Saturday, June 20, 2009

Dream a little dream with me....
The fantasy element in late 80s and 90s stopmotion/gomotion

"Fantasy is essentially the dream world; an imaginative world, and I don't think you want it quite real. You want an interpretation, and stopmotion to me gives that added value of a dream world that you can't catch if you try to make it too real"

.... Harryhausen from the documentary Ray Harryhausen Chronicles.

This will be the subject of today's blog, and take notes, there may be a pop quiz on Friday!

Lately I've been buying a lot of stopmotion on DVD, with an emphasis on the movies from the 80s and 90s, such as Dragonslayer, The Gate (and its sequel), I Madman, Howard the Duck etc. Phil Tippett, Randall William Cook, and their contemporaries... these are the progeny of Harryhausen -- his offspring in the world of stop motion animation. Generally speaking, the animation looked smoother than most of Uncle Ray's work, and the designs were more wildly creative - sometimes to good effect, sometimes not so much.

As the animation itself got smoother, and especially with the advent of Tippett's Go-Motion process, which eliminated the strobing effect that gave stopmotion its characteristic hard-edged, slightly stuttery feel, things began to look increasingly real. The compositing work improved greatly as well, so that now the creatures actually seem to occupy the same world as the people, and to actually be there right next to them. For my money, the most realistically animated go-motion creature (that I'm aware of) is the whimsical Ebersisk from the movie Willow. I believe this was a refinement of the already awe-inspiring technique as used in Dragonslayer. I've posted a clip above. Watch it now class, I'll wait.

It might not be apparent on a first viewing, as you're doubtless busy drooling over the beauty of it all, but there is just the tiniest bit of flutter in that animation. Now compare with the Ebersisk (two-headed dragonthing named for Siskel and Ebert):

It looks absolutely real, in spite of its somewhat ludicrous design and comical aspect. It seems to actually be right there... as if the actors could reach out and touch its horny hide. But it completely lacks the sense of fantasy Vermithrax has. I believe it's because of the complete smoothness of the animation, the absolute lack of any slight flutter (well ok, the near lack... there is a little bit, but just the teensiest little bit.... ). In this sense, toward the 90's stopmotion (and go-motion) were moving closer to the sensibilities now associated with high-end, hyperrealistic CGI. People love to throw around the line from Jurrassic Park (actually originally said by Tippet when told that his go-motion dinosaurs would be replaced with computer generated ones) "I've become extinct!" -- but there was another line, spoken by Jeff Goldblum in the movie, that fits equally well for late-period stop/go motion animation as well as CGI.... "You were so busy trying to find out if you could... you never stopped to ask if you should" (paraphrasing here... not sure I've got it completely right).

I'm not sure this applies equally to pure puppet animation, with no live action component.... haven't really studied the effect in that realm. There was something a bit offputting about Corpse Bride that many people attributed to too much smoothness in the animation, but I suspect it had a lot to do with the slick silicone puppets and the painting of them that accentuated their smoothness. Coraline's animation is incredibly smooth (the bodies anyway, the faces don't move as smoothy because they aren't animated on ones... it would have required entirely too many replacement face parts to be made)... and when I concentrate on the bodies (anything but the faces really) it doesn't feel too smooth or slick to me. The fantasy element seems to be there. But looking at the machine-made faces, so smoothly finished and slickly painted, I can see why some people feel it's sterile and doesn't have the handmade look of something like Nightmare Before Christmas.

Obviously that elusive "sense of fantasy" Uncle Ray was talking about comes from many factors combined - production design and cinematography being key, but I feel the slight stutter is an important one, especially when stopmotion creatures are combined with live action. I think you have a somewhat different sensibility when the world of the film is a normal human one and the fantasy comes strictly from the creatures - their design and the way they move. Also - and this is one factor that makes Dragonslayer a close counterpart to its earlier Harryhausen ancestry -- Vermithrax is the true center of the film. Everything builds up to her appearance, which does not disappoint, and her death is the resolution of the tension in the film. So often in the 80s and 90s flicks the creatures are basically little throwaway parts that aren't essential to the movie.

Ok class, today's lesson is complete... now go outside and play!


Shelley Noble said...

Man, Mike, you really are an outstanding Stop Motion Film Studies Professor. Seriously. I won't embarrass you here with raves over your grasp of the subject's development, purposes, talents, etc.

I think what you've done here is raised one of the most fundamental questions in current stop motion, should a stop mo film's stylistic sensibility be as life-like as possible?

I am not as level headed about this as you are. I feel incredibly emotional and passionate about it. But I think your excellent and authentically informed analysis brings the matter into sharper view.

Incredibly interesting post.

Sven Bonnichsen said...

"…[S]topmotion to me gives that added value of a dream world that you can't catch if you try to make it too real."

I've heard this discussed so many times… I think Uncle Ray's observation is fascinating, and has merit. But a lot of people at SMA seem to take it as Truth, and then take it too far.

Live-action filmmakers heatedly discuss the relative merits of film grain vs. none, shooting with video vs. on filmstock, and black&white vs. color. Stopmoes' discussions of strobing vs. motion-blur are in a very similar vein.

I think strobing is just one possible texture that you can decide to maximize or minimize as you consider picture quality and how it contributes to aesthetics.

I think the bias in our community is to say that strobing is better (because Uncle Ray said so). However, while I think the idea is definitely worth considering, I don't buy it as Truth.

Try to imagine the Eborsisk without the go-motion adding motion blur. Try to imagine the Eborsisk with lower quality compositing, so that it doesn't blend as well into the world it's supposed to inhabit…

Does it make the sequence any better? Personally, I don't think so. It's a pretty silly clip; degrading the animation quality would only make it sillier, not more dream-like.

The Vermithrax is dealt with seriously rather than comically. It's not only stopmo -- it's a combination of practical props and puppets. The atmosphere of the cave, with darkness and fog, is in itself moody and dream-like. As a character, you sense that the Vermithrax has history, personality, gravitas.

Given the contributions of all these other things, the question of whether or not there's motion blur seems like a very minor consideration indeed.

Would the Vermithrax be better without motion blur? Would it be better if the hand-made quality were increased by making the motion more herky-jerky, shooting at 12fps?

Personally, I don't think so. Just the opposite, actually. The stutter would *compete* with the foggy, dream-like atmosphere.

While I appreciate considering how strobing contributes to the feel of a sequence, if you want to create powerful film moments, all those other factors are much more important.

If I had to put numbers on it, I'd say that the decision to use go-motion on the Vermithrax sequence can't possibly be improving (or hurting) the whole sequence more than 2%-5%.

Edwound Wisent said...

(^ dag nabbit, Mykey: you're delving into my personal ballywho:

(^ sam Longoria had much to do with computer rigging of camera moves:

(^ Tippet is but one:
there are many others:

the morphing in willow is also something to take note of:
a program used during the out of control shape shifting sequence:
same technique was used in a jackson video:

let me find it:
Michael Jackson - Black Or White Official Music Video (Long High Quality Version)

(^ just watch from time frame 3:33 if the rest just doesn't cut it:
and you ay want to stop by 5:55

(^ point is, video editing was just comming into it's own : and now we simply edit out the sorce material entirely motion capture suits replacingf the need to even admid to there ever being dancers (or stop motion puppets,,hint hint) used in processing of a shot:

same goes for pyrotechnics.

Darkstrider said...

I had a feeling this might stir up some controversy.

I feel the same way about the "magic" of a lot of old silent films, loaded with flicker, scratches, film grain, and irregular exposure, as well as the hand-cranked speed of the film. I remember on my first viewing of The Passion of Joan of Arc feeling like something was missing because it didn't have any of that. The magic of silent film was missing.

Silent comedians like Chaplin understood the surreality of the not-quite-right film speed and how to use it to their advantage... if you've ever seen a demo of a Chaplin film played at the "right" speed, the magic is gone. A good cameraman knew when to undercrank or overcrank for effect.

Harryhausen certainly wasn't talking about stutter... he most likely worked as hard as possible to eliminate it in his work. But as good as he was, that didn't happen until later. And to my eye, well, as I already said, the magic began to dissipate.

Of course (as I also said in my post already) all the other factors are important... but so is that surreal sense of strobing that makes the creatures feel otherworldly.

That doesn't mean I advocate deliberately exaggerating it... that would be ridiculous! Unless of course you're doing a spoof. All I'm saying is, maybe let just a hint of it creep in, sort of like Hendrix letting his guitar feedback.

Darkstrider said...


I remember that video! Yeah, the morphing stuff became all the rage for a while, didn't it?

Interesting how instrumental Willow really was in the transition from stopmotion/gomotion to CGI. That's how it usually works... Jurassic Park gets remembered as the movie where it happened, but in reality it had been brewing for some time and strides were made in many movies. JP just became the poster child, as the Wright Brothers became the "inventors" of the airplane because they made the first fully operable one after a lot of important grpundbreaking work done by forgotten others.

R.S.Cole said...

The Wright Bros comparison doesn't work for me, with all due respect - stop motion was flying pretty high before CGI came out with the new jet aircraft. (Some of us still prefer balloon travel)

I have every intention to get back to the realistic stop motion creatures and characters very soon. (that's a promise) And thanks to technology, there is no longer a need to complicate the shooting with go-motion at all because there are now apps that will add perfect motion blurs to any animation easily and quickly.

Because of innovations like that, no film costs and frame-grabbers, that good ol' Harryhausen/Tippet style of stop motion has every cost advantage to come roaring back to life! Stay Tooned.

Darkstrider said...

You didn't understand my Wright Brothers comment?

Ok, see.... people credit the Wright Brothers with "inventing' the airplane, wne in reality it was pretty nearly already invented when they merely finished the process.

Similarly, people credit Jurassic Park with being the movie that brought CGI in and ushered stopmotion out, but actually that process was already well underway.

Even forgetting momentarily about CGI, stopmotion had given way to go motion, which thanks to technology was smoother and more "perfect" than the stopmotion of Harryhausen's day.

Hell, even before that, stopmotion itself got smoother and more 'perfectified' thanks to new technology - the video reference framegrabbers developed for Nightmare Before Christmas.

So, when CGI came of age and really became a viable special effects technique, stopmotion was already pretty much a thing of the past -- at least stopmotion of the O'Brien/ Harryhausen variety, with that magical flutter to it.

bRYEnd_of_the_schtick said...

(^ sigh. amiga: video toaster: all the branched off Star Trick TV shows:
all the flight sequences.
the lack for need to use film stock and an optical printer:

voyager: /next generation: deepspace 9:
THAT"s the MAIN culpret that got microsoft AND MAC conspiring to allow open conversion packets in order to wipe the toaster out.
"multi-media platforms" would not exist if this hadn't happened:

check it yoyurself.
do the background checks.
clarify my mixed messages:
and go watch Top Secret just because you reminded me of it with willow and that silly actor who played lead in Doors film.

Darkstrider said...

I'll take your word for it Prosser...

You've proved your word is reliable after leading me on that long and twisted trail from White-Out through the Monkee house and finally to the Elephant house, with a stopover in the Head.

Might be fun to research the specifics though...

R.S.Cole said...

Go motion was a very innovative approach but, it had severe limitations because the blurs wouldn't always logically be moving in the right direction. The advent of frame grabbers added into the process didn't change stop motion, it just enhanced it by giving the animator the ability to review what they had done in previous frames. So I wouldn't say that stop motion was on it's way out, it was just evolving.

But now that we have apps that will add the motion blur for us in post, it's sort of a 'two steps forward - one step back' scenario. I think that the machine made replacement faces used in Coraline were more of a step away from traditional stopmo than go motion was.

The genre of stop motion being used as a realistic special effects technique is something I miss badly. It's too incredible an art form to ever be left behind.

I enjoyed watching those scenes from Dragon Slayer and Willow so much but, it's like listening to a radio station that plays the best of the 60's 70's and the 80's... I need that extra line "and Today!" :)

(I know - I skipped the 90's... who wouldn't if given the choice?)

bRYEnd_of_the_schtick said...

(^ skipping thru the 90s:
>(I know - I skipped the 90's...
> who wouldn't if given the choice?

(^ those that learned a lot during it.

(^ from the running away from L.A to writing insane amounts of silly stuff in nebraska to whatching friends:make it:. and lose it.
(^ the 90s were the most decadent " the 90s will make the 60s look like the 50s" as Abby Hoffman said.

9^ and it's tru.
pre 911: the amount of creative energy tossing around : a shift form one bush to a non inhaler to a blue dress and gorsh who knows how many other outed insiders guffahs.
(^ the 90s was the 60s
(^ gone bungee jumping.

(^ my grandfather prepetarian minister rev Howard Osborn: uncle to Tom osborn 9go big red) went bungee jumping on his 80th birthday.

(^ freaked the hell out of his 4 daughters:
which may have been the best thing he ever did for them.

(^ unshifted 96 so here's to the 90s! wha hoooo. when time began to bend and shift:
maybe eWE haven't noticed...

(^ and now we got less than half a year
(^ to give the double aughts a few fond memories:
(^including .. what? the reliece of ITFOG?

(^ ?...! spellchecks "reliece " =

relieve relief reliance relicense relict ..

(^ none too shabby.

wyrdverif gambit:

"blinglyp" = feelingly blinking blinding revealingly

jriggity said...

I do so love all that stuff from the 80's!......

I think that my kids {and 99% other kids these days} dont but those old Monsters for one second.

they were most definately magical to us...because we were having our fantasys realized in Cinema!

.....but they were always OFF. I remember watching willow a million times as a kid and I always thought the compositing was bad in that scene....rings around the puppets or characters.

The compositing and ANIMATION these days is getting pretty freaking AMAZING for bringing Insane Imaginative creatures ta life.

Show a clip from ghostbusters of the dog monster....then show a clip of the Dreadlock creatures from the first Hellboy.

Uncomparable if you ask me on believability....animation or texture.

I do love them all though.


Darkstrider said...

Ron, I wasn't saying that framegrabbers etc means STOPMOTION was on its way out... but that that particular magical Harryhausenish stopmotion was, with the fantastical fluttery motion that makes it look like the creatures are from another world.

The 90.s didn't bring much of value, but there was some great music early on. After that... meh.

Justin, I didn't notice bad compositing on the Ebersisk... I thought it looked like it was really right there!! Maybe it showed up better on the movie screen, or on the tv screen at the time, and it's been tweaked for the DVD? Who knows? (Or maybe I'm just not that good a judge of it!).

The dreadlock creatures in Hellboy weren't done with CGI - they were actual costumes with wriggling dreads run by motors... people watching the Dailies in the studio used to think they were CG... and wondered how they could have done the effects so fast!!

Moviemaking has changed drastically since Uncle Ray's day... now everything is "gritty and ultra-realistic", so less than realistic effects wouldn't fit into a normal Hollywood movie. So we won't be seeing any more of the simple, well-designed creatures like he used. Pity. Well, except maybe in amateur stopmo films. And I do sometimes see simple, well-designed creatures in amateur CG too, but it doesn't tend to make it into blockbuster films.

The change is reflected in ?comic books.... look at the simple, well-designed drawings from some of the old Marvel books (the ones with good artists of course)... then look what happened when Image took over and everything had to be super-complex and loaded with infinite detail!! The same thing has happened to resin kits these days... its all detail detail detail... which can work if it's applied by a knowing hand over a great deign... but often the underlying design is poor, and all the detail is an attempt to compensate.

But I digress...

bRYEnd_of_the_schtick said...

(^ and will Tim Burton's Wonderland be any less mixed? I mean to assme there are not stop motion and cable controlled etc etc bbeing used in adventure flicks to cut stunt double costs is silly.
(^ it's ust that they've become SO well matched.. that you NEVER SPOT them.
for instance on that Willow shot, there's only like one stop motion puppet HUMAN shot and it
s WAY short: of the boy hanging on for dear lfe to a stick poked in the dragon.
then cut to live shot:

funiest part to me is that many of the ones who WORKED on ghostbusters.. are still working to this day. and have no plans of retiring: so keep the job contacts sectret and horded away to keep new upstarts from edging in on their territory.

lots and lots of stop mo work is out there,: you jst have to already have an in to get to work on much of it.

Darkstrider said...

Oh, one thing I meant to say...

Ron, the point I was making about late 80's technology (ie Framegrabbers, etc) changing stopmotion is this..

Framegrabbera allow super-slick animation as was never possible in Uncle Ray's day... complete elimination of that magical flutter if an animator understands how to use the technology and is patient enough.

In other words, it directly led to that super-smooth, CGI-ish stopmo that people complained about in Corpse Bride and some people hate about Coraline.

But I think this post is just serving as a catalyst for people to talk about their own personal obsessions. I think we all have a lot of trauma to deal with about the changes that have occurred since Ray's day.

Anonymous said...

Sven wrote: "Try to imagine the Eborsisk without the go-motion adding motion blur. Try to imagine the Eborsisk with lower quality compositing, so that it doesn't blend as well into the world it's supposed to inhabit ....Does it make the sequence any better? Personally, I don't think so. It's a pretty silly clip; degrading the animation quality would only make it sillier, not more dream-like ..... While I appreciate considering how strobing contributes to the feel of a sequence, if you want to create powerful film moments, all those other factors are much more important."

With all our high techy toys and especially DVD players one can endlessly tear apart a movie frame by frame and do negative monday morning quarterbacking (hindsight). It seems that Sven likes to anal retentively dissect into formulas or recipes :) (his other blogs/rambles). Hey that's cool. Not making a negative judgment. That's how some people's minds operates. If we put some Cinematic works in the category of ART, IMO, there are really no 'rules'. Sure, the student can study what others did but when it comes down to it, it is much more ORGANIC. IMO, bad hypothetical example or debate point saying to lower the compositing quality or degrade the Eborsisk scenes. A cinematic or visual imagery quality & style has ALREADY been established in 'Willow'. If you changed it, it would obviously pop out and be jarring. That's like me saying, to recreate a Turbo-charged Stop Motion scene for the original 'Jason and the Argonauts' and just edit it in with the other existing scenes. Stoopid to do .... it would not stylistically blend with rest of Argonaut movie.

I do not blindly follow 'Uncle Ray' and I try to be objective, however I cannot help but see similar as he does. Why do today's CGI creature characters have a homogenized quality about them? They appear bland or not as dreamlike or otherworldly (I know that is somewhat subjective). CGI attempts at whatever they think 'Reality' is. In the netherworld or fantasy, 'Reality or Surreality' can be anything the Artist (aka director) imagines and creates for the audience. Problem is, today's LCD audience has been indoctrinated (brainwashed) to the conventions of the CGI look/style and 'they think' that is the 'Standard'. Mainstream does not offer other visual styles, imagery, fresh or original stories, etc. etc.. Of course, I do not care what 'mainstream' does. Whole other world of independent filmmaking and other markets.

"It's (Eborsisk) a pretty silly clip" (Sven said) A subjective call which is one's prerogative. Looks like Sven may have some strict interpretations of what is "Fantasy or Dream-like". I thought, the Eborsisk scenes, however brief, evoked some good dreamy, otherworldly very fantasy qualities.

I do agree with Sven though, you must all remember, COMBINATION special effects methods were used in 'DragonSlayer' and 'Willow'. Ideally, IMO, this MIX-IT-UP approach of the classic or traditional special effects can provide good competition to the CGI fake synthesized special effects stuff. By mixing up the effects .... some of the the more technical NERDY audiences will be thrown off balance as to how it was done. Also, the general audience misdirected and cannot sense a particular special effects method used. I somewhat agree with 'Uncle Ray' about similarities to that of a Stage Magician. Once the secrets revealed, the audience not as impressed.

Disclaimer: I am aprofessional 'Devil's Advocate'. If anyone takes these words-text too personally, then all I got to say .... DO NOT and just CHILL :)


Hermanos Encinas said...

Congratullations, the article is really amazing!

Nick H said...

Great discussion here, and some fantastic scenes on video to look at!
I tend towards the opinion that if animation is mixed with live action, it works best when it can blend in with great compositing, smooth motion, and blur where appropriate. There is something about frame-by-frame stopmotion that still comes through, despite all the refinements. A guiding intelligence behind every 24th of a second, nothing happening just because that's what it does, but because an artist made a choice to have it happen just that way.
Of course, I'll overlook a lot of faults when the story is good and I love the character.
The funny thing is, cgi is also "other-worldly" - but those things about it that don't match in with the real world scenes really grate on me. Unlike handmade effects, they don't have the feel of myth and magic, but of cold digital technology. It's a different "other world" it comes from. CGI only works as an effect for me when it blends in well and hides it's origins, and when the animator has taken the trouble to put real weight and motivation into it. Spidermen and Hulks hopping around like 2 milligram fleas are neither believable nor magical. But I still love old Kong, fluttering fur and all.
And like Lio, I like the ingenuity of doing each effect with the right technique for that shot, working to the strengths of each.
Puppet film - well, purely animated film whether stopmo, cel, or cgi, and live puppetry as well - is another field, another world with its own physics. Well, many other worlds, because each film has the chance to create it's own world and style. (Sadly, much of the current glut of cgi cartoons, like Saturday morning 2d, is fairly undistinguishable.) So really, there are no rules - what one universe could or should contain the creations of Tex Avery, Swankmajer, Henry Selick, and the best of Pixar?

bRYEnd_of_the_schtick said...

hill>"what one universe could or should contain the creations of Tex Avery, Swankmajer, Henry Selick, and the best of Pixar?"

(^.. mine.

(^old MTV music videos.

(^ and a lot of the same ppl worked on many of them.

(^ I want to turn the whole "industry" on its head and tell folk trying to make youth into robotic match movers to take a hike:
I mean a real long sojourn:
and SEE how NON homogenized this little planet of ours truly is.
(^ and it stays alive BECAUSE of that: not in spite

(^ so? lets mix it up!

(^ oh btw, srider..
there actually IS a prosser multiverse.

(^ swing on by my home and I'd show you.

FleaCircusDirector said...

The discussion on Go-Motion is very interesting. There's got to be loads of recent technical inovate that's helped stop motion that we don't even think about. Digital cameras is one but also things like motion control and more recently 3D printing.

Edwound Wisent said...

(^ found it. note to strider: on.. absentminded professor vs. Flubber:

(^ in original: the goop made seemed.. DENSE.
opaque. ferris. an alloy of some kind: black and white: DARK. like mud.
and yes: shutter flashy:
not at ALL like Gatorade green Jello bold you almost think would be OK to DRINK.(or stick face into)

here: compare:
tsk. can't unless you own the original:

The Absent-Minded Professor (Harry Anderson Remake) 1988

Flubber (1997) - Trailer

(^ to >
Absent-Minded Professor DVD (1961) Comedy. Fred MacMurray. 1000s of titles not found elsewhere
No videos found for “absent-minded professor 1961”

(^ tsk.. grrr. revisionistic historic cover up! grr.

FINE! whistlin' dixney will have to doit.

daniel molitor said...

I loved reading this discussion.

I think one of the things that makes RH's animation stand out is the fact that so much of himself is visible in the work. The style of movement, the poses, the pacing, it's all clearly identifiably "Ray"...warts and all.

I suspect it is the advent of frame grabbers and all the rest that makes it harder for this sort of personality -- especially the "warts" -- to make it into the final film. There are just too many opportunities to futz with the shot. I think sometimes the intense concentration traditionally animated scenes require creates a different state of mind in the animator, a sort of zen-bonding between man and model, that can be easily lost by all the noodling.

Or not. Just my blather.

bRYEnd_of_the_schtick said...

(^..I love blather.

so tHere. just fer getting me to re read all this banter fodder and right before starting to intern a penguin:
i'm leaking a far past desperate attempt to keep an innovative spirit from leaving the planet with nary a notice:

since the best review ever written about prometheus' Garden IS buried somewhere in dark martyr's..
( heh. I love twisting type don't bRYe?^)

(^ I'll show the insanity it takes behind the scenes sometimes to avoid spending one's personal funds but generating enough buzz to cause someone ELSE to ....
*ehem* cough up the production and manufacturing dough costs:

(^ wait a sec: what's this to do here?
well.. I guess every animator has a specific body posture that leaks into their motions of things.

perhaps that's why key frame animators had inbetweeners fill out the motions between static poses
to stretch out the excentricities of the performances:

(^ not sure I'm getting this across..
might need a translator:

(^ sigh.
bob clam pet not same as Jay Ward nor Fred Quimby.