MR. FOX AND THE CHARM OF STOP-MOTION ANIMATION
Stop-motion animation is inherently imperfect, a fact that mightily improves its appeal. It doesn’t matter if the director and the animators try to smooth out the production technique, as Henry Selick did with Coraline, the audience is still going to catch glimpses of the magician’s hidden rabbit. Stop motion is what it is – actual little puppets that are manipulated and photographed repeatedly so as to give the illusion of life when the resulting photos are run rapidly through a projector. Movies made this way possess a straightforward “Hey, kids…Let’s put on a show!” quality to them that is reminiscent of Disney’s earliest feature work, and they will never enter the uncanny valley.
These thoughts were bouncing around in my pinball brain after a screening of The Fantastic Mr. Fox, which I thought was marvelous. It occurred to me that when watching a stop-motion animated feature, I look through a different mental lens than the one I use for, say, Monsters and Aliens or Up. Yes, the physical movements of Mr. Fox and the entire cast are ever so slightly jerky, and that is just fine. It does not bother me at all that the puppets‘ fur does not ruffle naturally in a sudden breeze.
Director Wes Anderson used 15 bodies and 17 heads for the star of The Fantastic Mr. Fox, proving that we are several light years removed from the old pipe-cleaner animations. But the process remains as carefully painstaking an enterprise as the creation of a Buddhist mandala sand painting – and I think there is considerable integrity in it. Amazingly, Mr. Selick used 28 different puppets to create the title character in Coraline, plus enough interchangeable face parts to allow for approximately 200,000 different facial expressions. And yet…and yet…it is still puppets plus lots of man (and woman)-hours plus lots of pretend.
The Fantastic Mr. Fox is a delightful movie, and the marriage of character to celebrity voice is the best since Robin Williams went wild with the Genie in Aladdin. George Clooney and Meryl Streep could take a stage version of this movie on the road if they wanted to.
I want to applaud two creative choices in Mr. Fox that caused me to laugh out loud repeatedly. First was the way the anthropomorphized characters retain their animal nature. When they quarrel or eat, they do it like animals, not like humans, and it is a crack-up to watch. The other thing is the way the screenwriter allows them to use profanity while not using profanity. For example, Mr. Fox will say things like, „I don’t give a cuss what they say!“ instead of „I don’t give a damn what they say!“ Very cute, and it was a nice touch considering how many kids were watching the movie along with me. If you have not already, I really recommend that you see this one.
INTERESTING AVATAR STATISTICS
$1 billion box office
Average ticket price: $15
Production cost: $250-300 million
Advertising cost: $150 million
ACTING FOR ANIMATORS WORKSHOP SCHEDULE
Feb 8-12 – Animex 2010 (Teesside, England)
Feb 14 – Staffordshire University (Staffordshire, England)
May 4-7 – FMX 2010 (Stuttgart, Germany)
„Family Movies and Storytelling“
Walt Disney did not make „family“ movies in the sense that we think of them today. As is the case with Miyazaki, Disney made movies mainly for kids, and then he charmed the adults into attending also. He was talking to the kids and to „the kid in all of us.“ This distinction deserves consideration, I think, because it is a major reason why the mega-budget Hollywood projects so often feel contrived and watered down. A storyteller should, before anything else, know who is going to be listening to the story. In my workshops, I speak about how actors and animators share a heritage of shamanism, and that is very true. But it is also true that the earliest shamans talked to the adults in the tribe. We don’t have a record of Disney-esque shamans, but we can imagine that their ceremonies would have been sort of like today’s children’s theatre.
When I was a young actor getting started in New York, I acted in a number of plays for kids. They usually took place in cold auditoriums at the ungodly hour of 8:30 in the morning in places like Jersey City, New Jersey. The performances were over the top, and the kids in their folding chairs were boisterous because they had not yet learned the rules of theatrical decorum.
I remember playing a character named Mr. Smog-Trash on one occasion. My costume consisted of a heavy brown robe that was adorned with tie-on empty tin cans, crushed cereal boxes, bent forks and spoons, that kind of thing. Whenever I moved around, all of those things banged and clanged and made a racket which the kids loved. My function in the play was to pollute the earth, and there was not a single redeeming quality to me. The more the kids in the audience would hiss and jeer, the more dastardly I would respond – and a good time was had by all.
If the play had been Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People and was about the evils of pollution, my character might have been dressed in a coat and tie, and I might have been an employee of an oil company. No need for tin cans and crushed boxes when your audience is adult. The typical „family“ picture today is trying to have it both ways, with perhaps the performance being delivered for kids while the message is for adults. Or vice versa.
Remember Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame? It was based on the classic novel by Victor Hugo, which was written for adults. Disney studio wanted to make a movie for kids, and so they just jettisoned all of the character development behind the villain, Frollo, opting instead to tie a figurative bunch of tin cans on him. Pixar made the same kind of choice in Up. The basic story about the old balloon man, his wife and the Pioneer Scout appeals to adults (think: that lovely life-spaning montage everybody talks about), and the villain is wearing those tin cans for kids.
Yes, it is possible to tell a story that appeals to both children and adults, each on their own terms, but it is an extremely tricky thing to do. The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Coraline both do it. The Iron Giant and Monsters, Inc. did it, as did Toy Story. Wall-EE was a near miss, appealing mainly to adults in the first and second acts and to kids in the third act. You can go down the list of major animated feature films released over the past decade applying this litmus test and you will immediately see what I am talking about. In my opinion, we would be seeing movies that have more artistic integrity if we officially announced that we are going to make some movies for adults and also some movies for kids. In other words, if you are going to tell a story, the first thing is to consider your audience – not your stockholders.
Until next month…Be safe!
Actors – and Animators – are shamans!