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There's no stopping this old-school style

September 11, 2005|Chris Lee | Special to The Times

IN 1999, when director Nick Park was in production on his stop-motion animated feature "Chicken Run," the conventional wisdom in Hollywood held that computer-generated films such as "Toy Story" and "A Bug's Life" ruled the proverbial roost.

Stop-motion was the stuff of a bygone era -- the exclusive province of "Gumby" or Rankin/Bass' "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" Christmas special. And in most studio bosses' minds, it was nearly obsolete. By contrast, computer-generated animation -- CG for short -- was bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars in ticket sales and galvanizing the family film audience as never before.

Although Park, a three-time Oscar winner for his "Wallace & Gromit" stop-motion animated short films, had always worked with three-dimensional clay figurines, CG's high-gloss, machine-perfect visual style began to infect his comparatively primitive claymation process.

"We were worried that stop-motion and the fingerprints we left on the clay would look too big on screen," the filmmaker remembered. "We were worried that some of the action might look jerky. So we put a lot of attention toward smooth movements on the screen."

Featuring Mel Gibson as the voice of a rooster who plots an elaborate chicken coop prison break, "Chicken Run" went on to make $224 million in worldwide box office. And Park breathed a sigh of relief that his chief worry -- that CG would obliterate stop-motion's commercial viability -- had been unfounded.

"Afterward, we realized what people really like: that handcrafted feel," he said. "It adds a kind of humanity."

In nearly a century of existence, stop-motion's basic techniques -- its labor-intensive frame-by-frame character movements and scene realignments -- have hardly evolved.

But with the Oct. 7 release of Park's feature-length "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" (co-directed by Steve Box), with Tim Burton's "Corpse Bride" hitting theaters Friday, and with animated films from stop-motion ace Henry Selick and even "The Life Aquatic's" Wes Anderson in various stages of development, the lo-fi animation technique is experiencing something of a mini-renaissance.

In an era when computer-generated animated features rank among the most lucrative movies in history, and with traditional pen-and-ink cel animation on the wane, filmmakers are increasingly looking to stop-motion to find fresh ways to connect with viewers.

"CG is new technology, but everyone's had a bellyful of it," said Peter Lord, "Chicken Run's" co-director and co-owner of Aardman Animations, a company that specializes in stop-motion. "What we do is old. But now it's kind of new because people haven't seen it before."

While clay animation never completely fell out of fashion in TV commercials and children's shows, stop-motion-driven movies (such as the original "King Kong" and 1963's "Jason and the Argonauts") had vanished from theaters by the mid-'70s.

The current vogue began with Burton's spookily gorgeous Halloween-versus-Christmas musical, 1993's "The Nightmare Before Christmas" -- a film over which the director battled with studio executives for almost a decade to make it his preferred way.

"I could have probably gotten it done in another medium, but there's something that's really emotional in stop-motion that I felt was right," Burton said. "And even when it was done, they didn't know what to do with it."

IT'S A SLOW PROCESS

SNAIL-LIKE progress is part and parcel of stop-motion, in which a single animator will typically take a week to produce five seconds of film; a finished movie requires two to three years to shoot. (That said, such movies cost between $30 million and $70 million, a bargain compared with "The Incredibles' " $92-million production budget.)

The labor-intensive process, according to "Nightmare" director Selick, is a crucial part of stop-motion's appeal.

"You feel the creation," he said. "Those things were really made; they were willed to life through someone's fingertips. The struggle to bring them to life -- literally, to animate -- is still evident."

For his next film, "Coraline," however, Selick is planning to integrate computer-generated and stop-motion animation to tell the story of a little girl who escapes from her ordinary life into an idealized parallel universe. The filmmaker's template is "The Wizard of Oz," which delineates Dorothy's passage from Kansas to Oz by switching from black-and-white to color film stock.

"The world Coraline lives in is rendered in CG," said Selick, who is in preproduction on the project. "And the magic world she escapes to will be handmade and done in stop-motion."

Stop-motion specialist Aardman Animations' next project, "Flushed Away" (featuring the voices of Hugh Jackman and Kate Winslet as rats living in a sewer beneath London), will similarly bridge the clay-to-computers chasm. The movie, about one-third complete, will be computer-generated -- but animated in a way that will resemble the company's trademark brand of clay animation.

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