In a year when the film industry was still hampered by the powerful power of digital streaming, stop-motion animation – perhaps the most analog of all styles of filmmaking – had a peak year, introducing strong new talent competing for three feature awards and shorts. It certainly hasn’t always been this way, but several stop-motion helmers expect the trend to continue.
The stop-motion films “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,” “Wendel and Wilde,” and “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” were released in 2022, which is rare because the techniques used to create stop motion are incredibly detailed and can often be for the film. Dozens of artists are required to shoot the scene if it is to be completed in a reasonable amount of time. Add to that, among others, hundreds of replacement faces for the various dolls, clothes made from scaled cloth for the dolls, and a production schedule that requires careful monitoring to keep track of where each doll goes. day, and you can see what can make working in stop motion so dangerous. Yet, it is the imperfection of the puppets and their hand-crafted movements that make it so thrilling.
“I had a friend who used to tell me that all movies started out as plots of optimism,” says Mark Gustafson, co-director of “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” for Netflix. “That’s certainly true of stop motion. I think there is a renaissance of stop motion and I hope there is. This is a strategy that is relatively straightforward. You can do it very easily and quite quickly. You can get the camera and an object to shoot and you can add difficulty levels. Tools like DragonFrame [the industry standard stop-motion animation software] available to all.”
As audiences embraced streaming, especially during the pandemic, some forms of entertainment were completely elevated. It wasn’t necessarily for animation or writers. As audiences burned through content during the lockdown, they also searched for new shows and stylistic approaches to storytelling.
“I think it’s because of streaming that it’s a little bit more opportunistic,” said Henry Selick, helmer of Netflix’s “Wendel & Wilde.” “And it’s hard to know if the renaissance will continue or last. Ultimately, no matter how successful stop-motion films are considered, there is always a risk. It takes patience and time to make them, and sometimes executives worry that they’ll lose their jobs before the film is finished, which actually happens a lot. With streaming you have more competition for good products. I think interest [in stop motion] has been revived.”
Julie Lockhart, co-founder and president of production at Locksmith Animation added:[Streaming] It encouraged experimentation and creating more content, and then it wasn’t so dependent on that opening weekend. So there is more freedom and more opportunity to show work and more platform. People now also know that you can continue to work in bad times like Covid and you don’t all have to be in the same place.”
Del Toro, whose stop-motion “Pinocchio” combines facial replacement and mechanical manipulation of puppets, thinks the handmade nature of the medium works with some very human desires.
“It’s almost like a return to the need for something tactile,” says del Toro, who began his career in stop motion. “Digital cinema has gone as far as it can go and now we want analogue, something beautiful, that lives up to its artistry. I hope it comes back. we don’t know But whenever stop motion goes down, someone comes along and picks it up, whether it’s Ray Harryhausen or Leica or Phil Tippett with all his work, you never know, but there’s always someone who takes the torch. We’re all pushing the medium as hard as we can.”
Although the first documented stop-motion film by J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Widely credited as “The Humpty Dumpty Circus” of 1898 by Smith, most audiences were probably exposed to stop motion by Harryhausen’s warring skeletons in “Jason and the Argonauts,” dancing raisins in California raisin ads, or “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Depending on the age of the audience. Over time, incredibly subtle and sophisticated techniques have made their way into stop motion and created new opportunities for filmmakers.
Helmer Dean Fleischer-Kamp couldn’t imagine telling the story of “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” in any way other than stop motion. As the story that began as a short film experiment turned into a feature, filmmakers found many tools for stop motion becoming accessible.
“Stop motion is an old craft and has remained the same for so long,” says Fleischer-Kamp. “For whatever reason special effects and VFX are one of the last things to be disrupted and reinvented in the digital age. Having really easy, low-lift access to things that make removing the rig and simplifying the process, but increasing all kinds of opportunities and applications for stop motion is unprecedented. So by ‘Marcelling’ we did all kinds of research and figured stuff out. I think it’s an indicator of what’s to come and I hope it’s part of a new revolution in stop motion.”
Stop motion is often the ideal choice for the strange, unconventional and unusual stories that filmmakers want to tell. A puppet’s deliberately crude or uneven movements can become a way for a helmer to tell a deeply personal story. And these stories may have a more challenging time finding their audience.
“It’s been a bit of a roller coaster in terms of audience appeal,” says Alexander Bulkley, co-founder of animation studio, Shadowmachine. “It’s when one of those projects really hits that people start loving it again and paying attention. But then, of course, it takes years to get it done.”
Producers Ellen Goldsmith-Vein (“Wendell & Wild”) and Arianne Sutner (“Missing Link”) both hope stop motion will continue to grow as a medium as audiences become more interested in movies and have more access to them through streaming. Both have spent decades working with filmmakers dedicated to making stop-motion films.
“I think these movies will look great 10 years from now, 15 years from now, even 25 years from now,” said Suttner, who is working on helmer Travis Knight’s latest film. “I think there’s a desire to see something with the human touch on the screen and these certain types of artists who really want to make this kind of art.”
Goldsmith-Vine believes that the small group of stop-motion filmmakers who have made great films will continue to produce great work, but the medium could benefit from more creatives coming into the community to make new work. He hopes film students will also become more familiar with stop-motion techniques.
“The hard part is that there are fewer stop-motion animation filmmakers, which makes it a bit more complicated,” says Goldsmith-Venn. “But I’m excited that there are so many stop-motion animated film projects because it means there will be more opportunities to make more stop-motion films and television series in the future. It’s a really great time to be in this space.”
But space filmmakers, including Juan Pablo Jaramella, whose “Passagero” made the Oscar shortlist, and Spencer Sasser, whose “Save Ralph” is also on the shortlist, are embracing them, and bodes well for the future as software and other tools. Make stop motion more accessible.
“I think these things go in cycles,” says Corey Campodonico, co-founder of ShadowMachine. “We all went through the 1990s and early 2000s where CG was so dominant and fresh and new. I think we’re heading into a golden age of stop motion where similar movements can build.”