ParaNorman recaptures the magic of stop motion films this year
Long before CG animation and effects became the norm in Hollywood, stop-motion animation was the only technique available to filmmakers to animate characters on film. Some of you may remember seeing it in the ‘Sinbad movies’ from the 1950s, ‘Clash of the Titans’ (bless you if you know which one we’re talking about) and the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy.
Although digital animation technology slowly took over, not only as a cinematic effect but also as a storytelling device, stop-motion has always had certain charm for audiences and was not completely wiped out the silver screen, even though it was a painstaking process to bring the characters to life.
Instead, stop-motion films have recently been enjoying a resurgence in the past few years, for instance with the release of ‘ParaNorman’ and ‘Frankenweenie’ this year alone, which shows that there is still life in this archaic method of filmmaking.
For some of us, we still remember and respect the good old days when every blink and raised brow in every frame was the filmmakers’ heart and dedication being poured into it. So here are five unforgettable stop-motion features that is not only a tribute to the craft but are the finest stop-motion stories have to offer!
‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ (1993)
Tim Burton’s musical mash-up of Halloween and Christmas still remains as a well-loved classic for anyone who enjoys animation. Originally adapted from a three page poem written by Burton when he was still an animator in Disney in the 1980s, he had intended for ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ to be 30-minute short. When work began on the project, it gradually evolved into a 76-minute feature-length film that was made up of 109,440 frames, under the direction of Henry Selick and the music of Danny Elfman.
Burton’s ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ was revolutionary for its time, but it was not nominated for Best Animated Feature by the Academy in 1994, because there wasn’t even such a category at the time; and it was too long for the Academy’s Best Animated Short Film. So it only had to make do with a nomination for Best Visual Effects, which it unfairly lost to Steven Spielberg’s ‘Jurassic Park’. However, the commercial success of Burton’s film firmly cements stop-motion features in the hearts of audiences and that opened the door for future stop-motion films.
‘Chicken Run’ (2000)
Aardman Animation had always been hailed as the Pixar of stop-motion studios which already had a few Oscar-winning animated shorts under their belt. So when Aardman said that it had started developing their first feature-length film in 1996, anticipation was unsurprisingly hopeful that it would finally bring the studio’s famed short film duo ‘Wallace and Gromit’ to the big-screen. Instead, Aardman did a cop out and made ‘Chicken Run’, but it still blew expectations nonetheless.
Directed by Aardman veterans Peter Lord and Nick Parks, ‘Chicken Run’ was a phenomenal success for the British studio when it generated more than US$224 million worldwide, out of its modest US$45 million budget. Although it was never nominated for an Oscar, it won numerous Best Animated Feature awards at film critics’ festivals on both sides of the Atlantic.
‘Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit’ (2005)
Following the success of ‘Chicken Run’, Aardman Animation finally decided to give what their fans wanted and made a movie based on their most recognized characters; the eccentric Wallace and silent Gromit in ‘Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit’.
Described as the world’s ‘first vegetarian horror film’ by directors Nick Park and Steve Box, ‘Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit’ was largely considered to have successfully translated the charm of its original 30-minute shorts to the big-screen and won praises all around. Unlike Aardman’s previous effort, “Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit” went on to win Best Animated Feature in the 2006 Academy Awards, edging past Tim Burton’s stop-motion directional debut ‘Corpse Bride’ and Hayao Mizaki’s ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ in that year.
‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ (2009)
‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ was director Wes Anderson’s first attempt at making an animated feature, and he chose to do it because it was based on the book of the same name by his hero -- famed author Roald Dahl. The production had a rocky start when Revolution Studios, who had bought the rights to the book, closed its doors in 2007, taking along with it co-director Henry Selick, who went on to make another stop-motion feature (more of that later in this article). The project would later find a new home with (coincidentally) 20th Century Fox and Anderson was able to continue it till the end.
‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ was noted for its excellent voice actors that helped deliver a cleverly hilarious script written by Anderson and screenwriter Noah Baumbach. George Clooney and Meryl Streep gave their best voice acting performance in the leading roles of Jack Fox and his wife Felicity Fox respectively. Other known talents the film are Bill Murray, Willem Defoe, Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson himself.
Despite its critical acclaim, ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ failed to win Best Animated Feature in the 2010 Oscars that was a showdown between stop-motion and CG animation when it went up against Pixar’s ‘Up’.
Stop-motion master Henry Selick, who had been working with the medium since Tim Burton’s ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ was developing an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “Mr. Fantastic Fox” with Wes Anderson when the production studio collapsed. Instead of continuing to work with Anderson to make ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’, Selick opted to make a stop-motion adaptation of a children’s’ horror novel for Laika, a stop-motion animation studio which he joined in 2002.
Based on author Neil Gaiman’s 2002 novel, ‘Coraline’ was the next step in stop-motion innovation when it applied digital technology and effects to create its characters and their expressions. Selick and his crew used 3D printing machines to print out computer-designed items from facial expressions to door knobs. The technology allowed all the characters to exhibit almost up to 208,000 expressions. The movie was also shot in a 14,000 feet warehouse, divided into 150 sets built into the lustrous backgrounds of the “Real world” and the “Other World”.
For all its technical wizardry and critical acclaim, ‘Coraline’ shared the same fate as ‘Mr. Fantastic Fox’ when it was nominated for Best Animated Feature in the same year, but not without putting US$124 million in the bank at the end of its worldwide release and making Laika a new powerhouse for stop-motion film.