Far from Disney: stop-motion and alternative animation

The school year’s now fully started, so I’ll probably be posting a little less than before. But while I still have the time, there are a few topics I want to get into. First: regarding my last post about TV, I should reiterate that I’m by no means qualified to expound on television history, theory, or criticism. On that front, I’m about as well-educated as the next person – after all, as I say, I haven’t watched much TV in years. And there are several very major television shows I’ve never watched. So take my opinions with a grain of delicious, yummy salt.

That said, I now want to expound on a field where I do feel qualified: film history. Because, while doing some brief research, I discovered a website that I’d classify as an atrocity, a crime against knowledge. It’s moviebuffs.com, and man, is it bad. I don’t claim that I’m so much smarter than anybody else, but after reading this… I almost have to come to that conclusion. The authors mangle every possible fact, event, or period of history, misinterpret what they do get right, and frame it all amidst gruesome errors of spelling and grammar. It’s a terrible, terrible website, and I sent them an email letting them know (will I get a response? Who knows!). This experience – poring over the godawful, inaccurate prose that fills their site – reminded me of a simple fact: it’s easy to write poorly and not fact-check; it’s hard to actually be informed and say something. Am I doing the latter? I leave that up to anyone who visits or comments on this blog.

In any case, if you visited moviebuffs.com, feel free to drop them a line critiquing their work, but whatever you do, don’t use it as a resource. The mistakes on every level are endless; take for example, “In the nineties and beyond, the Japanese adapted the cartoon style and modified them to fit within their movie culture of war and violence,” which betrays a deep ignorance of Japan, its cinema, anime, and really chronological history in general. Or broad, false generalizations like, “unlike other genres such as Westerns or comedies [horror movies] never go out of style.” After reading through the website, I felt like I’d just poisoned my own brain and needed to read some Pauline Kael as an antidote immediately. It’s just impressive how brash and pointed human stupidity can be.

However, my main point today was not to point out stupidity, but to talk about art. Thank God for art. It can be the remedy for the stupidity and hate of the world. Recently, I’ve been thinking about unconventional forms of animation, partially spurred on by watching Peter Cornwell’s fascinating claymation short “Ward 13.” The methods of creation are just so varied and beautiful, and this applies to every medium – it’s so great to have infinite options in what you want to create, and how to create it. So it is with animation: we have Lotte Reiniger, Jan Švankmajer, and Charley Bowers, just to give three random examples of animators who worked outside the conventions of the art form. After all, where’s the rule that says you have to stick by what most people would term normal animation? Granted, when Reiniger and Bowers were working (1920s Germany and America respectively), as I understand it, there wasn’t really enough of a consensus or history to determine what mainstream animation even was, but my point is that they created some unusual, original works according to their own personal aesthetics and styles.

Švankmajer's perversely symbolic short film Jídlo (Food)

I’m not sure, yet, where my discussion of animation is going. Maybe I could put forward an argument involving, oh, the hegemonic domination of the art form, the industry, and the standards of animation by Disney, and the unique abilities of independent or alternative animators to undermine that domination, and the beautiful art they’ve managed to produce? I mean, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that since, oh, the ’20s-’30s, between Steamboat Willie (pioneering in sound), Flowers and Trees (color), and Snow White (length), the name Disney had cast a mouse-shaped shadow over the whole of animation, even if these cartoons weren’t the first to capitalize on their respective innovations. Everyone knows Disney now – as I’ve touched on before, in terms of recognition, it’s easily among the top brands in the world – but honestly, what level of brand recognition do the Fleischer Bros. get?

Compared to the often-bland adventures of Mickey, Goofy, & co., I easily prefer the Fleischers’ early ’30s cartoons, between the sexy (though eventually cooled down) Betty Boop; the absurd, cantankerous Popeye; and the visually impressive Superman cartoons that paved the way for decades of superhero cartoons – not to mention their 1939 feature Gulliver’s Travels. And the Fleischers are just two of out countless artists and innovators who’ve been overlooked because of the thousand-year Disney reich. Some traditional animators from the past 30-40 or so years who I like to plug include Ralph Bakshi (Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic), Don Bluth (The Secret of NIMH, All Dogs Go to Heaven), and Martin Rosen (Watership Down, The Plague Dogs). All three merit way further discussion – especially Bakshi, who I have a penchant for – but my point is that their work is decidedly non-Disney and they all differ in important ways from the norm that Disney has established, in terms of subject matter, approach, drawing style, etc.

Now I come to the topic I intended to write this blog about: claymation. Far from the Magic Kingdom’s benign, well-crafted world of anthropomorphic animals living out their rehashes of folk tales and public domain literature, we have this mode of creation whose end results invariably turn out, well, weird. Unusual. There really isn’t another way to replicate the very physical, transformational feel of claymation. As a very random example, I give you an episode of Gumby entitled “In the Dough.”

Even from the presentation of the opening title (“A Gumby Adventure”), we see Gumby and Davey & Goliath creator – and claymation auteur – Art Clokey exploiting the unique, iconic aspects of the form. The words spring from a ball of clay (recalling the words of the Gumby theme song, sadly absent here: “He once was a little green slab of clay”), illustrating the basic concept of clay jumping into life and order from an entropic dormancy. This leads to a fairly typical plot wherein Gumby inadvertently gets into mischief while Pokey looks on disapprovingly; however, in this episode, the mischief is of a terrifyingly surreal nature. Now, stop-motion doesn’t look like real motion. Švankmajer knew this when he made Food. And Art Clokey certainly knew this, as we see Gumby and Pokey waddling around their dollhouse-realistic kitchen, and as we see Gumby’s arms and legs stretch out to reach the top of his industrial-sized oven. Gumby is almost a kind of meta-claymation – even though the characters don’t really talk about it, they’re by nature, well, made out of clay. Gumby is big and green and weirdly-shaped, and I think I can say that the series couldn’t really have been made by any other technique and had the same effects.

I picked this particular episode, of course, because it features the kind of ultra-weird fantasy sequence that fits perfectly with claymation’s usual crude, off-kilter look, plus advancing rows of malicious pastry soldiers. But Clokey’s vision for claymation, as realized in Gumby, is only one. I want to highlight a few other masters of the craft: first in my mind is Nick Park of England’s Aardman Studios, creator of the much-beloved Wallace & Gromit. One fact to keep in mind is that while hand-drawn animation is grueling, time-consuming, and difficult labor, claymation multiplies this problem. Hence why there’s not as huge a selection of feature-length claymation films as for animated, and not as many animated as live action; short films are just an easier, more natural outlet for animated art.

So, for example, Wallace & Gromit were the subject of 3 great, lovable, witty half-hour shorts before making the leap to feature-length film. It wasn’t until 1995 that Gumby starred in a very weird, mediocre feature-length film. For similar reasons, Henry Selick has produced only about 4 movies in 16 years – however, those have included The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline. And so, along these lines, could Nightmare have been anywhere near as appealing and endearing without the intense labor of stop-motion animation? This gets down to a question of what one medium can express and others can’t. You can tell many, many stories in many ways via traditional animation. But you could not tell The Nightmare Before Christmas the way Henry Selick told it, which I’d argue is the best way it could’ve been told. Consider: the desolation tempered by seasonal charm that mark the film’s landscapes; the horrors of childhood incarnated into Halloweentown’s residents (“I am the call in the wind, ‘Who’s there?’…”); the quick changes from deviance to mirth on Jack’s cavernous face. The use of stop-motion-animated physical objects (also reminiscent of the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials) is appropriate to each of these facets of the film.

Nightmare's patchwork lovers against one the film's layered, haunted backdrops

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that claymation/stop-motion is another one of the tools of which artists can avail themselves. It requires, in some ways, more perseverance and effort, but it’s capable of realizing imagery and specatcles that neither live action nor traditional animation can quite capture. Try to imagine the “Mysterious Stranger” segment from Will Vinton’s The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985) any other way – how could you show the temporariness and insignificance of Satan’s tiny, rudimentary creations? How else could you show the uncanny, constantly-in-flux dark angel himself? These hard-to-tame qualities of claymation make it an all the more powerful method of creating art. I’d like to go into this in more depth in the future, but for now I’ll say that I suspect stop-motion’s full potential has not yet been reached, and leave you with some more samples of stop-motion in action.

It’s a Bird (Charley Bowers, 1930)

Moral Orel, “Numb” (Dino Stamatopoulos, 2008)

Celebrity Deathmatch, “Deathbowl ’99” (Eric Fogel, 1999)

1 Comment

Filed under art, Cinema, Media

One response to “Far from Disney: stop-motion and alternative animation

  1. Pingback: RIP Art Clokey « Pussy Goes Grrr

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