The James Clayton Column: Why stop-motion is so special

As Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie arrives in UK cinemas, James explains why stop-motion animation is so special…

It’s my belief that stop-motion animation is the most human, personal and heartfelt kind of moviemaking. Every time I see stop-motion in a film I’m left awed and amazed. Every single time I feel like I’m watching something truly special unfold.

To put it in lofty highfalutin terms, for me, stop-motion represents the purest expression of the creative spirit on screen. Even if you’re not an animation enthusiast who sees the format in such a misty-eyed magical manner, you can’t help but be impressed by the craft, the inspired dedication and the patience that’s poured into a process that makes miniatures come to life in order to tell entertaining stories.

Really, anyone can pick up a camera and crudely cobble together a film. In my view, the most outstanding productions will always be feature-length animations and, for all the additional effort from model making to intricate frame-by-frame shooting, stop-motion reigns as the most impressive.

The good news for me and my fanboy streak is that this kind of moviemaking is alive and, to a certain degree, thriving. Over the past year, we’ve had the widespread release of films such as The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists, ParaNorman and this month’s Frankenweenie. Regardless of whether they do massive box office business or not, the fact that these features exist and continue to be made in spite of their intense production demands is a reason to be cheerful.

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Let’s focus then for a moment on Frankenweenie as a current concern now being cranked on cinema projectors. In the build up to Halloween, any extra serving of horror fancy is appreciated but, beyond that, it’s heartening to see the film hanging out at the multiplex for a whole stack of other reasons.

The arrival of Frankenweenie, alongside Laika studio flicks like ParaNorman and its predecessor Coraline, prove that some moviemakers still refuse to submit to the misguided notion that ‘scary’ films are not appreciated by family audiences.

It’s also vindication for Tim Burton, who was fired by Disney back in 1984 for “wasting company resources” on a short film (the original Frankenweenie) that was too dark and disturbing for the company’s taste. A couple of generations later, there’s karmic satisfaction as the studio distributes Burton’s brainchild, now revived and realised as a feature-length animation for big screen exhibition.

You’d forgive the director for feeling slightly smug at this coming full-circle, considering that Frankenweenie is the concept for which he was cast out of the House of Mouse. It’s a shame that Disney didn’t wholeheartedly embrace and appreciate Burton’s vision back in the 80s, because the idea – a suburban American variation on Frankenstein with a child reviving his beloved dead dog – is a beautiful one, and made for a fantastically fun short flick. To see it remade with articulated models and a longer running time is a glorious thing indeed.

Watching his stop-motion works, I always feel we’re experiencing the ‘true’ Tim Burton and getting in touch with his wide-eyed inner child – a marvellously macabre yet sweet little soul of superb imagination and appealing idiosyncratic quirkiness. This is the authentic Burton that you want to cherish – the highly artistic ‘odd’ boy formed from a love of B-movie horror, gothic poetry, German Expressionism and Ray Harryhausen monsters.

Those enthusiasms are plain to see in the narratives, characters and design of Vincent, Corpse Bride, Frankenweenie and The Nightmare Before Christmas (which is a Burton baby birthed by the brilliant stop-motion director Henry Selick). They all manage to impress themselves as more honestly Burtonesque in style, truer to Twisted Tim’s heart than, say, Alice In Wonderland, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory and his Batman brace.

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Burton tints and toys with other people’s material a bit, but with those adaptations (and a few of his other Hollywood big gigs), it’s like his heart’s not in it. He’s compromised by the visions of others, by the movie industry machine and by the requirements of live-action cinema (visual realism can really cramp your artistic eye, and mugging A-list actors can mess with your idealised mise-en-scène).

The meticulous nature of stop-motion enables filmmakers to produce visual works that reflect what’s running through their mind’s eye more precisely. I believe that the extra effort and control it entails ensures that the end result captures more of their character, psyche and essential inner essence. (I’m wearing my mystical eyes again.)

It’s ironic but true, I’d say, that stop-motion features have more personality and soul than most live-action blockbusters and Burton’s back catalogue provides testimony. Surprisingly enough, films about dead dogs and dead brides have more spirit and more to offer in the way of real heart and human emotion than insubstantial special effects sprees such as the aforementioned Willy Wonka and Wonderland updates.

The uncanny power of stop-motion reaches right across cinema history and resonates as a sublime way of presenting stories and representing crucial themes. Old-school adventures like King Kong and all those Harryhausen creature-filled fantasy flicks of yore brought forth wonder and spectacle before anyone had ever dreamed of CGI.

Through those creations the audience finds themselves acknowledging essential human spirit, courage and heroism. Heading towards more modern times we continue to find touching moral tales in Aardman’s output with everything from Wallace & Gromit to The Pirates! moving viewers to celebrate such qualities as companionship, compassion and creative invention.

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The same goes for the more adult, arthouse productions of the great Czech animator Jan Svankmeyer, whose works are perhaps the most evocative explorations of dream, desire, obsession and repressed darkness.

The deepest fantasies, dream visions and human truths are all stirred by the sublime aesthetics of stop-motion cinema and I urge you to immerse yourself in the format and experience it afresh if you’re still sceptical.

Consider, for instance, Jack Skellington of The Nightmare Before Christmas or the Pirate Captain of The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists from start to finish of their respective movies. What you’ll see is the crossing of the entire emotional spectrum and an affecting, utterly convincing character trajectory conveyed by miniature malleable figurines whose highly expressive faces have to be fixed one frame at a time. The power of their performances would command Oscar nominations if they weren’t, in fact, claymation models manipulated by animators.

Even if they aren’t worshipped as widely and excitedly as they deserve, stop-motion’s still going strong and it’d be nice to think that there’ll always be a Frankenweenie or a ParaNorman around the corner. In an ideal world, Tim Burton would devote more time to cranking out his animated curios and other auteurs with a certain shtick would dabble in the format. It worked superbly for Wes Anderson on Fantastic Mr Fox, and I believe it’d serve others likewise.

Ultimately, it depends on audiences being ensnared and beguiled by this most beautiful, painstakingly precise form of filmmaking. It’s something truly special and I really hope that audiences appreciate it as such.

James Clayton is going to celebrate Halloween by turning himself into a stop-motion miniature replica of Vincent Price. 

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