How does one go about creating a silicone puppet with a metallic skeleton? It’s not a question I ever envisaged asking myself, but as I sit opposite Ian MacKinnon and Peter Saunders in London’s Corinthia Hotel, I’m about to find out.
The pair are veteran puppet-makers, having worked on projects from Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox to Bob the Builder. Most recently they crafted the puppets on Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, and have come south from Manchester for the premier at the BFI’s London Film Festival.
Having worked on both Mars Attacks! and Corpse Bride, they are intimately familiar with the way Burton operates, and their expert knowledge of Burton’s distinctive imagination is a large part of what brought Frankenweenie to life. One gets the impression the tactile, personal and pain-staking process of stop-motion animation is the only medium that could have done this. The care that goes into the handcrafted models is visible in their form – each hair is a source of speculation, every emotion the product of a long day’s hard work. The resulting film feels homely and lovingly made, the perfect accompaniment to a simple, pure and old-fashioned story about a young boy and his dog. Tray Thomas, animation director on the film, is also present, and notes that the bringing to life of inanimate objects serves as a parallel to the re-animation of Sparky in the film’s narrative: truly this is a film in which the medium and the story are inseparable.
So Frankenweenie, black and white and 3D, is testament to the continuing utility of the stop-motion medium. Similarly, recent Aardman feature Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists! proved to be a critical success, and animation company Laika have met similar success with 3D stop-motion hit Paranorman.
Despite this, however, box office takings for stop-motion pictures are still dwarfed by CGI giants such as Dreamworks’ latest Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, which took a gargantuan $681 million.
So it’s easy to see why CGI is appealing: isn’t Stop-Motion just post-poning an inevitable demise? McKinnon and Saunders don’t think so. They are not luddites, as their adoption of digital imaging to capture frames demonstrates. On The Nightmare Before Christmas, before the age of digital, wires had to be used for characters to be suspended in the air. Now a metal armature supports the models, meaning they can jump around all over the place, only to have the metal rigging edited out in post-production. It lends the film an added dynamism and effortlessness, which help place it alongside contemporary CGI films, and is testament to the way stop motion can move with the times.
Still, though, I get the impression that the ultimate aim is timelessness. This is a film on which individual animators were cast to individual characters in order to capture the idiosyncrasies of each role; it’s the product of a gruelling eighteen months of hard work.
Tray Thomas points out that its rare to find a ‘throw-away stop-motion film’, and that Frankenweenie is a film that children won’t just watch and forget, but will return to in years to come. I for one believe him, and am much more inclined to return to Chicken Run (on which McKinnon and Saunders worked) than the lovable but forgettable CGI flick Flushed Away. Similarly, who is going to re-watch Valiant? Not me. I’ll take The Nightmare Before Christmas any day, or Frankenweenie for that matter.