A Story Yet to be Learned
by Dan Gorosito (A.k.a Metalmadcat)
“Just when you think you know something; you must look at things in a different way.” -Robin Williams
Scratching the origins of film is like diving into deep waters. There can not be substantial records to be precise, and praising over one particular author would not be fair. However, we can identify some epic gems that could illustrate its mystery of what seems to be a never ending adventure. There are some gems that prevail overtime. Shine on for art´s sake.
Let me take you back to the early 1900´s, back when the Lumiere Brothers genius redefined motion pictures with brand new device: the cinematograph. Back when fiction as genre had found a new refuge out of theater plays due to the obsessions by Georges Méliès inventing first tricks in film. Magic was indeed being tested as a new art form was being shaped. With the introduction of special effects, a turning point was starting to kick in. There was an urge to try things beyond what theatres could offer. Consequently, the addition of puppets on stage, enhanced by the master Ray Harryhausen with his own unique methods, making films would no longer be the same. For uninterrupted consecutive decades, new technique had gained prestige and was well received. The fever quickly spread in popularity aiming to feature films almost mandatory and most memorable films eventually emerged. Starting with the pioneer classic "King Kong" released in 1933, to the iconic most memorable films where Ray was involved either producing or animating, such as “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” (1958), “Jason and the Argonauts” (1963) or “Clash of the Titans”(1981)—just to mention few—of many more that would become the pillars of inspirational success of a new medium born from a time of creative freedom in its finest: stop motion. Fictional characters in films were no longer actors wearing a mask, but armatures based structures puppet performing in front of a camera; stop-motion was at its peak.
By early 90´s, however, a new technology known as CGI (Computer-Generated Imagery) would be the new paradigm in terms of SFX (special effects) as an art form. Although computers were already experimenting with imagery since late 1960s, they were mere experimentation only. Later on, “FutureWorld” released in 1976 would become the first film involving a full three-dimensional animation in it. During the 1980s there would numerous examples of CGI in films as well, but they were all isolated achievements still. Critical success would take place in the 90s with “Toy Story”, released in 1995, CGI-produced in its entirety and debut film by Pixar Animation Studios; the most ambitious team experimenting with the medium. As a result, this would inevitably undermine the Stop-motion era, making it look obsolete, old-fashioned and no longer needed for the market. Instead, the new deal was computer-generated; appealing imagery, faster results, dynamic and a promising ever-growing experience. The future could not wait.
They were wrong.
Animation takes its roots in creativity, whereas CGI involves as much programming as working creatively. The latter is perhaps the biggest challenge, especially to computers. You can command a computer to perform many tasks but even so there are limitations. And they will always be machines. It would be a big mistake to assume animations are created by them. While it is hard to trace the origin in Film, the origin of animation is not. There is enough evidence about how it developed from traditional drawing frame by frame. We refer to animation when we perform movement in relation with a set of physical principles. Such principles were later improved by Walt Disney Studios, and became the 12 principles of animation. As animator the time and effort you put into these principles will determine the quality of animations you create. It is through these principles that the animator is able to create the illusion of motion, better explained in “The Illusion of Life” a book written by former animators of Walt Disney Studios. This book, along with “Animator´s Survival Kit” became essential for animators. Such principles are meant to be used regardless the medium you choose. Rodolfo Saenz Valiente, in his book “Arte y Tècnica de la Animación”, (Spanish for Art and Technique in Animation) would say “moving is not as same as animating”. It is following a method what differs from ordinary movement to actual living-like motion. However not all principles are math-based. Staging, Solid drawing, anticipation and appeal; these are all principles that ultimately require most of your creative skills that no computer can provide. The machines can be the vehicle but you will need the fuel to drive you where you want to go.
With the proper amount of fuel you know how far you go. That fuel means the human condition to create. As CGI became so promising, over the years, it seems companies were dazzled by machines and anxious to make profit. Ever since “Toy Story” (1995) becoming a worldwide box-office Pixar was seduced with the ability for CGI to “run quick” over deadlines. Suddenly, animations would start to be produce year after year. Something unthinkable compared to previous era when producing a stop motion film would take between 2-3 years, or more. This "fast pace" at mass producing films became the signature for CGI studios. It is hard to tell to what expend this was an advantage. Something seemed to be price to so much benefit. What we all know for sure is that creativity was literally being killed by deadlines. While SFX were meant to be the means to an end, they went from being just a tool to the main protagonist. If it wasn’t there it wasn’t fun.
Almost like a parallel universe in this battle for past and future, Anthony Scott, former stop motion animator was deeply concerned to maintain the visibility of the technique in the new century. This is how www.stopmotionanimation.com in the year of 1999 was founded and would continue for the years to come. The site was able to gather artist from all over the globe making it a most exciting community. Former artists coming from all kinds of fields held as much knowledge as any computer could back up and they could not just forget all they knew. From special technicians to armature makers, set designers, music composers and jacks of all trades to most extraordinaire hobbyist out there busy working on some lonely basement.
No better place in the internet could gather most unique individuals, all working remotely to resist the loss of the traditional medium. The form platform would follow the slogan “by animators, for animators”. The forum offered a section exclusively for aspiring animators. Selected articles for research only served as a handbook for starters. All it would take was but a small fraction of curiosity to dig in —In the shadows of CGI, devoted artist were silently holding out into one place only. Stop motion would not vanish, but would adapt to the new era. And so it did. Over the last decades stop motion techniques did not just survive but proved to be the most effective learning methods for young learners. From workshops at schools or conventions to festivals would still be promoted. Small indie producers would gradually be the most benefited from it. Annual Festivals were also promoted and encouraged to participate in.
This would be the best excuse to keep everyone motivated towards a goal. But among all the benefits, what made the community so unique was the friendly involvement and willingness to help one another. No matter what your question may be, you would get a response right away. The more questions you asked the closer for aspiring animators to have a proper film to share with everyone. Eventually, what started as simple exercises developed into the animation weekly and monthly challenges. Perhaps the most known was the “haiku challenge”, consisting of making a haiku that could be animated. The Haiku were simple lines that your puppet could perform in front of the camera. By doing so aspiring animators would learn about puppet making and the importance of meeting deadlines. Animations would usually take no more than 10 to 15 seconds animation, but then enough work to train your abilities to become a better animator. As if some kind of “Academy” was born, stop motion Masters would assist young learners to finish their projects to exercise. The feedback was always such a meaningful return in hours of hard work. The best reward of all. Knowledge is power.
Starting the 21st century and on, Animation industry expanded immensely and with it also brought a brand new and even more mature audience. In Asia this was already happening in Japan with Japanese animation, in big part thanks to the fame and popularity made through manga (Japanese graphic novels) which turned into animated films if they were popular enough. So it was nothing new. But then, it would only be aimed to one specific type only: the anime universe. You may wonder: if Japanese animation was in advantage of decades of growth what was the obstacle to go international? One word can describe it best: censorship. For Western culture, the Japanese themes were considered too “over the top” for young audiences and many animated films were either cancelled or very restricted to be shown off Japan. Such conservative and orthodox views concerning western culture allowed J- animation to experienced non-stop growth, yet it was like an encapsulated universe that would not go further than that.
On the other hand, however, whether for good or bad, Pixar and Dreamworks had the free lane to produce as many feature films overseas for both western and Asia, as well Africa. In contrast to J-Anime, Dreamworks and Pixar taking the lead embracing CGI as their flag, would rapidly make of animation a rather international market. From what began as family themes would gradually turn to all audiences, making films with less lineal endings, open-ending- sequels, prequels and iconic franchise. The prejudgment and any previous stereotype to think animation was meant to be consumed for "kids-only" was, at this point, out of the question. All seemed like the boom was CGI featured-films and not only stop motion was long forgotten and ignored, but even so 2D animations were now put at risk. Surprisingly enough and despite this, only five years later even these two big companies had a new competition; a recycled division from what once was Will Vinton Studios (the studio responsible for featuring stop-motion films in the 90´s) had a new successor: A new new rival was born.
By July of 2005 Laika was founded. Initial steps had to be made before its first big milestone. They started doing commercial work, such as advertisements and music videos. Meanwhile the team was silently working on what would become something more promising. After three years of hard work Laika would finally make his move with their first debut feature film tracing a resurrection of an era long forgotten. By 2008, the Academy nominated film "Coraline" was released. Laika’s debut brought new diversity and animation choices to audiences and studios. However, this phenomenon also brought some confusion. Audiences would watch a film thinking they were seeing CGI, which in reality they all used puppets manipulated frame by frame. It might have seemed clear that stop-motion was recovering its popularity again, but the digital era would keep overshadowing stop motion. Despite signs of any revival, any battle against CGI might ultimately be impossible. Younger audiences bore little appreciation for the craft of stop motion. While Laika continued churning out feature films, it struggled to achieve full recognition by the public. Failure to capture larger audiences might have seemed inevitability to many fans of stop-motion, but perhaps a niche market was preferable to the art form being entirely abandoned. Instead, something more curious lay ahead.
So, what was pushing the boundaries in films anyway? Can we honestly believe computers are responsible for all? What about the roots before them? What about all the magic before these digital machines? Are we not giving unnecessary amount of credibility to them? Perhaps being obsessed by the power on machines in such digital era, we idealize machines maybe too much. There is no question they bring fast results but let us this not constraint us from all other variables. Innovation taught us that new doesn’t always mean better. For the most part, when it comes to create, “pushing boundaries” can be credited to stop motion having brought the “best” in us to fuel creativity. Silently, in all its modesty, always adapting, evolving.
The ability of new technologies to take control over multiple tasks allowed faster and more sophisticated mixed-media to become a very common choice for films, and Laika was not an exception. This is how for the first time in the history, as far as universal and being highly acclaimed, CGI used as SFX along with stop-motion manipulated puppet both came to be united in a single feature film. Precisely, we refer to "Coraline" case which drew some questions: was it worth doing it? is the nuance of the mixed technique lost on the audience? Does usage of CGI not make of stop motion lose its purpose? Regardless of any perceived controversy at the time, the massive success proved that Laika was here to stay. Most critics were not fully familiar into what Laika Technology was truly based on. For the most part, there were 3D-Printers, back then among the very first being used, if not the first time used in a film. This gave several advantages not only in terms of saving budget but also saving time to create as many human expressions with out of one single mold. In other words, the CGI was not determined to kill the creativity as it was previously proved years before. Instead CGI was purposely aimed to effects of post-production letting enough creative solutions towards stop motion. In addition 3D-printers was perhaps the most hybrid case whereas a computer would create the mold already made from the handcraft. So, oddly enough, computers were helping stop motion to survive its era.
As if “Coraline” was not enough proof, a big amount of incredible unique feature films came along the way with it. The stop motion awakening did not only came from Laika (which clearly left a trademark), but it also was be spread on well known motion pictures such as Fox 20th Century Films to debut the medium. Such was the case with premier feature film Fantastic Mr. released in 2008. Even Tim Burton, who had immortalized Skellington with “Nightmare Before Christmas” back in the 90s, would return to it with “Corpse Bride” in 2009. Aardman Studios on the other hand, been worldwide known for unique short films of Wallace and Grommit, would take a bigger step feature film version of this franchise in “Wallace and Grommit: the curse of the were-rabbit” in 2005. All these wonderful titles recovered the popularity of stop motion lost from its era and re-educated the new generations.
Clearly both CGI and Stop motion can actually coexist. Have they? Well, then it would depends who you are asking. They are both very valuable sources to work with these days. The world has seen enough already to think so. Some will always argue that stop motion is extremely hard, time consuming and just not practical to be learned. While other being hard-core CGI consumers would rather be convinced nothing can beat CGI. But is this battle really making sense at this point? Perhaps, finding a common ground could lay the possibilities to bring even more innovation. Maybe there could be harmony between them. What if this could be tested?
Some companies such as SMODO accepted this challenge and tried to prove if this hypothesis could be validated. New recent software being developed feature the possibility of combining CGI and stop motion puppetry taken into a whole new experience. While this is still a brand new approach it seems promising. Instead of applying mixed-media as two different tools, they decide to take the concept in an entire new level. The software is meant to work for 3D animation (CGI-based) but at the same type to work simultaneously with a physical puppet.
Basically the software detects all coordinate of the physical puppet which is transfer into the computer. As confusing as it may seem, this is exactly what this is. On one side you have the puppet. The equipment would consist of 4 different cameras, one place in one particular angle of your workstation. While the puppet is on set, cameras will be scanning each coordination of where the puppet is performing. Next, all performance is transfer to the computer into the software which would create a CGI puppet out of it. In other words, all manual animation performed in your puppet is translated to an actual 3D-animation that you will eventually be seen on your computer screen. The down side of this project is that the software runs only as a plugin for 3DMax software. That means is very limited and the puppet you work with is quite generic. Still a big step, as far as experimentation, nonetheless.
This brings lots of questions. What exactly is this trying to tell us? How far are going from this? Are programming and craftsmanship working together or is one subverting the other? Only time shall tell. Little we know about the process of this until we see a solid approach. What we know this opens up a new chapter in animation. CGI seemed to be paving the way to stop motion all this long after all. Could this mark the end of a recurring competition between two paradigms of animation? More about this software is still under development and can be found in their official site. In my humble opinion, SMODO may be the pioneers of something ahead of its time.
It may be too soon to for a clearer answers and resolutions. Just like any race between unequal partners, we are left with a dilemma. A tortoise and a hare: Who would you expect to win? Who would you be bidding up for?
The truth is we all know the story, and history proves what fools we make of ourselves in a race against time. Have we not yet learned the lesson? Perhaps in a time overwhelmed by machines we forget what is more important than any race; imperfection. This same condition of reminding us who we are. Perhaps stop-motion in all its humble imperfection witnesses human struggles at their best; an accurate portrayal of unique results. Perhaps, like no other medium, stop motion is but a reflection that we are human creatures after all. We must, then, not deny but learn from the past and embrace its teachings. That is to say stop-motion legacy is not to be forgotten but learned from. Appreciate the beauty of it. You learn slowly. One frame at a time. No rush. Be patient. And you shall see.