The Stop-Motion Renaissance: Where Quirk Is Embraced
A miniature cinematic revolution at 24 frames per second.
For aficionados of stop-motion animation, 2012 has been an exceptional year -- Aardman's The Pirates! Band of Misfits and Laika's ParaNorman were unveiled earlier, and Toys in the Attic, Czech filmmaker Jiří Barta's take on walking/talking playthings, just received a limited American release. Meanwhile, Tim Burton's feature-length version of Frankenweenie will hit theaters in October, with Disney even giving the resurrected-dog tale an IMAX 3D release.
So what's with the stop-motion boom? Well, it all goes back to Burton's first feature foray into the form -- 1993's The Nightmare Before Christmas. Prior to this groundbreaking and incredibly macabre film, stop-motion was largely synonymous with Rankin/Bass holiday productions such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Burton, revealing a clear reverence for those shows while working with then-untested movie director Henry Selick, brought cinematic esteem to the animation style, setting the stage -- quite literally -- for more thoughtful, fun, and gleefully strange projects.
Since Nightmare, Burton and/or Selick have had their hands in numerous exceptional stop-motion features, including the partially live-action Roald Dahl adaptation James and the Giant Peach, as well as Corpse Bride and Coraline. Selick was even slated to work on Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox (another Dahl story), but left to helm the latter movie, a fascinatingly creepy take on Neil Gaiman's dark fantasy novel.
Of course, Burton and Selick aren't the only prominent miniature-modeling-moving filmmakers out there -- in 2000, England's Aardman Animations, creators of the beloved Wallace & Gromit and Creature Comforts shorts, unveiled their first feature, Chicken Run, to massive international acclaim and success, with Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit following in 2005.
What all of these aforementioned movies have in common is the carefully crafted tactile aesthetic of adjusting intricate figurines in a painstakingly slow production process. When it can require days just to get the shortest of sequences filmed, it leaves little room for narrative filler, essentially forcing the artists to pinpoint what resonates most in these tales, which are inevitably calibrated to feature highly stylized standout visuals.
Of course, another reason that stop-motion films have thrived is surprisingly simple -- they're cheap. Approximate budgets for Fantastic Mr. Fox and Coraline were $40 and $60 million, respectively, while Pixar's Up, another 2009 release, cost around $175 million. While it can be a greater-risk/greater-reward scenario with big budgets, sometimes studios just want movies that are likely to perform solidly, even if they feature tailless foxes and people with buttons sewn on their eyes.
As Rudolph sang with his aspiring-dentist elf buddy, "We're a couple of misfits." Stop-motion animation is the medium where odd characters and quirky details don't get cut; they get embraced. Expect to see more weird and wondrous stop-motion films ambling into theaters soon.
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