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Animation Discussions

Animation Discussion – Pied Piper (1986)

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This was an animation a friend recommended me to check out. It’s an excerpt from The Pied Piper (1986) which was directed by Jiří Barta, a Czech stop motion animator. While he is an animator himself, IMDb credits four others as the animators so I am not sure who in particular animated this clip.

When first watching this clip I was immediately drawn in. There’s so much charm to the character design, the overall visual design and the stop motion itself. The characters have a limited movement especially while they walk, it reminds me of the vampires from The Nightmare Before Christmas. However the characters are very expressive, they have more movement in their arms and head movements coupled together with the visual storytelling so that we know what’s going on.

Although the characters are not speaking English there are visual representations of what they are talking about, such as the coins coming from the mouth and the scales representing the haggling nature of the conversation.
There is a lot of good camera movement going on to allow for some neat gags. Switching focus from one character to another allows for heads to be switched out such as the angry heads. The angry heads had a different texture and colour in contrast to the rest of the animation which emphasised a creepy feel and helped to contrast it to the calm scene it once was.

One thing I particularly loved was the use of perspective. Very early on in this clip as a character walks by, she walks past a street opening showing the road as it goes off into the distance. Only, the set isn’t that big, it looks like its physically only a short distance away and is perpendicular to the ground. I’ve seen this kind of thing done before for stylistic purposes or just to conserve space, I’ve even done similar things myself with stop motion perspective. What I love about this though is that there’s small characters in the background and they’re animated. Although we know there’s an illusion going on, the focus of the camera and scale of the characters tell us they should be in the distance. We know they aren’t but in the context of the animation’s style it works and its charming to see the little characters move.

This excerpt ends with a rat appearing and stealing a piece of food. The people in the marketplace seemingly forget their differences and beat the rat to death. I’m not sure but it looks like a real stuffed rat was used. The addition of the blood and the fact the people were beating it to death seems to have been used for shock factor, perhaps as some metaphor for the greed of capitalist shopping or something, I don’t know. All I know is I enjoyed the clip and will seek out the full film to watch in the future.

Animation Discussion – Darkness, Light, Darkness (1990)

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I’ve talked about Jan Švankmajer a few times during this project but I want to discuss some of his work further. This animation discussion features Darkness Light Darkness (1990), a claymation film which revolves around a clay character building themselves, a similar theme to the final animation I will be creating.

The animation has a classic Jan Švankmajer atmosphere to it: creative but also unsettling and sometimes grotesque. The animation plays with a lot of imagery that would be pretty disturbing if it was real. Luckily stop motion is used appropriately here and having the character clearly made from clay gives the character visual appeal.

Modelling clay is used as the main material with the various limbs being made from it, as well as the character using the moulding properties of the clay to build himself. There’s a lot of visual gags that arise from the use of clay. Sound also plays a good part in this short film with the sound effects adding to the unsettling nature of the content.

In general, the modelling clay has a smooth, elastic property to it. The limbs retain their shape to where they would resemble the firmness yet softness of real human limbs. Sometimes this is broken for a purpose, for example when the ears are torn off they leave an uneven tear which contrasts to the typically smoother use of clay within the animation. That itself can create unsettling moments as the tear feels more real to the audience.

The nature of the story means there’s a lot of imagery that can get a reaction from the audience, from playing around with eyeballs to realistic looking organs making an appearance. A tongue and set of teeth enter the room and as they are the first non-clay moving objects (other than the eyes) there’s a distinct contrast between them and the clay character. The use of realistic (maybe even real) organs that are wet in texture, coupled with the squishy sound effects, might alarm the squeamish and this is more than likely the intended effect.

I particularly like the different ways that the clay is deformed throughout the animation. Opening the head up to put the brain in leaves a nice effect in the clay that looks like the hands have left indents in the skull. The feet crushing the head from either side is also a humorous moment that leaves the head crushed in a comical way. As more clay comes in from outside the room it becomes more fluid and has a texture that looks hand moulded with lots of fingerprint indentations.

Another moment I particularly liked was when one of the hands reacts to seeing something outside the door. The hand points then turns against the door and raises all its fingers as if to convey shock. This was both funny but also interesting in that I have considered doing a similar effect in my own animation, where my own hand (animated with the pixilation technique) will gesture towards my wire armature character.

Overall I really liked this animation. In context with other animated shorts and features I’ve looked at, I feel this is the most relevant to my project and I’m glad I took the time to discuss it further. For a claymation it does a lot of things and has contains many interesting techniques. I’ve said a lot of good things about the animation so I’ll balance that by saying that I would’ve liked to have seen the hands mould the clay in more detail. Sometimes I didn’t always feel the drag on the clay that it could have. I’m also not entirely sure of the few live action moments such as the use of water. I understand that it is impossible to animate water the way you want it to so I get why they are live action scenes but it does stand out. But on the whole this is superb animation and a must watch for those interested in stop motion with clay.

Animation Discussion – Return to Oz (1985)

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Return to Oz (1985) is a sort of sequel to The Wizard of Oz (1939), based on the novels by L. Frank Baum. It’s not an official sequel to the film but follows the events of the film and borrows some elements from it. While its not a live action film it does have some stop motion elements from it.

I watched the film a good few times when I  was a kid and while I thought it was pretty dark and even scary in comparison to The Wizard of Oz, I also really liked it. I was recently watching this film when I spotted those stop motion scenes and this was the first time I had watched it and analysed it for its animation. The stop motion scenes I’ll talk about in this blog are particularly related to the Nome King and his followers.

I couldn’t find out much about how the visual effects were created so some things in this post will be good assumptions. Its obviously stop motion animation but I have a feeling that Nicol Williamson, who voices him and plays him in human form later in the film, was used as a reference for the animators as the facial animation matches with his own acting style very well.

The nomes possess a metamorphic quality to the way they are built and also move. While the characters themselves were built with clay in real life, in the story they are made of rock. The visual effects team did a great job of using the clay to emulate the metamorphic quality of rock, and how it might move if it could. Additionally, the nomes are seamlessly blended into real life rocks, the clay texture matches the real rocks so well its very difficult to tell where they clay is blended in to the rock.

The characters themselves while in rock form consist of just their face with limited details, some have eyes and some don’t, same with noses. Different rock types have different looks for the characters. For example a character appearing underground has a jagged appearance whereas a character appearing on a smooth boulder has a more circular appearance.

The Nome King appears to the main characters in a few forms, his rock form shows up at the entrance as well as inside his mountain. Later, he slowly changes to become more human. I really like how the transition works as each step towards human gives him more detailed anatomy until they switch the stop motion model to a live actor as he emerges slowly from the rock wall. The Nome King’s transformation is made sinister through the use of stop motion as the surreal change from stop motion to live actor emphasises the sinister actions of the character himself. Keeping the texture from the clay parts in the live actor’s costume helps blend this well.

The Nome King’s death near the end of the film also has some fantastic moments. I like the way the clay crumbles away like rock formation crumbling from being unstable. Moments like his eyes turning back to rock are also sinister but fascinating to watch.

In general, I’m not quite sure if they got the tone of the film right. In comparison to The Wizard of Oz, Return to Oz is a darker film with scarier characters. The stop motion only adds to the creepiness of some characters and while this is great if that was the intent but as a kid I don’t remember entirely enjoying watching the film for that reason.

Return to Oz sits in that great time of visual effects just before CGI explodes in popularity in the 1990s. As such, the stop motion greatly enhances the longevity of the film as it doesn’t look cheap or out of place as it might do if it were created 10-20 years later with computer generated effects. The use of stop motion adds a layer of magic and mystery to the environment that I think only stop motion can do best. The hands and arms for a doorway is an iconic shot from this film.

I was surprised to learn that the Nome King and his followers weren’t the only stop motion animated characters. A scene with Jack Pumpkinhead later in the film used a stop motion puppet in order for the Nome King to interact with him and eventually eat him. The design of the character itself has similarities to Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).

While the film itself doesn’t live up to the magic and wonder of the original The Wizard of Oz, the visuals did and it was even nominated for the 1986 Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.

Animation Discussion – Out of the Inkwell (1919 – 1921)

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This is the first in a series of blog posts I will be making. These “Discussion” posts will consist of myself talking about a short animation and analysing its techniques, themes and narrative. The series of posts will be similar to my earlier case studies but not as in depth, I think of them as mini case studies. My hope is that doing these quick evaluations will help me to establish points and examples in my dissertation, in addition to broadening my knowledge of animations seen.

The first animations I’m going to look at are from a series called Out of the Inkwell animated by Max Fleischer.

This animation is 95 years old at the time of writing which is pretty early in the film and animation industry. In this animation Ko Ko the Clown is drawn by the animator onto paper. The ink from his pen flows out of it (animated) and forms the clown and the colour of his clothing. The clown moves around and talks to the animator (in that classic; switch to text then back to footage style). Meanwhile in the studio room another pair of live action characters are conversing: one man appears to be creating a model of another man’s face.

The clown ends up leaving the confines of the paper and I love the eventual interaction of the clown character and the second modelling scenario although I wished they’d have had the clay head interact from the beginning, there was potential for some good gags in there. Standout moment for me is the animator throwing a clay ball into the animated scene and the clown getting hit – three materials all interacting with each other.

While the film itself feels dated, the animation by modern standards holds up. The clown is very cartoony and there’s lots of exaggeration going on. The animation appears to be rotoscoped over existing film footage which for the most part is brilliant but at times it can get a little uncanny since the movements are so close to real life which don’t always translate well into animation. The animation pacing is also very fast and frantic which has its pros and cons in a film like this. I think this is down mostly due to the way that old film often had that strange speed to it due to the nature of manually projecting the film.

From a narrative stand point there does seem to be a lot of “filler” content where the clown spends a lot of his on-screen time skating around, doing tricks and frantically moving across the screen. I feel the film focuses a little too much on the clown and not on what’s going on with all the characters in the scene. I’ve already said I would’ve loved to have seen more interaction with the clay head and the live action actors. I think though, because of how animation was so magical and unique, that more time was spent on this as a visual spectacle.

That being said I can understand why Max Fleischer is so beloved for the time and still today. I checked out another short from the Out of the Inkwell series.

In this animation, which was produced 2 years before the previous animation I talked about, it again features Ko Ko the Clown and an interaction with the animator. This time a pesky fly keeps landing on the paper infuriating both the animator and the clown character.

The film is shorter in length than the other I’ve discussed and I think its better for it. The interaction between the animator and the character is more concise and the chemistry is greater as they have a common foe.

The animation itself isn’t as fluid and focused upon but the character’s actions don’t seem as out of place. The rotoscoped actions are noticeable compared to the non-rotoscoped: the facial animations are more stylised compared to the real life actions that have been translated to animation. I do think the rotoscoped movements are great but the transition to a stationary character is sometimes jarring. Just like the modelling short, the animation is still very good and I particularly like how he plays with depth and the use of props.

I loved the interaction between the fly and the character and there were a good number of gags that played across very well. I was hoping that the “fly trap” would trap the fly in the drawing but that might also have not worked well.

The ending to how they catch the fly is genius, only I wish there was some setup before hand. The clown jumps through the paper (which is a spectacle itself) and climbs into the inkwell. While I think it was a great way to lure the fly in, he initiates the jump through with no apparent intention and the animator seems to know immediately what to do. I imagine this was more of a time constraint. I can relate to approaching the end of an animation and not sure entirely how to end it so just rush it.

Again, despite any flaws, the animation still holds up and with this short in particular: the humour and narrative are still relatable and its a joy to watch.