There used to be a simple time when we lived with limited technology and so did film-makers. In a world which had not yet been introduced to computers, Animators would tediously draw and re-draw pictures several times with slight variations to show. Then a primitive camera-slider would be rolled fast enough so that 24 frames would pass in front of your eyes in a second, creating the illusion of motion. You may very well imagine how much time and effort you’d need to create a feature length film. Walt Disney’s 1937 feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was the first of its kind with a 41-minute story filled completely with hand-drawn animation. As industrious as it sounds, once you have showcased a certain bench-mark to your audience, their expectations would sore. Animators understood that they had to keep on improving their character movements so as to make them as natural as possible with the right light and shadows in their drawings that should change as their characters moved. This was easier said than done. Besides trying to precisely control character movements, now they had put in additional effort to ‘animate’ the movement of their shadows as well. My brain aches as I think of it.
As Animators started experimenting with the craft, new forms of animation entered the scene. Instead of confining themselves to hand-drawn techniques, they started using real-world objects. After all, you were working with a set of pictures at the end. If you could be a little more creative, you could actually make objects move on their own by changing their positions slightly each time and then running the photographs at a 24 fps frame-rate. This came to be called Stop-motion animation and became wildly popular in the 90s with shows like Wallace and Gromit, Shaun the Sheep and the lovable Pingu. Stop-motion solved a lot of the problems that hand-drawn animation posed. With real-world objects, you didn’t have to draw a character from scratch every time you had to show movement. You just worked with the tiny movements, centered around a detailed set that created the whole scene. And since, the props were all physical objects you could just had to set up the right illumination and voila, the shadows controlled themselves.
But why are we still talking about Stop-motion in 2018 ? With the combination of AI, high-end rendering software and motion-sensing techniques, the Animators of today are able to bring back living, breathing on-screen versions of actors who aren’t even alive anymore. If you didn’t know any better, you’d still think that Audrey Hepburn was still alive. Hear that ? That’s the sound of my heart breaking.
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Wes Anderson is one of the few mainstream directors today who almost regularly works with stop-motion techniques. His 2009 film Fantastic Mr. Fox, which was based on a 1970 novel by Roald Dahl, told the story of a suave anthropomorphized fox who stole food from farmers each night and was able to hoodwink them every time they came after him. Working with Stop-motion director Henry Sellick who also worked with him on Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Anderson brought his characteristic deadpan style into the narrative with each scene as cinematic as the last. If you have followed Anderson closely, you’d know that he designs his sets meticulously with over-saturated colours and not a hair out-of-place so that he can have a sequence precisely as he sees it in his head. It is no wonder that his films, like The Grand Budapest Hotel, are such a treat for the eyes with vibrant sets, surreal atmosphere and weird interactions.
Anderson’s cleverly titled Isle of Dogs, which phonetically translates to “I love dogs”, is set in Japan where the government gets rid of all of its dogs citing the reason that a certain virus had afflicted them and they had to be quarantined far away from human habitation. However, as the life of the dogs is shown on the island, you realize that the symptoms they had been exhibiting are normal for any dog. They had simply been cast away due to the preferences of the incumbent government. Anderson takes a subtle jibe at governments who strive to alienate people from their communities for political reasons and medieval biases. With the film, he returns to old-school stop-motion animation story-telling with the dogs that have been anthropomorphized this time. The sets are resplendent with astonishing attention to detail with a deeply integrated Japanese influence.
Wes Anderson on his animated films:
“I really got interested in Japanese animation in the time before I did ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox,’” Anderson said. “It wasn’t like I was a huge animation guy. This one, there are two directors who are our inspirations: Kurosawa and Miyazaki.”
“[Miyazaki] brings the detail and also the silences I think,” he continued. “With Miyazaki you get nature and you get moments of peace, a kind of rhythm that is not in the American animation tradition so much. That inspired us quite a lot. There were times when I worked with [composer] Alexandre Desplat on the score and we found many places where we had to pull back from what we were doing musically because the movie wanted to be quiet. That came from Miyazaki.”
Stop-motion animation, today, may sound dated as a story-telling device. But purists like Anderson who are fixated not just on the story but also on the details of how it is to be showcased, Stop-motion becomes an art-form that allows them to do just that. And this art-form is not just some niche conversation-starter at some intellectual gathering. It is powerful enough to be mentioned in the same breath as mainstream live-action cinema. Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s stop-motion feature film Anomalisa (2015) has the Best Animated Feature Film Oscar and Golden Globe to its name. Travis Knight’s Kubo and The Two Strings (2016) also got Academy nods for Best Animated Feature Film and Best Visual Effects. Stop-motion not just exists but is thriving under talented film-makers who refuse to bend down to the all-encompassing CGI.
“The creation of a single world comes from a huge number of fragments…and chaos.” – Hayao Miyazaki