Charles Solomon is an animation historian and critic for Airtalk's Filmweek and Off-Ramp.
Six of the top 20 movies of the year so far are animated films, all of them CG. But as you can see in two new movies, we’re also in a golden age for stop-motion animation.
In "The Little Prince," which opened last weekend, the director uses CG animation to tell a pedestrian new story that’s a framing device for the classic novella, which is told with stop-motion animation.
The stop-motion artists evoke the poetry of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s drawings, using figures that suggest paper sculptures. Saint-Exupery was not a trained artist, but his minimal figures read clearly. Likewise, the simple features, delicate hands, and round eyes of the puppets telegraph their thoughts, but don't distract the viewer with unnecessary detail.
In "Kubo and the Two Strings," which opens next weekend, the title character is a street musician who tells tales of heroic warriors. As he accompanies himself on the samisen, origami figures fly through the air, performing the actions he describes. The visuals feel new and fresh and exciting.
Stop-motion used to be a not terribly exciting form of animation, used primarily for special effects in Ray Harryhausen monster movies and for TV shows like "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Animating stop-motion puppets is so tricky and time-consuming, the directors concentrated on those movements and locked down the camera, producing films that were visually uninteresting.
Then in 1993, Tim Burton’s "Nightmare Before Christmas" introduced a new kind of filmmaking. When Jack Skellington lay in the arms of a graveyard angel singing, “What have I done?” while the camera slowly circled him, audiences gasped in amazement. They had never seen anything like it because there had never been anything like it. Burton and director Henry Sellick proved that a stop-motion film could have cinematography as fluid and expressive as the best live action. Burton took the cinematography, animation, and acting even further in the underrated "Corpse Bride" in 2005.
Aardman Animations founders Peter Lord and David Sproxton had pushed the boundaries of what animated Plasticene figures could do in award-winning films like "Babylon" during the 80s. But it was Nick Park’s Oscar-winners "The Wrong Trousers" and "A Close Shave" that proved clay animation could be as expressive as the best drawn animation or CG. When Gromit looked up from his knitting at the hilariously sinister Penguin, audiences believed the little clay figure was thinking. Wallace and Gromit were as alive as any actor in a Hollywood film.
But I think the more polished animation and cinematography--and the new technologies that are producing better puppets and camera rigs — are only part of the story.
The popularity of stop-motion is also a reaction to the perfection of CG, which tends to produce geometrical precision. Any flaws or imperfections, like the smudges on Russell’s face in "Up," have to be added. But stop-motion, like drawn animation, relies more on the artists’ instincts and less on math. Imperfections and illogic are built into it.
I remember Nick Park studying a still from "Wrong Trousers" and saying, “That’s my scene: you can see my thumbprint on Wallace’s neck.”
In a world where everyone walks around staring at their phones, an occasional thumb print is a welcome reminder of our shared — imperfect — humanity.