Monday, December 18, 2006

Suzie Templeton's (and Prokofiev's) amazing Peter and the Wolf

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I'm still agog. The DVD came in yesterday (PAL format, only viewable on PAL players that can handle a Region 2 disc). I watched the half hour film several times, including the rough cut with commentary by director Suzie Templeton and showing a proliferation of incredible Rube Goldberg rigs specially designed for each shot. Yes, amazingly, every puppet was rigged in apparently every shot, different rigs for each shot depending on what it needed to do. I watched the Making of and the other extras, then went back and watched the film itself again. And I'm still in absolute awe! In fact at this moment I'm absolutely convinced it's the best stopmotion film ever made. No joke. And this is even taking into account the world masterpieces like Starevitch's Tale of the Fox, Trnka's Old Czech Legends and Barta's Krysar (and yes, even Street of Crocodiles)!

Oh, don't misunderstand - I'm not saying it's better than each of these films at their own games... the cinematography for example doesn't hold a candle to that incredible dancelike motion I recently expounded on in Street of Crocodiles, but as a whole I must say it's a more enjoyable film.

In fact it's everything I was hoping Corpse Bride would be but wasn't. And that's a secret disappointment I haven't shared publicly before now - only spoken with Shelley about. Yes, the animation in Corpse Bride is spectacular, but somehow the production design left me a bit cold, and I felt like it was watered down from the powerful original tale in the effort to flesh it out into a full length feature. In Peter and the Wolf there's a strong sense of linkage with the great backhistory of european tradition. It's set in modern Russia, where the occasional bursts of western color and commercialism clash with the crumbling and graffiti scrawled remains of the once great Land of the Tzars.

The animation in P&W is not quite as silky smooth as Corpse Bride, but I like the fact that the puppets are dressed in real cloth and have hair that twitches slightly, just enough to impart a certain magical sense of liveliness that inert silicone doesn't have. It reminds you that you're watching something lovingly animated by hand.

What really grabbed me about it is this; it's everything I want to do in stopmotion. If you go back and read all my various comments about silent film, about pantomime and cinematic storytelling - it's all there! Perfectly realized. It's bizarre really, almost as if I've been somehow tapping into the development of this project (rather ironically, it began 5 years ago, exactly the same time I first stumbled across the stopmotion message board and began my own journey of discovery). It has the lyricism and beauty of some of the classic eastern european puppetfilms without any of their preciousness. The structure is like a great silent film by Buster Keaton or Laurel and Hardy, or one of the early Warner Brothers or Disney cartoons.... a simple effective and very emotionally involving story with a few 'gags'; joyous scenarios where the animation tests the laws of physics in humorous and delightful ways without ever violating them, as is done so often in today's overblown CGI spectacles.

I posted a link to the trailer some time ago, but here it is again: Peter & the Wolf Trailer. It's a bit fidgety to get it to play right.... I've found it's best to let it play through once even though you can't see much of what's going on, then play it again. Or it might even work better if after playing throuigh it a couple times you navigate to another web page then back, and play it from your computer's cache. At least that worked well for me. If you have QTPro you can download it and shouldn't experience any problems. Oh, and at long last I can explain the mystery of why the bird is hopping up and down with a string tied around it.... it has a lame wing and the string leads to (unseen because not yet added digitally) a helium baloon that's helping it maintain some bouyancy. This setup leads to some great sight gags and just some incredible animation sequences.

Oh, and yet one more of my personal obsessions that's embodied in this amazing film - the wolf seems to operate as Peter's dark doppleganger... representing his wild spirit roaming free through the forest, from which he's barred by a fence surrounding his grandfather's cottage. Note the picture on the trailer page where Peter's shadow is an image of the wolf... perfect symbolism there! It IS his shadow, in the classic Freudian sense.

The only thing I can think of about this film that's completely different from my own vision for films I intend to make is the realism. It looks incredible in this film, but I find making things realistic takes a lot more work and ends up being less appealing than going a bit surreal or absurdist. This idea goes back once again to my Things That work Well and Things That Don't. For example, if you want to animate a scene where someone is checking the effectiveness of his traps, it would take a good deal of very painstaking work to build realistic looking traps that function just they way they should, and would likely require some special effects work that in the end will go unappreciated because, for effects work to be effective in a realist picture it must be invisible. Whereas, in a more surreal picture you're free to come up with on-the-spot innovations and improvisations, like the trap-checking scene in Epic of Gilgamesh where Gilgamesh tests his croquet-hoop trap on an unsuspecting dandelion. How simple was that? He held a triangle up to it in a few places, as if checking the angles of certain things (the shadow of the hoop apprently?) and then when the dandelion came drifting through the wire loop simply snapped down into the set accompanied by a grating metallic sound effect. Simple as pie, and twice as tasty! But I've gone off track once again... sorry! Getting back to the subject at hand....

Here's the best online article I've discovered about the production, featuring an interview with the always delightful Templeton: The Independent.

Here's a page in Polish from Sem-a-for studios site with lots of cool (but extremely small) pics of behind the scenes construction: Pics. It looks like thumbnails, but when you click them they don't open bigger pics unfortunately.

Ok, I'm off to watch it a few more times!


Anonymous said...

Wow, you really seem excited about this one. Best stop-motion film ever? I have to check this out. Good thing I recently bought an all-regions DVD player to watch my Quay on.

Darkmatters said...

Heh, yeah - take that with a few grains of salt! Note I was careful to say "At this moment..." because of the newness factor. A shiny new film, especially one you've been salivating for several months to see, always seems like the best film ever made, assuming it's "good enough", just as any woman who is attracticve enough becomes the most beautiful" woman when she's in your presence.

But, though some of the newness is wearing off, I still totally love this film! I must say though, the animation itself is probably closer to Trnka-type stuff rather than Corpse Bride smooth. In fact, in some ways it reminds me of a hyper-realist version of the old Rankin/Bass christmas specials. The animation is quite a bit better that that, but still has its share of pops and stutters, which IMO adds a lot of charm and warmth.
I'm not all that big on ultra-smooth animation. In fact I actually like a little stutter and pop, as long as the movement has the right feel and there's a good sense of life or charm or something that gives it that human appeal.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, the ever-so-often slight jerk is the fingerprint of stop-motion animation, without it it begins to lose its identity. And although I didn't mention it before, I agree with you on the Corpse Bride part. I left the theatre rather disappointed, although I told no one. (Seemed traitorous to say something negative about a new stop-motion film, especially one getting so much attention). Don't get me wrong, it's a great film, and I've seen it five or so times - heck, I own it, but the film didn't take advantage of the story's potential, imo that is. And yes, I know what you mean - brand new film, brand new ideas, it's easy to get worked up about new things, and sometimes rightfully so ;).

Darkmatters said...

Oh yeah, I don't mean to completely dis CB at all.... in fact it's a good movie, better than a lot of what Hollywood is cranking out these days! And it really is a showcase example of the finest stopmotion I've ever seen, as well as a (rare) example of a major studio backing something interesting and imaginative.

I just wish it would have been something different from what it ended up being. I remember when one of the Tim Burton sites posted the original text version of the old folk tale it's based on, I imagined it with really powerful design, as wild as NMBC, and as a short film that captures the folksiness and european-ness of the tale. Instead it was fluffed up into a full feature length movie, with a happy hollywood ending. It had some great moments definitely, but the story was weak (as was the main character). I suspect that, as with Monkeybone (and how many other potentially great movies?) it suffered at the hands of the juggernaut money-counters and demographics experts who believe the American public can't handle anything but pat happy endings.

Ok wow, really going off on a tangent there! Sorry, had that bottled up and it finally came out all in a rush!
Actually it's a minor (probably major) miracle that Peter and the Wolf happened exactly the way it did, and undoubtably if it was backed by a major Hollywood studio it would never have materialized in anything resembling that form. Suzie Templeton and her cohorts were able to make some daring choices.

What?!?! A silent film?!!! No dialogue at all??!?? But.... studies have shown that animated films pull in much more moolah with major voice talent... er, well at least popular stars voicing the characters. We can get Eddie Murphy and Britney Spears and, I might be able to pull in Danny DeVito if we can guarantee a thirteen billion dollar opening weekend. Of course, with the stakes that high, the studio is going to want to examine the script and suggest a few minor changes here and there. Nothing major.... you know. And of course we'll get the hottest new rap singers to do the soundtrack. Proko-who??!! Never heard of 'im! If he's not chartin' right now, he ain't hot enough. The kids want NOW, not last year! And of course, we can't get Pixar.... they're just too expensive, but there's this new up-and-coming CG company that uses even better software..... it'll be great!!!

Alec said...

I've just watched Suzie Templeton's film on TV here in the UK. It was really good - arresting, unusual, interesting - but in my opinion it didn't convey the scariness of the music.

Indeed, the film almost seemed to sympathise with the wolf - it was merely eating to stay alive - in place of the creeping, sinister monster that I remember imagining when I heard the music as a child.

But don't get me wrong - I'll be buying a copy on DVD and studying it carefully to learn from the great skill sued in making the film.

Darkmatters said...

Yeah, you're right about that. It's definitely not a creeping monster, or an exagerated cartoon wolf (which is the way I used to imagine it). It's in keeping with the naturalism of the film. But that said, as an 'animal' wolf, it's pretty majestic and intense! I love the first shot of it, and the moving camera shot where it comes flowing down the rocks like some stalking ghost! And when it gobbles up the duck... fugeddaboudit! Even I was shocked and horrified!

shonokin said...

Ah ha, ok so it is out on DVD. Great to hear you like it so much Mike. I'm really looking forward to it especially since it has lots of extras. Mmmmm extras.

I know what you mean about CB. I found it to be beautiful and amazing, but somewhat distant and unalluring. It seems less erm "organic" than most SMA.

OK, I'm off to go find this dvd!