In a year in which the film industry was still in disruption because of the formidable powers of digital streaming, stop-motion animation — maybe the most analog of all styles of filmmaking — has had a peak year, with three features vying for awards and shorts introducing powerful new talents. It definitely hasn’t always been like this, but several stop-motion helmers hope the trend continues.
The stop-motion films “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,” “Wendell & Wild,” and “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” were all released in 2022, which is rare since the techniques used to make stop motion can be incredibly detailed and often require dozens of artists to be shooting scenes for the film if it’s ever to be completed in a reasonable amount of time. Add to that the need for, among others, hundreds of replacement faces for the various puppets, clothing made of fabric scaled down for the puppets and a production schedule that needs to be carefully monitored to track such things as where each puppet goes on any given day, and you can see what can make working in stop motion so perilous. Still, it’s the imperfections of the puppets and their movements created by hand that make it so thrilling for
“I had a friend who used to say to me that all films were started as a conspiracy of optimism,” says Mark Gustafson, co-helmer of “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,” for Netflix. “That’s certainly true of stop motion. I think there is a renaissance of stop motion and I hope there is. It’s a technique that’s relatively straightforward. You can do it very simply and quite quickly. You can get camera and an object to shoot and you can add on the degree of difficulty. The tools like Dragonframe [the industry standard stop-motion animation software] are available to everyone.”
While audiences adopted streaming, especially during the pandemic, some forms of entertainment were completely upended. This wasn’t necessarily so for animation or auteurs. As audiences burned through content during lockdowns, they also searched for new shows and stylistic approaches to storytelling.
“I think it’s because of streaming that the opportunity to take chances became a little greater,” says Henry Selick, helmer of Netflix’s “Wendell & Wild.” “And it’s hard to know if the renaissance will continue or last. Ultimately, it’s how successful the stop-motion films are considered to be, but there’s always a risk. It’s the patience and the time it takes to make them and sometimes executives are worried they’ll lose their jobs before the film is finished, which actually happens a lot. With streaming you have more competing places needing good product. I think interest [in stop motion] has been revived.”
Adds Julie Lockhart, co-founder and president of production of Locksmith Animation: “[Streaming] has encouraged experimentation and making more content and then it hasn’t been so dependent on that opening weekend. So there’s more freedom and there’s more opportunity to show work and more of a platform. People also know now that you can continue to work during down times like COVID and that you don’t all have to be in the same place.”
Del Toro, whose stop motion “Pinocchio” combines face replacement and mechanical manipulation of puppets, thinks the hand-crafted nature of the medium plays to some very human cravings.
“It’s almost like the need for something tactile is coming back,” says del Toro, who started his career in stop motion. “The digital cinema went as far as possible and now we want something analog, beautiful, that is moving in its artistry. I hope that it is coming back. We don’t know. But every time stop motion wanes, somebody comes in and picks it up, whether it is Ray Harryhausen or Laika or Phil Tippett with all his work, you never know, but there’s always somebody who takes the torch. We are all pushing the medium as much as possible.”
Though the first documented stop-motion film is widely credited as 1898’s “The Humpty Dumpty Circus,” by J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith, most audiences were likely exposed to stop motion through Harryhausen’s battling skeletons in “Jason and the Argonauts,” the dancing raisins in the California Raisin commercials or “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” depending on the age of the viewer. Over time, incredibly subtle and sophisticated techniques have made their way into stop motion and created new opportunities for filmmakers.
Helmer Dean Fleischer-Camp couldn’t have imagined telling the story of “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” any other way than stop motion. As the story that began as a short film experiment grew into a feature, the filmmaker found many tools for stop motion had become accessible.
“Stop motion is such an old craft and so much has stayed the same for so long,” says Fleischer-Camp. “For whatever reason it has been one of the last things to get disrupted and reconsidered in the digital age of special effects and VFX. Having really easy, low-lift access to things like rig removal and things that make the process easier, but also increasing all kinds of opportunities and applications for stop motion, has been unprecedented. So doing ‘Marcel,’ we did all kinds of research and figured stuff out. I think it is an indicator of what’s to come and I hope it is part of a new revolution in stop motion.”
Stop motion is often the ideal choice for quirky, unconventional and unusual stories that filmmakers want to tell. The deliberately unpolished or uneven movements of the puppets can become a way for a helmer to tell deeply personal stories. And these stories can have a more challenging time finding their audience.
“It’s a bit of a roller coaster in terms of audience appeal,” says Alexander Bulkley, co-founder of ShadowMachine, an animation studio. “It’s when one of those projects really hit that people start to love it again and pay attention. But then, of course, it takes years to get it done.”
Producers Ellen Goldsmith-Vein (“Wendell & Wild”) and Arianne Sutner (“Missing Link”) are both hopeful stop motion will continue to grow as a medium as audiences become more interested in the films and have more access to them through streaming. Both have spent decades working with filmmakers dedicated to making stop-motion films.
“I think these movies will look great 10 years later, 15 years later, even 25 years later,” says Sutner, who is at work on helmer Travis Knight’s latest film. “I think there’s a longing to see something with the human touch on screen and these are certain kinds of artists who really want to do that kind of art.”
Goldsmith-Vein believes the small group of stop-motion filmmakers who’ve made great films will continue creating great work, but the medium could benefit from more creatives coming into the community to do new work. She hopes film students will also become more familiar with stop-motion techniques.
“The tough part is that there are fewer stop-motion animation filmmakers, which makes it a bit trickier,” says Goldsmith-Vein. “But I’m excited that there are so many stop-motion animated film projects because that means there will be more opportunity in the future to produce more stop-motion films and television series. It’s really a great time to be in this space.”
But the filmmakers in the space, including Juan Pablo Zaramella whose “Pasajero” made the Oscar shortlist, and Spencer Susser, whose “Save Ralph” is also on the list, are being embraced, and bodes well for the future as software and other tools make stop motion more accessible.
“I think these things go in cycles,” says Corey Campodonico, co-founder of ShadowMachine. “We all went through the early 1990s and the 2000s where CG was so dominant and fresh and new. I think we’re heading into a golden age of stop motion where that same kind of movement can build.”