Animation blog 1: Intro to magic

Stop Motion Animation is a form of filmmaking in which an animator takes a string of photos while at the same time making a series of micromovements to a puppet to create the impression of movement. The idea of creating the illusion of life using an inanimate object is an interesting idea. The puppet can be made of clay, silicone or any malleable material and when animated can mimic movements of real things while adopting its own artistic style to great effect. Adding a narrative to this movement is the final ingredient in forming a great animation. The way in which characters interact using body language and the physical dimensions often communicate far more clearly the intention of the footage than any other visual medium. From my perspective crafting a character is the most fun aspect in this process. As you construct this character you understand how it should move, interact and sound like as well as how the surroundings should be built to compliment it’s aesthetic.

Fortunately this artform has not been discarded by the meteoric rise of computer generated animation and remains a profitable and respected form of film making embodied by two particular organizations which I believe everyone should appreciate – Laika and Aardman. The older of the two (Aardman) followed the craftwork of animation giants such as those who worked on the original Star Wars trilogy as well as The Lost World with a series of short films beginning in 1972. Since then it has won critical acclaim winning five oscars and multiple other awards. This studio perfected and explored the reaches of this new artform creating new models with definitive styles and a rostra of new techniques to create smooth and visually imaginative animation. From the tabletops of the company’s two founders Aardman has grown to become a major, world class studio. It’s team expanded over time to set designers, puppet makers, animators, directors, editors, fabricators – the list goes on. The point is that this company proved to the world and itself that stop motion animation was unlike any other artform, the real puppets and physicality of the scenes have tried to be mimicked time and again by cgi studios but the aesthetic appearance and ability to create intelligent and meaningful movement remains unmatched. All of this laid the groundwork for animation’s next generation of film makers in the form of Laika.

Laika grew and evolved from foundation laid by Aardman. Hiring a small team, using printed silicone, paying more acute attention to texture and style both in the characters created and the sets designed helped to announce this small company to the world. This took the form of The Corpse Bride – a dark tale directed craftily by Tim Burton. This film used exaggerated body types, acutely detailed suits and an environment that had a heightened sense of style to distinguish itself from it’s competitors. On the shoulders of this achievement Laika began to recognise it’s very original style to film making declaring Laika it’s own type of animation and deservedly so. In it’s next feature Coraline the company took complete creative control hiring it’s own director and creating a series of new worlds to explore. This film began to explore more philosophical territory and took it’s puppet design to a new area using thinner characters with creepier grins and more range in their expressiveness. At this point the company had not found it’s niche as it experimented with different character designs to find a facial and figure configuration that they could reapply to each character. This came in the form of their next feature film Paranorman which in my eyes was a massive leap forward. For this film a whole two was constructed down to the blades of grass beneath the characters feet using an original aesthetic that captured the eye and achieved what many comics attempt by creating characters in a style that is appealing and relatable. The complex self-written storyline as well as this new style resulted in a film that was charming, satirical, intelligent and moral while at the same time achieving a bubbly and expressive set of characters. The most recent two films extended this style from the reaches of an isolated town run by cheese lovers and troll hunters to the sprawling and beast inhabited mythical land of Japan. Both films taught important morals, and had visuals unseen in any medium before it becoming more and more ambitious. Unlike every other artform Stop Motion keeps on reinventing itself and exploring new territory  with great leaps and strides.

Everything down to the fabrics used and the freckles painted require a lot of effort and helps to create a community of creative collaborators. Detail and expertise are priorities in this filmmaking process. I would recommend to anyone to create even the most simple of animation. The kick of seeing your characters being brought to life is incredible. Unlike any other form of filmmaking Stop Motion Animation is organic and democratic – anyone can access it with a minimal budget – it comes down to three crucial factors – time, effort and the refinement of skill.

My interest in this artform arrived at an early age as I was captivated by the likes of Wallace and Gromit: A Grand Day Out. Something about the far fetched ideas, the humour and a series of models that had character even before movement instantly drew me to this. In particular, it was the character of Gromit, a character people sympathise with, laugh at and question without saying a word. All emotion expressed through this character is done with his expressive brow and wide, open eyes in such a way that words cannot deliver. As animation grew from characters to sets, to new techniques and to new companies I realised the breadth of potential and found a deep appreciation for something that is akin to magic. It is like breathing life into a character of your choice and in doing so expressing a physical manifestation of your inner thoughts in a way that is simultaneously creative and demanding.

In recent years, Stop Motion Animation has been overtaken in popularity by the likes of Pixar and Disney in the form of Computer Generated animation. In my opinion CGI cannot compare to stop-motion animation as it cannot convincingly imitate life or convey a real physical environment. SMA requires significantly more effort and the results are more exciting and engaging. Where I feel CGI falls down most is it;s appearance to be a vehicle for a storyline told in a slightly different medium. On the other hand, the real and convincing physics of movement in SMA alongside it’s more striking visual potential mean that it cuts itself from traditional film-making and engages the appreciation of audiences as they observe this more collaborative of processes. Furthermore, CGI misses out on one key component – the human element. When individuals construct a narrative in an environment such as Laika or Aardman ideas are built upon and the compartmentalization of each stage in the process mean that a collective and relatable message is related. Although the process of SMA has far more restriction and is not able to mirror the realism of CGI ocean or long flowing hair the natural lighting and real materials bring the energy closer to the audience while the bright colours and artificiality of the frames in CGI distract. Lastly, and from a filmmaker’s point of view, the collaboration of talented artists over a long period of time results in the production of more soulful and impressive displays (Why else would the lego movie franchise imitate the life like jerkiness of SMA).

At an early age I decided that I wanted to create my own animation. I started with small lego animations with comic dialogue, over the top violence and worked on perfecting a smoothness and coherence. After discovering clay I progressed to creating painstakingly crafted characters as similar to those of Aardman as I could get thrown into unusual dilemmas but failed to create convincing movement in this new medium. I progressed to creating miniature skeletons known as armatures to create convincing movement and focused more on the interaction of characters. Most recently however I have focused on creating a series of short tests in which I experimented with lip syncs, refining my modeling and sculpting as well as using rigs to make characters move, jump and walk with a new level of realism. After years of testing and many hours spent I sent an application for Trainee animator at Aardman animation studios for their next feature film – Early Man. With 300 professionally trained applicants I was unable to get the job. Fortunately I have been invited to volunteer over the course of a week and a half at their studios. This means that I will be working alongside people who love this craft equally and will help to explore a new territory of film making.

This is my first blog about animation as well as my first non-review post. I hope that you enjoyed reading this and found it informative. Future non-review posts will examine the techniques behind film-making – everything from script-writing, to directing style and to cinematography. Much of what I write about will be advice to the hollywood industry on how it can create better films while other posts will focus on things I am not yet knowledgeable about.

ANIMATION BLOG 1: INTRO TO MAGIC

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