Stop-motion animation is an underappreciated art form

Emma Wise, artist

The animation industry is constantly utilized but often overlooked and not regarded as a proper art form. Because animation is usually associated with children’s entertainment its artistry is often disregarded for just that, children’s entertainment, which is simply not the extent of what animation is. And that’s not to say children’s entertainment media can’t be a high art form either, is It is hard for some people to accept that wholesome and/or animated media doesn’t have to be made for/enjoyed by only kids, and it is difficult to realize what a grueling and genuine medium it is to create a story with. This past year has released many great animated films but none are as incredible as the stop-motion features. Stop-motion animation is a wildly versatile form of storytelling that bridges the rocky gap between “children’s animation” and “adult animation” in very clever and entertaining ways through fascinating productions from Ray Harryhausen to Rudolf the rednosed reindeer. This last year in film alone has shown us just how malleable the stop-motion medium is especially to create stories of raw heart and horror.

Wendell and Wild

“Wendell and Wild” is the incredible collaboration of Director Henry Selick (Coraline & The Nightmare Before Christmas) and writer/actor Jordan Peele (comedian, writer, director) that harmoniously showcases both of their immense talents. The film is about a teenage girl who was orphaned at a young age and has started going to a new school in her crumbling childhood hometown as two demon brothers, Wendell and Wild, urge her to summon them to the mortal plane so they can carry out their own nefariously wacky plans. The story also directly coincides with a plot about the dangers of capitalist control, prison reform, and targeted attacks on children from low-income areas. The film deals with these heavy issues, and at the heart of it all are the themes of grief and anger, Peele says the film is about “conquering your personal demon as much as learning how to wear your fears”.

Many elements of this film make it extremely special, one being its diversity in the cast and characters, featuring a punk-rock black girl as its protagonist and her new friend who is openly transgender. Another is that “Wendell and Wild” is the first animated movie to be produced by Jordan Peele’s founded company “Monkeypaw Productions”, only ten years old, Monkeypaw is known for fueling Peele’s other masterpieces such as Get Out, Nope, and Us. The company describes itself best, as cultivating “artistic, thought-provoking projects across film, television, and digital platforms. [their] company is committed to groundbreaking storytelling, visionary world-building, and the unpacking of contemporary social issues.” featuring “traditionally underrepresented voices”. Mokneypaw’s works are predominantly in the horror genre and all tell visceral tales of the black experience.

Some could argue that stop motion is the media most susceptible to human error, and they’re absolutely right, but that’s what makes the medium so special. When animating mechanical stop-motion puppets, like those in this film, many different face plates for the top & bottom of the faces are put on and replaced to change the characters’ expressions but this creates a physical seam bisecting each face’s eyes. This “flaw” is usually masked out of the final film by digitally covering the line with the character’s proper skin tone. But, Selik did not want to shy away from exhibiting the practicality of the film, especially since he knew this crew & the art form was so advanced that the work could be mistaken for computer animation without these physical tells.


Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio
Yes, another Pinocchio adaptation was released last year, but this one is actually quite remarkable. This is another stellar collaboration to come from this past year, written by two of my greatest creative idols Patrick McHale (Over the Garden Wall, Adventure Time) and Guillermo Del Toro (The Shape of Water, Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak). This film is also the only one on this list to have been recognized by this year’s Oscars and even took home the Academy Award for the best-animated feature!

The film follows the classic story of a living wooden puppet wondrously experiencing life through innocent eyes while being led astray by the evils of the world. You may be most familiar with Disney’s 1932 “Pinocchio”, which was the second film Del Toro ever saw, but “Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio” is no Disney film, it blatantly questions religious hypocrisy and ridicules fascism. Del Toro imposes a consistent anti-war theme in his films by not shying away from depicting the turmoil and political unrest of the settings, in Pinnochio’s case it’s 1910’s Italy. Somehow Pinnochio’s kind spirit persists through all of the grittiness of war and capitalism and death. Mchale tirelessly researched the time period, including children’s required school books and personal accounts detailing peoples’ place in the rise of fascism when writing this story which includes a theme of children’s place in war. A constant theme is death and the acceptance of one’s own mortality, Del Toro is no stranger to majestically personifying death to face the protagonist, McHale says the moral of this Pinocchio is “To value life and the time we have on earth”.

The blessing and curse of stop-motion animation are that everything must be really built to create a one-of-a-kind world for its story. Del toro has said “Animation has become, in the minds of the consumers, a genre. But, it also is an art form, and of all the art forms of animation, to me, the most sacred and magical is stop motion because it is the bond between animator and puppet.“. He was adamant about including realities of human mistakes in his film, the animators executed that idea by making the characters ever so subtly trip, hesitate, get lost in thought, drop objects, etc. to give them another level of humanity. Del Toro expressed that “If you animate the ordinary you will achieve something extraordinary”. The characters themselves are portrayed as “mechanical puppets”, they have silicone skin over intricate mechanisms making up their skeletons and muscles that let the animator manipulate their expressions while keeping them soft and realistic. But because Pinochio’s head is 3d printed, it cannot be maneuvered like his co-stars. He is what’s called a “replacement puppet” which means his facial expressiveness is achieved by swapping his face mask out nearly every frame. The creative department wanted to make him “act like he was made out of wood” which was brilliantly achieved by the practicality & durability of his design, the replacement technique, exposing his joints, and giving him a totally different texture than his human and animal counterparts. In fact, Pinocchio is the first stop-motion-puppet to be fully 3d printed.


The House
“The House” is a British stop-motion film that tells three unsettling stories taking place in different worlds but in the same anxiety-inducing house. This film is a great example of how animation is a precious art form, that animation is acceptable media for adults to enjoy, and animation can be strange and unsettling. My best review of this film would have to call it “like a Wes Anderson film gone wrong” and I mean that in the coolest way possible,

The team of directors Niki Lindroth von Bahr, Emma de Swaef, Marc Roels, and Paloma Baeza have varied backgrounds in the film industry as prop makers, documentarians, live-action commercial directors, and animation majors respectively and all value the physical and tactile elements of film and make sure to prioritize practical effects. De Swaef says she values stop-motion as a medium because watching it feels like you’re peaking into a real magical little world and that the absurdity of creating a stop-motion film requires total dedication. This incredibly collaborative film is a testament to art uniting people regardless of their backgrounds (nationality, profession, identity, etc.) and allows their individual weirdness to hatch something remarkable. The film’s characters include uncanny humans and anthropomorphized animals that are mechanical puppets with wool bodies rather than plastic or latex, this was chosen so the moving characters would feel more organic to the audience. Lindroth von Bahr often chooses to use human-like animals in her stories to resemble a classic fable and through some silliness in with the darkness of the story, even making it a point of self-reflection because “We are animal ourselves — animals just wearing ridiculous outfits and squeezing ourselves into this stupid workwear or whatever we do,”.


Mad God
Most media from the last couple of years have been remakes, sequels, re-imaginations, or continuations of ongoing stories- even untouched stories- from decades ago. But no film from the past year is truer to the sentiment of “30 years in the making” than Phil Tippett’s “Mad God”. Tippet is a master special effects manager and stop-motion animator who’s worked on many golden age action/fantasy movies like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Willow, and Starship Troopers. In the late 80’s he began this personal project that was promptly abandoned because of the unrealistic scale he imagined and the overwhelming workload he would face- along with projects he was hired onto. Over time he gained motivation from the support of his fans and Kickstarter to work on Mad God as an “antidote to [his] day job”, even calling it a form of therapy, during his free time.

The film itself is a combination of stop-motion animation and live-action performances and is entirely an amalgamation of dirt and gore. A nonlinear narrative about a horrifically dystopian society- if you could even call it a society- implied to be torn to shreds by war and pollution, where only vile creatures and mad scientists roam what’s left of the world. With no clear motive, no dialogue, characters whose morals are unknown, and the most grotesque imagery I have possibly ever seen in a film, I think this is one of the greatest works of art I’ve ever regarded. It’s a fascinating stylized interpretation of biblical stories and the wrath of God onto a world seen as unfit.

Tippet has expressed that he doesn’t like how films always follow the same narrative structure so he did not let conventional methods hold him back from telling his story. Tippit never went through any film classes and claims his brain has always just been more “art-bent” and that “There’s a lot of things that you can do if you jump outside the conventional narrative norm”. He also hand-crafted every puppet for the film, with nearly no explicitly human characters and a combination of mediums the uncanny valley very unsettlingly makes its way into the film in the best way only stop-motion could pull off. Tippett kept the same visual style of what he grew up with- 70s surrealism- while utilizing modern/digital technology and equipment 50 years old, as well as converting his own studio into set pieces, even incorporating model kit sets, second-hand toys, specimens form oddity shops, and repurposing props from previous films. Phil Tippett has always exceeded genres and is very encouraging to the younger generations to learn by experience and not be afraid to jump into filmmaking if their hearts take them there and preserve the art of animation forever, he says today “you have the world at your disposal when you can make art out of anything” even if it’s just a smartphone, iMovie, and an old toy.