirrors appear like a whole crowd of them on screen. Overall, the film has a strange, dreamlike quality and is certainly one of the most visually inventive film versions of the classic book. Bunin later began developing an ambitious stop-motion feature based on the book High Water at Catfish Bend that would never be realized. Despite these setbacks to his feature-length projects, Bunin made a big name for himself in New York producing stop-motion commercials and shorts, and he is still remembered as a unique contributor to the medium.
The 1960s and 1970s were an interesting time for cross-cultural pollination between different countries producing stop-motion features, particularly Czechoslovakia and Japan with North America. Japanese animator Kihachiro Kawamoto, after working briefly with one of Japan’s leading puppet animators, Tad Mochinaga, went to Czechoslovakia to work with Trnka at his studio in 1963. Trnka encouraged him to respect the puppet film as an art form and embrace the lyrical style of his culture, so Kawamoto brought this influence back to Japan and inspired the puppet movement there. Meanwhile, the films of Mochinaga inspired an entirely new partnership that would bring the Japanese animation style to America. Back in America, through commercials, series, and specials, stop-motion animation began to find a voice on television as early as the 1950s. In the 1960s, the medium found a new leader through the studio of Rankin/Bass. Originally under the name Videocraft International, founders Arthur Rankin, Jr., and Jules Bass joined forces with Mochinaga’s studio in Japan in 1958 and made a name for themselves through their Animagic TV specials. They also created some features for the big screen. Throughout the production of these features, Rankin was very hands-on at the Japanese studio, while Bass oversaw much of the music and script writing from his head office in New York. Rankin took up residence in Japan for months at a time, working alongside the animators, costume builders, and storyboard and fabrication departments.
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.