"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!