Stop Motion Forever

Recently I wrote a tribute to Ray Harryhausen, the king of stop-motion. Now I’d like to go deeper into the strange world of animated objects, as well as taking a look at modern monsters…

starewicz_gallery_6350903Stop-motion has been around nearly as long as cinema itself. It started in the 1890s, and by the early twentieth century it had become a full blown art form, with pioneers like Władysław Starewicz bringing dead insects back to life to make creepy, magical films like The Grasshopper and the Ant (1911). Another highlight was when Willis O’Brien gave birth to the foam and fur gorilla in King Kong (1933), capturing a million teenage hearts, including Harryhausen’s.

Ray’s own creations in the 50s, 60s, and 70s marked a golden age for the use of stop-motion in special effects, with his mythical creatures stalking the cinema screen in glorious colour. The technique died off when he retired, and had its last gasp in the late 80s with a new process dubbed go-motion. As well as moving the models by hand in between shots, go motion used computers to move the models while filming, removing a lot of the jerkiness inherent to stop-motion. The scene in Robocop (1987) where ED-209 has a meltdown is a good example of the process.

Although it hasn’t been used as a special effect for a while, stop-motion lives on in animations. Tim Burton is a die-hard fan of the art form and brought it back to the public consciousness with Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), which he co-wrote and produced. The films director, Henry Selick, went on to make James and the Giant Peach and Coraline, while Burton directed Corpse Bride. Nick Park is also keeping stop-motion alive with the Wallace and Gromit series, while Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox is a recent example of the strange charm it still has in the digital world.

It seems highly unlikely stop-motion will ever regain its status as a special effect, though I for one would welcome it back. For an idea of its power, try watching Burton’s recent crapfest, Alice in Wonderland (2010) back to back with Jan Svankmajer’s Alice (1988). Burton’s Alice looks lost in a “quirky” computer game, forever running ialice4bignto cutesy creatures and globular renditions of famous faces, while Svankmajer’s heroine crawls through decaying kitchens, meeting a scissor wielding taxidermy rabbit who rips a pocket watch from its chest, the animated skeleton of a fish, crawling slabs of meat, sock-worms and a walking skull. I know which one I found more interesting.

I’m not saying I hate CGI. When its used right it can be incredible – think of Jurassic Park (1993), The Matrix (1999), Avatar (2009) – all films that used the micro chip to make the impossible possible. But so many movies offer us lazy, pointless CGI, wherein the possible is made ridiculous. Physical feats which a stunt man could perform before breakfast and given to pixels, make up artists are shunned in favour of virtual faces. And this may just be the beginning. Computers have already made it possible for Laurence Olivier to co-star in Sky Captain and the World of Tommorow (2004) despite being dead for thirteen years. Virtual actors – or synthespians – are already in development, and there are plans to bring back other dead actors to star in the movies of the future.

From dead insects to dead movie stars, how very 21st century.