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Robert Morgan Talks the Ordered Chaos of ‘Stopmotion’

In his disturbing feature film debut that dares you to turn your back on creepy little puppet characters while making a stop-motion film, the director discusses his live-action / animation mix, different cinematic tools for ratcheting up the suspense, and removing ‘easy answers’ amidst the ordered chaos of editorial.

With days upon days spent creating merely a few seconds of footage, stop-motion animation can be mentally grueling, and for animator turned writer-director Robert Morgan, his personal experiences bringing puppets to life one frame at a time informed his feature film directorial debut. Succinctly titled Stopmotion, the film, which he co-wrote with Robin King, was recently released in theaters by IFC films and will make its way to Shudder on May 31. In the film, while attempting to produce her own film, stop-motion animator Ella Blake (Aisling Franciosi) is haunted by her deceased mother (Stella Gonet) who was her mentor and psychological tormentor. “The concept from the beginning was to make a film about a stop-motion animator who is making a film,” states Morgan. “That as a subject I’ve never seen before and thought it would be an interesting character to follow in a film. If you’re going to make a psychological horror film about that character, then those figures start coming to life.  It was always the concept to merge stop-motion and live-action together and have the animated characters at times appearing in reality.”

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To ratchet up the suspense, Morgan uses lighting changes to great effect. For example, when the color of the light changes as Elle lies in a bathtub, it cleverly indicates a shift in her mental state. “That’s the first time in the film where reality shifts for her,” notes Morgan.  “It’s the beginning, her imagination is visualized outside of her everyday life. As the film goes on it becomes harder to discern when you’re watching something in her film or her reality. That distinction becomes less and less clear until the end where you can’t tell what’s real and what’s not.  We blurred the lines as it progressed.”  Films have dealt with tortured artists before, such as Anthony Hopkins playing a ventriloquist in Magic. “Mainly it comes out of the script, organically working with the creative team,” Morgan adds. “You talk about the film, strategies, and ways of approaching certain things and it organically grows from there.  Then it’s in the edit when you put it all together and map it out as an experience.”

The camera and lighting were central cinematic tools in visually portraying the mindset of the characters as well as establishing the tone for scenes.  “My DP, Léo Hinstin, and I exchanged a lot of references to get the mood right.  We got Aisling into some of the costumes and did some camera tests which were then projected onto a cinema screen so we could see exactly how this was feeling.  It’s about tuning into the atmosphere.”

Noting that often what you don’t see can be scarier than what you do see, Morgan shares, “Thats part of what I originally felt when I thought it would be an interesting subject matter for a horror film. In the film, you are usually solitary, in a dark environment where the lighting is very controlled. But outside that world you lit, everything else is dark and you’re bringing strange little dolls to life. I was surprised that no one had done it yet.”  Franciosi had to be trained in the ways of stop-motion to make her portrayal of Ella feel realistic. “It was important that it looked like Aisling knew what she was doing,” Morgan says. “We had two sessions where I gave her a laptop, camera, and puppet, and she animated a shot. We used Dragonframe, which is an animation software. and I still have the shot she did on my laptop.  Her first attempt at animation was really good.  Aisling was a natural.  Once that was in the bag, we had one more session to go over that and make sure that visually it looks like she understands the process of what it takes, how much movement you’re doing, for how long, and what are the increments.  After that it was easy.  Aisling understood it because she had done it.”

Whereas a live-action short film could be captured in a few days, the stop-motion equivalent could take three months. “It depends on the complexity of the animation,” states Morgan. “For example, if you had a wide shot of a crowd and you’re animating all those characters, you’re probably talking a week for two seconds.  But if you’re doing a close-up where you’ve just got the head of the character you can get quite a lot done. Over the years I’ve managed to find shortcuts where if I want to get through a film quicker, I use a lot more close-ups because they’re much quicker to do. There’s less to control so you can move things much easier.” 

The experience of making the BAFTA Award-nominated short Bobby Yeah provided inspiration for making Stopmotion. According to Morgan, “Maybe all films are therapy but I’m not conscious of that connection. Part of the starting point of this film is that I started out dictating what I wanted Bobby Yeah to be and then after a while it started speaking back. That’s not necessarily only true with animation. It’s true of any artform, like writing, making music or painting. There will come a point, if you are in the groove, that it will start speaking back to you. That was the inspiration for the film… ‘What happens if the artistic object you’re making takes on its own life and has a different idea about what it wants to be?’”

The film leans into the fact that artists who excel at their craft often share a common trait: obsession. “All of the best artists, whoever they are and whatever medium they work in, are obsessive,” observes Morgan.  “And it’s the obsession that brings out the good work.  But of course, there’s a downside to obsession.  Because if you are that obsessive with it, it becomes bigger than anything else. It becomes bigger than your relationships and health.  It becomes the only important thing.  That’s what this film is about as well, where Ella loses perspective on having a healthy relationship with her creativity.” 

The animation was done in two phases. “There was stuff where the animation and live-action characters interact with each other,” Morgan explains. “That was all shot at the same time. We shot the live-action stuff and then we had an animation team in the studio who would then come in and do the animation. It wasn’t in the same set.  It was in a replica set that was built for stop-motion.  It had to be raised off the ground, but the camera and lighting would have to be recreated exactly. That had to be closely storyboarded and carefully planned. While we were editing, I went off and shot all the film within a film stuff.  Because we were editing at the same time, I was able to look at the live-action stuff and that would influence the way I would animate.  I could let it play off things a bit. I would realize, ‘Actually, we don’t need that bit because I can accentuate this bit because it speaks more to what the character said.’”

The stop-motion sequences were somewhat beholden to what appeared on the laptop in the behind-the-scenes moments. “There is a bit where Ella places the puppet on the set and starts animating it,” Morgan reveals.  “I knew that we would then cut to the animation, so I had to start in that position when I animated it later on.  And also, you have to recreate the lighting, so it looks like that is how she lit it.  But within that there was still a freedom to move around.  The beginning and end points where we come in and out of it from live-action to animation always had to match the live-action.” 

For the director, editorial is an especially exciting part of the production process. He notes, “I love the happy accidents that you get, especially when you’re editing to try something that you didn’t think would go together or you cut a moment out and suddenly the juxtaposition of those two things suddenly works.  Or you add a sound to it that flips it into something else.”

During editing, information that provided easy explanations to the audience was removed. “Without giving too much away, for example, there is a scene where the main character ends up in a hospital bed with a cut on her leg,” reveals Morgan. “We shot what happened to her leg and ended up cutting it out of the film. The reason why we did that is because when you remove a quite prosaic reason for why her leg has been cut and you’re left with no answer, your mind connects it to something that happened earlier on in the film.  It’s a strange thing that happens when you take out information because the audience is forced to connect to things together.  There is quite a bit of that.”  

It is important that everything is earned in the narrative, otherwise the audience will feel cheated. “This is the kind of film that benefits from ellipses,” Morgan continues. “In the script and cuts of the film, there was more explanation going on.  We gradually removed all of those because we felt it was more troubling and stuck in the throat more if you didn’t quite get the explanation. It was an experimental process of trying the film out, testing it on audiences, seeing what works, looking at it ourselves, reflecting and talking about it, trying things out where you take things out, even if it had nothing to do with the script, and putting things in a different order. Sometimes you find the way that you shot it and then you cut it to how the script was written doesn’t quite work the way you thought it would. So, you have to rethink it.  You almost have to translate it into images because sometimes, you have five lines of dialogue, you shoot it all, edit it, and then you realize that the understanding of those five lines is in one look from one of the characters before they said a word. So, you can remove it all.  Then you’ve got a feeling of what’s going on without having the boring part of spelling it out. That’s an exciting process for me, the editing.”

Work in the editing suite also leads to new narrative possibilities. “One of the biggest learning curves for me is going from writing scripts and then making the film to then realizing that - it sounds dramatic and is a slight exaggeration – you have to throw the script out once you’ve shot it,” Morgan says. “You have to work with the images and what you’ve got rather than what the original intention was.  You’ve now shot it, and it may not be exactly the thing you thought it was in certain scenes at least.” 

Ultimately, Morgan only had storyboards for when the live-action and animation come together in the same scene. “The rest of it was shot listed between the Léo and I,” he recalls. “We were redrafting the shot list almost every night based on the schedule. You’re flying by the seat of your pants trying to make the schedule and make sure you’re getting all the information that is needed.  We were changing the shot list all the way through.” 

“It's ordered chaos!” Morgan adds with a laugh. “In my head there is a perimeter fence around the film and there are numerous versions of that film which can exist within that perimeter fence. But it cannot be outside the fence.  You have to be open and let it speak back to you and live a little bit, otherwise you’ll go mad trying to control it.  There are certain plot points that you have to hit. You have to understand what the journey is and where you’re at.  For the actor as well, they have to understand. Because we’re shooting everything out of sequence you have to know what the journey is and the film that you’re making.  A huge challenge for Aisling was making sure that her performance was consistent.  But if you know what it is there is also room to maneuver.  In the pressure you do inevitably have to drop stuff as you go, and you have to be able to know what you can and cannot drop. I remember that there was an ambitious, audacious, and original effects moment that I dropped in favor of the moment with the character because to me, that was the core of the scene.  Knowing what to drop and keep on the fly when there’s a million different things going on is also part of the big learning curve for me having never made a feature before.”

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.