Friday, July 5, 2013

Stop Motion


The death of pioneering American stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen on May 7 reminded some of us of how far his particular method of animation has come since his work on Mighty Joe Young (1949) and even the original Clash of the Titans (1981). Stop-motion animation is as old as the motion picture itself.

The marvelous thing about stop-motion animation is that it exploits the illusion created by film - originally called the "motion picture." It is created by pointing a camera at an inanimate figure like one of Ray Harryhausen's mythical figures in Jason and the Argonauts (1963), which I had the pleasure to see again recently, and moving it in minute stages while exposing only one frame of film for each individual movement. The result is a film made up of nothing but still photographs that, when projected at twenty-four frames per second, creates the illusion that the figure can move by itself, as if it were alive. Many stop-motion animators created their own puppet figures, with movable parts. The sophistication of the movements varied.

The European tradition of puppeteering is as old as the written record. Herodotus mentions puppets in his Historía, written in the 5th century BCE. In the Czech Republic, formerly (for 88 years) part of Czechoslovakia, and known as Bohemia for a thousand years before that, puppeteering has a particularly long tradition. According to Kevin Nance in a recent Wall Street Journal article, "Czech puppetry has its roots in the Renaissance. By the 19th century, about 3,000 amateur and professional troupes were playing folk comedies and sophisticated dramas, often with patriotic themes." In a marvelous article for Senses of Cinema, The Passion of the Peasant Poet: Jiří Trnka, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Hand, Cerise Howard reminded me that last year was the centenary of the birth of probably the greatest 20th century stop-motion animator, the Czech Jiří Trnka.(1)

When I consulted Wikipedia's entry on stop motion, and even looked at their "list of stop motion artists," Ray Harryhausen figures prominently, as he should. But I was astonished that no mention is made of one of Trnka. Not that I expected voluminous information about him from Wikipedia, a "peoples' encyclopedia." Trnka does show up as "a Czech puppet-maker, illustrator, motion-picture animator and film director," but only after his name is "disambiguated" from that of "Jiří Trnka (footballer)." This sort of indignity is suffered by innumerable artists whose work is regarded as out of style or out of date. Trnka's work is, by virtue of its own virtuosity, in a category of its own.

For me, the fascination of Trnka's films derives from the fantasy of a puppet that moves of its volition, without strings. The camera catches it, or catches the illusion. Another part of the fascination of stop-motion animation is that its animated figures exist in the real, air-breathing world. The sets and the animated figures are artificial, but their world is part of our world. They don't breathe our air, but they move around in it - with the intervention of hands made invisible by the illusion of film.

Trnka's life story is typical of generations of artisans who lived in Europe in the middle of the 20th century. We are told that at an early age he helped his grandmother make toy horses and dolls and helped his mother at dressmaking. At 11, he was working with a puppeteer famous at the time named Joseph Skuba, who encouraged him to enter the Prague School of Applied Arts.

On graduating, Trnka started out as an illustrator for newspapers, but was soon getting attention as a painter. One critic dubbed him an heir to Odilon Redon. He then made his mark as an illustrator of children's books, which also showed the influence of Redon. Finally, in 1945, Trnka made his first short film, Grandpa Planted a Beet. It was a "cell cartoon" in the manner of Walt Disney, except that critics noted Trnka's quite un-Disney use of adult, human characters. Three short cell films later, Trnka made his first puppet stop-motion feature film, The Czech Year (1947). The film won several international awards, and Trnka was even dubbed (quite unthinkingly) the "Walt Disney of Eastern Europe." Trnka's films are actually the perfect antidote to Disney's unbearable cuteness.

1949 was an extraordinary year for Trnka. Not only did he complete the film for which he became world famous, The Emperor's Nightingale (Cisaruv Slavik), based on a Hans Christian Andersen story, (subsequently released in the U.S. with an unnecessary and obtrusive narration spoken by Boris Karloff), but he also made Song of the Prairie (Arie prerie), which was a parody of John Ford's Stagecoach, as well as what is probably his most perfect film, based on a story by Chekhov, Story of the Bass Cello (Roman s basou).

Trnka made four more features and numerous shorts before his death in 1969 at the age of 57. The work he considered his best was a short film called The Hand (Ruka-1965), which tells a quite Orwellian allegory of the plight of the artist in a totalitarian state. In the film, we see a man rise from his bed in his humble one-room house. We notice from the array of clay pots on the floor that he is a potter by trade. After placing a potted flower on a table by the window, he sits down to work. There is an unexpected knock on his door. The potter pauses and, expecting no one to be knocking at that hour, returns to his wheel. But he senses that someone is at the door, and approaches it, putting his ear to the wood. He opens the door and peeks out. The wooden shutters of his window spring open, knocking his potted plant onto the floor. A giant hand enters his room. The potter chases the hand out, but it keeps getting back in. Eventually, the hand forcefully reshapes one of the potters clay pots into a sculpture of a hand, despite all his efforts to return it to the shape of a pot. The hand is persistent, and the potter grows exhausted. Eventually, the potter obeys the hand. The short film can be seen in its entirety here.

The upsurge in interest in stop-motion animation is one of the most heartening trends in contemporary film. Its techniques may seem prehistoric to filmgoers for whom CGI is the be-all and end-all of animation. But CGI is guilty of making animation both easy and impossible. It has yet to make a believer out of me, simply because it has been used by mostly untalented filmmakers as a crutch. Casts of thousands are now prohibitively expensive and old-fashioned, frame-by-frame animation too painstaking and time-consuming. But, for me, film is about capturing images of real people, objects and places, whether manufactured purely for the purpose of the film or not.

The trouble with ninety percent of current animation can be summed up in a joke. Two thoroughbred race horses are standing together at the track. One of them says to the other, "How'd you do in the race today?"

"I won," the other horse replies, "but my arse is sore!"

The first horse says, "You know, I won the race yesterday and my arse was sore too!"

Just then a dog walks by and says to the two horses, "You idiots! Don't you know they're shooting you up with steroids so you'll run faster?"

And one of the horses says, "Look at that! A talking dog!"


(1) It was also the centenary of Michelangelo Antonioni. A propitious year!

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