Friday 22 March 2013

Damien Presents: The Trouble With Stop Motion

By Damien.

Before I write this post, I want to make it clear that I love stop motion, and the same goes for the films I'll talk about here. I wouldn't want those movies to be even slightly different, because I love them just the way they are, and they're all perfect in their own way; their imperfections make them even more perfect. I'm aware that last sentence made absolutely zero sense, but that doesn't mean it's any less true.

The Problem
Today, stop motion films aren't as popular as CG films, nor are they as numerous. That's a sad fact. And I can't help but wonder why that is.
It can't be that they're not as good. In my opinion, the average quality level of stop motion films is actually higher than that of CG ones.
It can't be either that stop motion is more expensive. Because it's not. I checked: CG films are not cheap. Even the cheaper ones. And yes, by cheaper, I mean worse. Come on, you all know what films I'm referring to. At least, you know it better than I do. I've no idea what I'm talking about.
And I simply refuse to believe it has anything to do with the look of the medium. I, for one, think there is something unique and beautiful in stop motion that you can't find anywhere else in animation. A feeling that you're seeing something real, an impression you can't replicate with computer imagery or flat drawings. And that is why I love stop motion so much; why I'm so disappointed when I see so few of these movies are produced; why I'm angry at people who show no interest in seeing ParaNorman, but will run to the theatre to watch Ice Age: Continental Drift. Yes, angry. I'm that kind of person. Don't mess with me, I've had a tough week, okay?
So the question is: what's the problem? It can't just be the audience's fault - although they're not completely innocent in that case. But my theory is that the problem goes deeper than that. And it didn't originate yesterday. So we'll push the Delorean to 88 miles per hour, and go back in time.

This Is Heavy
We're now in 1993. Stop flirting with your mother, and focus rather on The Nightmare Before Christmas.
This was a rather big deal in the stop motion world, as it was the first Disney feature exclusively using this technique. With a big name behind the story and the look of the characters - Tim Burton. This is a stop motion film that people remember, one that got stuck in people's minds. The Jack Skellington design is still beloved and has become somewhat of a cult; an iconic figure. To this day, because of its success, big studios probably consider The Nightmare Before Christmas to be what a stop motion film should resemble.
Now, with that in mind, let's take a look at the top ten highest grossing stop motion films of all time in the United States, according to Box Office Mojo:

Nothing shocking you? Besides the fact that these grosses are ridiculously low? Well, six out of those ten films belong to the horror genre.
Whereas, when you look at the top ten list of what is called "Animation - Computer" movies, there's zero horror films. You then begin to scroll down, and stop only at the 40th name on the list (last year's Hotel Transylvania).
This is what The Nightmare Before Christmas did. Again, this is not a criticism towards Henry Selick's work. This movie is what it is, and that's perfectly fine.
I'm not going to be kind, in contrast, to big animation studios. Why should stop motion be first and foremost a horror medium? This is the old Brad Bird adage all over again: 'Animation is not a genre'. Well I'm tempted to say here that stop motion is not a genre. It's just a medium that you use and it can be any genre.

So why? My take on it is that it's easier for a stop motion film to be produced if it features zombies or ghosts. It's like studios and distributors don't get that action, comedy, mystery, adventure, sci-fi would work just as well in this beautiful medium. And that's just stupid to me.
Maybe it's not even a conscious decision. But most of the mainstream stop motion films released currently are horror films. Even Aardman, the brilliant English studio whose first feature was the not horror-based, yet very successful, Chicken Run, fell into the stop-motion-is-a-genre trap with Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. The first three shorts that featured Wallace and his dog were not exactly about monsters on a full moon night. Well, the feature is - but it's still very good, and my favourite animated film of 2005 in fact.
Even The Pirates! and Whatever the Rest of the Title Is was supposed to be a CG film at first. But Aardman came to its senses and made it stop motion. So we do have one occasional adventure stop motion films slipping through the cracks of the system. But that's rarely the case.
Now we begin to understand why there is a very limited number of stop motion movies released each year. But why won't the audience go see them? To be answered soon...

Right Now, Apparently
Well, the answer is pretty simple. I shall therefore expose you to it in a preposterously complicated way.
Let's consider facts first: Chicken Run is the highest grossing stop motion film in the United States. In an unrelated way, Frankenweenie and Hotel Transylvania are both coming from the horror genre, and were released only a few weeks apart. The CG movie was the most successful of these two at the box office, by a large margin. What can we learn from this?
First of all, when a stop motion film is not a horror one, it can still be a success. Even a bigger success, actually.
The depressing part comes now: maybe it was a success in contrast to other stop motion films, because of the horrible misconception that animated movies are for children. Parents are not letting their child watch a horror feature. Adults don't go see a stop motion flick, because 'This stuff is for kiddies'. Luckily, Chicken Run didn't have the same issues.

In order to explain this idea further, here's an extremely realistic conversation between a father and his son (age 6), at their local theatre. They're trying to decide if they're going to see Frankenweenie or Hotel Transylvania. Ready? I'm sure not, but let's go:
Father: So, what do you want to see?
Son: I don't know... Can I have some popcorn?
- Well, they're both kids movies, but one looks more colourful (author's note: he's a very dumb father).
- Yeah... Popcorn ?
- And, I mean, Frankenweenie... What was Disney thinking about? Do they want kids to have nightmares? It's gonna be Hotel Transylvania. Okay?
And... scene. Hollywood, here I come.

Back to the Future
We're now in 2013. No mainstream stop motion film is scheduled this year (and very few hand drawn ones are either). That makes you sad. You might want to take the Delorean to 2033 to see if the stop motion art form still exists then, but you're too afraid of what you might discover.
Of course there is still hope. Nick Park is currently directing a stop motion film at Aardman - maybe not a horror-based one. And even if the medium is generally filled with zombies, monsters, ghosts, witches... it's been proved that it can be great, and find an audience. Not a large one. Not the one it deserves, but the one it needs right now in order to survive.
And one day maybe, stop motion will feature a wide range of genres and can become as popular as CG is today. Who knows?

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