With the arrival of the critically acclaimed “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” on DVD and Blu-Ray, we thought that it would be a great time to examine the legacy of stop-motion. The meticulous animation practice, whereby movement is achieved by single-frame photography of tiny adjustments to the constructed characters, has a rich history in Hollywood, employed in everything from kids’ movies to horror and all points in between. We’re looking at a few of the big moments in stop-motion, including some that feature a rather large gorilla, a army of skeletons, a depressed reindeer, and the devil himself. Curious? Stop and have a look.
King Kong (1933): Beauty may have killed the beast, but O’Brien brought him to life. Willis O’Brien, that is, one of the pioneers of the craft. Though “Kong” wasn’t the first film to employ the technique, it was O’Brien’s work on the giant ape and his dinosaur enemies that helped bring cinema to an entirely new level. O’Brien would ride another oversized gorilla, “Mighty Joe Young”, to Oscar gold in 1949 with a big hand from animation assistant and fellow genius-in-the-making Ray Harryhausen.
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958): Though it seems that “Jason and the Argonauts” from 1963 gets more pop-culture name-checking, this film remains one of Harryhausen’s greatest works. Directed by Nathan H. Juran, the movie employs a number of Harryhausen signature pieces, including an angry Cyclops, a roc, a skeleton swordsman and dragon. The animated scenes took Harryhausen 11 months to finish. The term “Dynamation”, which Harryhausen coined to describe his process of integrating stop-motion and live-action elements via split-screen and rear projection, because popularized in film circles as a result of his work here.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964): The landmark Christmas special from Rankin/Bass comes with a pretty heavy pedigree. It employed the “Animagic” process of stop-motion that was also used in the earlier “Davey and Goliath” shorts (which began in 1960); one of the lead animators was Tad Mochinaga, a talent notable for working with U.S., Japanese and Chinese studios. “Rudolph” quickly became one of the most familiar examples of stop-motion in America. After running for six holiday seasons on NBC, the annual airings switched to CBS, where they’ve since appeared 31 subsequent times. While different versions with alternate songs and scenes have existed over the years, those tweaks don’t diminish the impact and popularity of a tale that’s much more about finding out where belong than the process behind the narrative.
The Star Wars Trilogy (1977-1983): We’d be remiss in stop-motion discussion if we didn’t bring up three of the most popular films of all time. One hardly has to tell you which elements employed the process (the tauntaun, the rancor, etc.), but it should also be noted that the original “Star Wars” also pioneered the use of motion-control cameras in its depiction of the space battle sequences. The films had a habit of using every piece of FX technology to render the full narrative, and stop-motion obviously had an important place.
Clash of the Titans (1981): Ray Harryhausen’s last hurrah. As both a producer and the man behind the stop-motion, he made this his last big film prior to his retirement. “Clash” was filled to bursting with stop-motion creations, from the ubiquitous Bubo and Pegasus to a number of other fantastic creatures, including giant scorpions, a giant vulture, long shots of the villain Calibos, Medusa, and the Kraken. The screenplay for the film came from Beverely Cross, who years previously had written “Jason and the Argonauts”. “Clash” was a moderate hit at the time, and stuck in cultural memory with enough adhesion to have been resurrected in a remake due soon.
The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985): Easily the most obscure thing on this list, I mainly include it because of one infamous scene. This particular effort posted stop-motion (claymation style) effects and was directed by Will Vinton, the guy that brought you the singing, dancing California Raisins. This fantasy tracks a trio of children that adventure with Mark Twain in an airship on a chase for Halley’s Comet. Along the way, they experience moments from various Twain stories. None are more notorious than the five minute sequence modeled on “The Mysterious Stranger” wherein the kids meet . . . Satan?! The scene has been excised from various television viewings at different times, but it is available on video. Find that below: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BBtb_jSk5fw
Wallace and Gromit: Created by Nick Park, the inventor and his dog began appearing in shorts in 1989. Since then, they’ve clocked four wildly popular short films and one feature (“The Curse of the Were-Rabbit”). Like “Twain”, the process is stop-motion clay animation, an approach that seems uniquely suited to rendering Wallace’s often bizarre inventions. Over the years, the series has racked up three Oscar wins and two other nominations. Park has gone on to create other stop-motion projects, like “Shaun the Sheep” (which runs on The Disney Channel and Toon Disney in the United States).
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993): While Tim Burton’s name appears above the title on the poster, and his instantly recognizable spirit pervades the proceedings, it’s important to note that the actual director of the film was Henry Selick (more from him later). A crew of 200 brought the characters and environments to life over the course of the shoot, which began in 1991. Part of Burton’s deference to Selick as director came with his own reluctance to oversee the “slow” daily process of the chosen medium. Then again, maybe he got more patient as he got older; Burton himself would eventually direct the similarly-styled “The Corpse Bride” in 2005. Obviously, “Nightmare” was extremely successful, and continues to be trotted out for annual 3-D theatrical showings.
Coraline: Based on the novel by Neil Gaiman, “Coraline” became on the recent Best Animated Feature nominees at the 2010 Academy Awards. The film was directed by Henry Selick and featured the voice of Dakota Fanning as the titular character. A huge production for its type, “Coraline” ended up needing 450 crew members working with a whopping 150 sets, a large number necessitated by the various scene changes and world-flipping. And while Selick’s earlier “Nightmare” now has 3-D showings, “Coraline” earns the distinction of the being the first three-dimensional stop-motion feature. Even if it does put you off buttons.
The Fantastic Mr. Fox: Based on a novel by Roald Dahl (who also wrote “James and the Giant Peach”, which itself became a Selick stop-motion film), “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” earned enormous praise this past year. Nominated in the animation categories of the Critics Choice Awards, the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes, the film also pulled in 180 positive reviews (according to aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes). Part of the attention generated by the film was due to director Wes Anderson, known for his arch comedies, and the stellar voice cast, which included no less than George Clooney and Meryl Streep. “Fox” turns out to be one of those films that kids and adults appear to enjoy in equal numbers. If you’ve never seen it, you can now judge for yourself; it arrived in stores this week.