The Return of Stop-Motion Animation

In Featured, Industry Insights, Katherine Sanderson by Amanda Valdovinos

How Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs May Have Inspired Recent Oscar Winners to Revitalize A Niche Industry

– By Katherine Sanderson –

With the failure of Early Man at the box office last month, it would seem the future of stop-motion animation was bleak. If Aardman Animations, the original stop-motion pioneering studio, with star power like Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, and Maisie Williams, can’t make it work, then who can? But it seems that Wes Anderson and his upcoming film Isle of Dogs may have done it right, and his efforts may be inspiring major players in Hollywood, such as recent Oscar winners Guillermo del Toro and Jordan Peele, to embrace the medium once again.

Often called ‘stop-frame animation’ or ‘claymation’, the process of stop-motion animation involves creating puppets made from modeling clay, and then photographing each individual frame, making tiny movements of the characters limbs and facial expressions between each frame. Then when the images are played back the characters appear to be moving. From the turn of the 20th century to the 1980s, stop-motion was a preferred method of the VFX community. But since the advent and success of computer generated animation in the past two decades, stop-motion has become a niche industry.

Anderson’s first stop-motion animated feature Fantastic Mr Fox when released in 2009 was met with critical success, even garnering Anderson his first nomination for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars. And now it seems that Isle of Dogs, which has already made history as the first animated film to open the prestigious Berlin Film Festival, and winning Anderson the Silver Bear for directing, may be an even bigger success. The cast alone is reason for critics and audiences to be excited. Isle of Dogs boasts a cast including four Oscar winners: Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham, and Fisher Stevens; and seven Oscar nominees: Greta Gerwig, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Bryan Cranston,and Bob Balaban (not to mention Scarlett Johansson, Liev Schreiber, and Ken Watanabe, as well as Courtney B Vance as the narrator).

But Isle of Dogs seems to only be the beginning. Within the last week, big announcements by high-profile individuals point to a trend possibly overtaking the film industry.

Just last week Jordan Peele, who recently won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for his debut feature Get Out, officially confirmed that he will be a co-writer, producer, and lead voice actor for a stop-motion animated film called Wendel and Wild. He will star opposite his Key and Peele co-star Keegan Michael Key. The new film is to be directed by Henry Selick, who also conceived the story. Selick is most well-known for directing The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline, and James and the Giant Peach. Netflix will be releasing the film, but this may actually be the studio’s second stop-motion animated feature. A year ago they signed on to distribute Bubbles, a stop-motion film about Michael Jackson’s pet chimp, but the project is still in development.

But the excitement doesn’t stop there! Guillermo del Toro, whose critically-acclaimed Shape of Water took home both Best Picture and Best Director awards at the Oscars this year, also announced last week that he will be producing a Spanish-language stop-motion feature by an upincoming Mexican director, Karla Castañeda. Castañeda is part of the thriving stop-motion community in Guadalajara, Mexico (the hometown of both herself and Guillermo del Toro). Her film has yet to announce a title. Admittedly, Guillermo del Toro is not a new convert to stop-motion animation, as it has long been one of his loves. He had been developing his own stop-motion animation project for years: a feature based on the classic tale Pinocchio. While it appears that his own project is no longer going forward, he seems to still be an avid supporter of the animation community.

And with Mexico having such a thriving animation industry, it makes sense that Mexican filmmakers are showing more interest in stop-motion. In January, production began on Inzomnia, the first Mexican stop-motion feature. Expected in 2020, the film revolves around a 10 year-old girl and her quest to save her parents and city from an insomnia pill, used by greedy businessmen to keep everyone constantly working. With puppets being created in Poland, and key animators being brought it from Poland, Brazil, Spain, Chile, and Argentina, the production is really more of an international production.

Early buzz around Anderson’s Isle of Dogs may be a big contributor to these recent Oscar winners and international filmmakers jumping at a chance to be involved in such an intricate and artistically-involved branch of animation. But in recent years, there has also been a reestablishment of the craft as high art. In 2016, stop-motion feature Kubo and the Two Strings was distributed by Focus Features, and was nominated for the two Academy Awards: Best Animated Feature and Best Visual Effects. Laika Studios, the Portland-based stop-motion studio behind Kubo and the Two Strings, as well as recent successes like Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls, has been trying to remaining relevant by implementing CGI digital technology in conjunction with its traditional methods. Laika CEO Travis Knight said in an interview with The Verge “When we started Laika 10 years ago, we could see the writing on the wall. Stop-motion animation was basically taking its last, dying breath. We had to come up with a way, if we wanted to continue to make a living in this medium that we loved, to bring it into a new era, to invigorate it.”

The question remains whether these new projects will be able to top Anderson’s latest venture. Beginning production in October 2016, 27 animators and 10 assistants spent nine months in production (as well as a year prior in pre-production) physically creating Anderson’s Japanese-inspired vision. The story follows a 12 year-old Japanese boy named Atari, in the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki, who goes on a quest to find his dog after all the canines are exiled to Trash Island, and meets many new canine friends on the way. At a running time of 1 hour and 41 minutes, it is the longest stop-motion feature ever created (beating Coraline by one minute!)

Just last week, Anderson released a behind-the-scenes interview, where he and his crew detailed some of the struggles they had with making his new film. In the short clip on EW, Anderson begins by saying “When you’re working with puppets, like these dogs, it takes a lot of experience to really know how to bring a face to life.” Mark Waring, the animation director of the film, builds on that point saying “We’re trying to get performances out of these lumps of metal and rubber and silicon…they’re inanimate objects but we have to bring life to them.” For the film, the dialogue was recorded before production, and then the animators worked off of the actors’ performances. While the dogs’ mouths were physically manipulated for each shot, for each of the human characters, artists have to create different faces for each character… for each syllable pronounced!

This past year, while I was interning at the iconic Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, I had the opportunity to observe a similar process. I watched 60+ brilliant artists, over the course of seven months, create 100+ physical puppets and costumes that will be used in Netflix’s upcoming prequel miniseries Dark Crystal: The Age of Rebellion (2019). From that experience, I can attest to what a painstaking process it takes to create physical puppets, but also to the extra dimension a puppet can bring to a character’s performance. In seeing that real material illuminated by real light on screen, there is something incredibly satisfying in that for viewers.

But that being said, there is good reason why stop-motion animation is not often undertaken by directors: it combines the challenges of live action with the challenges of animation. Unlike traditional animation, where an artist has no limits to what they can create on their computer or paper, stop-motion actually needs to be realized in a physical location, requiring you to build each of the characters, make costumes, build sets, and light every shot. And you’re still bound by the limitations of what you can do within your space. Additionally, unlike traditional live-action, you are not recording motion in real time, but instead you are shooting stills that represent a fraction of a second. Work that might take a few minutes to capture on a live-action set can take up weeks of production on a stop-motion project. And all of this only increases a production budget.

Although practical effects such as stop-motion animation and puppetry have many drawbacks, the polished, finished product that audiences will love is what filmmakers strive for. While stop-motion animation and puppetry have been pushed aside since the VFX and CG animation revolution, I think that with the right directors, artists, story (and most importantly financiers!) there could be a serious revitalization of the stop-motion industry. Audiences are becoming VFX-exhausted, and want something different. What will be key with future stop-motion animated films will be the artistry put in, and creating a story which will appeal to all types of audiences. Where Charlie Kaufman’s 2015 R-rated Anomalisa failed was in that it catered to only adult audiences (and a certain type of adult at that!) Meanwhile, Aardman Animations’ Early Man this year, with its light-hearted comedy and silly banter, very much relied on just children/family audiences. The key to success for future stop-motion animation will be creating memorable characters and worlds with universal themes that any audience can be entertained by.

Look for Isle of Dogs in theaters this Friday March 23rd.

About the Author

Katherine Sanderson is a graduate of the MBA Film Producing program (Class of 2016).