Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Stop-motion..... Games???!!!

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Ok, I know I'm getting really tired of all these little rubber arms and boring explanations! It's time for something more fun! Here's something I've been discussing with.... an imaginary friend. ; ) The image above is from an incredible film called Balance by Christophe and Wolfgang Lauenstein... in fact, thanks to YouTube, it's also a link to the movie... click it to see one of my all-time favorite stopmotion films. And the one below takes you to a film on Google Video called Quest, by Tyron Montgomery and Thomas Stellmach. Go ahead, click through to both now, they'll open in separate windows and start loading up. Then you'll be able to watch them both about the time you finish reading this. Oh, the following does contain spoilers... so you might want to hold off on reading it until after you've seen both films. Your call.

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Both films were made as student works at a German university. And they share a few factors in common that I think are worth further scrutiny. Here's my nutshell analysis of why they're so effective.

First and foremost they're simple. That's key to why everything else works so well. The puppets are very stylized and simplified, no attempt to give them realistic features or proportions. They're cyphers. And the worlds they inhabit are almost featureless. For this reason, any object that exists takes on a special significance. The floating slab in Balance, hovering enigmatically.... where is it? In space? High in the air? Why do these men live there? Are they prisoners? Have they always been there? These questions lie just under the surface of your mind as you watch, but because the action holds your attention you don't get too caught up in them. The story unfolds with simple, undeniable logic that keeps your interest. And as you watch you begin to make connections.... oh, the slab represents society or co-operation... they have to work together or they'll all fall off. Brilliant! The whole environemt... the whole narrative world - becomes a metaphor! And the best thing about it is the fact that it remains unexplained. If there was some involved sci-fi explanation of why the slab is there and how the men got there, it would lose its mythical power. But as it is, the film plays out like a game. One step forward, tilt the slab... somebody must step back. Power politics in action. It's so broad in its interpretation that it could represent world powers or individuals or anything in between. One thing that smacks me in the frontal lobes every time I watch Balance is the brilliant use of moving composition... every frame is beautiful!

Quest has the same kind of simplicity, though not carried to the same extreme. There are a few environments, and they're more fleshed out, but still every object carries power. A pile of rocks, sheets of paper, automatic welding machinery... it's like a surreal dreamscape where nothing extraneous exists. And again, the fact that nothing is explained forces the viewer to think in broad terms, makes everything a cypher carrying great power, the way images in dreams do. In order to create something with this much power, you have to do away with extraneous detail. It's almost as if each prop comes into existance only when it's needed and for a very specific reason.

Neither film really follows traditional narrative form - introduce the character(s), reveal a problem they must solve, and show how they do so. In each case, we don't really know anything about these characters or their situation... the fun lies in the discovery. Along the way, as we watch, we're trying to figure out what's going on. And in each case, the final shot puts a new spin on things. It makes you reconsider everything, adds a layer of meaning and depth to it all.

Another thing they have in common... I could easily see them as 2d cartoon animation, done in an international style. In fact, I noticed in the credits to one of them a few repetitions of the name Prof. Paul Dreissen. If you're not familiar with that name, he's a great cartoon animator, and I suspect had a strong influence on these films.

If you're interested, there are a few really short follow-ups to Balance, as well as some other clips, on the Lauenstein's site

Ok, sorry for the Introductory Film Analysis 101 lecture, it's just me trying to grasp ways to make cool stopmo flicks. Now back to your regularly programmed scheduling.


mefull said...

Thanks for the links mike,

Balance is a classic; I have not watched it in years, but quest I have never seen. Interesting worlds they create.
In my twisted mind, I was waiting for a world of scissors (rock, paper, scissors) I really liked the differences in the worlds. That's a pretty ambitious project for a student film.

The simplicity is part of what makes these work, both powerful films that make you think.

herself said...

Oh. My. God.

Darkstrider said...

Hey Mark,
I know that in the Czech Republic and Slovakia at least student animations tend to be much bigger than their American equivalents. Many of the films included on the Ceska Animace collection were made as student projects, as was Nazdravicko! (Ivana Zajacova's project). As a matter of course they have established professional animators working with the students on their projects, apparently in a fairly close proximity, rather than just as the teacher who hands out assignments and gives lectures. Example, if I remember right, on Pirat Jan Bubenicek got some help from Bretislav Pojar. That would be about equivalent to Ray Harryhausen working with you on your student film. No wonder those countries turn out such good animation! They seem to take it much more seriously in educational terms. I don't know what it's like in all American colleges of course, and I'm sure it's quite different from one to another, but I do know of student films that were done pretty much entirely by the students on their own with no real help and very little in the way of pro-level equipment.

And Germany is the next-door neighbor to these countries.

Ubatuber said...

Are you thinking about using a similar sort of simplified style for your surreal 'dream' project? I think it could totally work for you...

Now on to your next post...

Darkstrider said...

Man, I'd love to do something with that kind of simplicity. I have a number or prospective projects in mind, and they're all quite a bit more 'realistic' than these. I think, at least for me, it would be a hard thing to do. Maybe after I've got a few films out of the way.

sven said...

The principle reminds me of Hitcock's "The Birds"... Apparently the original script had some gawdawful sci-fi explanation about radiation from space or whatnot causing the birds to have a group mind.

...How much more effective to leave it unexplained!

Grant said...

I've seen Balance before but I've never seen Quest. Thanks for posting the links and your commentary.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Mike. I was really awed by Balance. Just exquisite and so inspiring. It reminded me of a Cagney biography that Shelley was reading. James Cagney's acting style was based on a performer he had seen. Cagney sussed out that the basis of the man's power was that every gesture he made was considered and important--in other words there were no extraneous movements. PK