How stop-motion has evolved over the years and allowed the studio Laika to carve out a niche
By Marybel Gervais
(Translate by Adam Abouaccar)
Stop-motion animation is seldom used in big budget features, not because it is ineffective, but because it is extremely complex, it requires a rare skillset and demands a lot more time to produce. When these elements come together, the result is a larger-than-life cinematic experience; yet another of the seventh art’s multiple facets. The production company Laika (Coraline, Henry Selick, 2009) has brought its A-game to its latest big-screen venture, ParaNorman, a film that further demonstrates how Laika as earned its place at the forefront of the art form. It features voice work from Casey Affleck, John Goodman and Jeff Garlin.
ParaNorman is on the cutting edge of stop-motion technology. Thanks to technological advancements, it is now possible to pinpoint the exact placement of a scene and the action happening within it. Computerized machines (borrowed from space technologies) move the objects in question millimetre by millimetre. The resulting movement is more fluid. 3D animation is also incorporated sparingly to better illustrate certain supernatural aspects of the film. Filmmakers Chris Butler and Sam Fell have taken great care to ensure that both animation styles work in perfect harmony. They tell the story of Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smith-McPhee), a boy who is terribly alone due to his ability to converse with the dead. When a strange curse has his town crawling with zombies, ghosts and other entities, he is the only one who can save his friends.
Before arriving at this ingenious mixture of manual animation and new technologies, this art form has evolved and refined over time. The film considered to be the first example of stop-motion is The Humpty Dumpty Circus (1897) by Albert E. Smith and J. Stuart Blackton, in which circus toys come to life. Among the veterans of stop-motion, we find George Melies, Wladyslaw Stareqicz and Helena Smith Dayton (the first female animator). Willis O’Brien’s two feature films (1925’s Lost World and King Kong in 1933) propelled the artistic phenomenon to global notoriety. They determined the vocation of one of the biggest animators of all time, Ray Harryhausen (a Lifetime Achievement Award recipient at Fantasia). He gave us, among others, the three Sinbad films, Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Clash of the Titans(1981). Though stop-motion lost some steam briefly in the 50s, it saw a strong comeback during the psychedelic 70s (see Will Vinton’s Oscar winning Closed Mondays). In Canada, Norman McLaren at the NFB refined the animation process altogether, with pixellation among his many innovative processes, and in the 80s, the science-fiction craze led to a stop-motion boom. Several major productions have employed stop-motion, including the Star Wars trilogy, The Terminator and RoboCop, and in the past two decades, the creative partnership of Henry Selick and Tim Burton has produced two love letters to the inner child in all of us: The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and Corpse Bride (2005). In Quebec, there is a festival celebrating stop-motion which is at its fourth edition, the MSMFF (Montreal Stop-Motion Film Festival), and has hosted notorious guests such as Barry Purves (from the 80s series of The Wind in the Willows).
Selick, as mentioned above, has overseen production for several years at Laika. Founded in 2005, the company was originally comprised of two divisions, one for advertising and music videos and the other for film work. As time goes on, they have continued to invest their energy into stop-motion. The Laika name is now recognizable worldwide, and ParaNorman will only help to further their reputation.
PARANORMAN will have its Canadian premiere August 7th at 7:00pm in the Concordia Hall Theater with Laika’s CEO Travis Knight in attendance with director/writer Chris Butler and director Sam Fell. More information on the film HERE.