If you wait through the credits of Laika’s most recent stop motion film, The Boxtrolls, you’ll be rewarded with an ontological conversation between two of Snatcher’s henchmen, and a glimpse of the kind of work that goes into creating just a few seconds of a stop motion film, as the scenery is stripped away and the artists are shown (in time lapse) creating the characters who are, themselves, discussing the nature of their creation. This intimate involvement of the artists in their characters’ every movement, every emotion, makes it difficult to watch a stop motion film without thinking of – and seeing the imprint of – the sculptors. The artists’ physical interaction with their creations leaves a mark that cannot be divorced from the experience of watching the film, and it is this human element that most obviously sets stop motion apart from CGI.
This is not to say that CGI can’t be breathtaking. As you may or may not know, I’m a sucker for dragons, but this bias aside, I believe the dragon in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 to be truly beautiful, and certainly a work of art. You cannot see the imprint of the animator’s thumb in the dragon’s hide, or the artist’s expression in the mixed hues of the dragon’s eyes, but an immense amount of time, love, and attention to detail went into creating a believable but digital beast. Something like that requires a team of artists, as well as plenty of money and time, and the result is awesome in the true sense of the word.
Awesome – but temporarily so. Something I’ve noticed over the decades I’ve been watching movies is that CGI that was cutting edge and astonishing at the time does not age well. At all. Consider Titanic, or LOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring. Computers did great things for those films, and they were on the leading edge of CGI technology of the day. But when I watch them now, I find the CGI/special effects almost laughably bad – and that’s not an experience I have with older stop motion films. CGI from ten years ago is quite obviously from ten years ago, and it can be interesting to consider how far we’ve come, technologically (consider Gollum from Fellowship versus Gollum from Return of the King). Stop motion, on the other hand, doesn’t show its age, despite the inexorable march of technological advancement. Can you believe The Nightmare Before Christmas is 21 years old? Twenty-flipping-one! When you watch it, you can’t tell. It could have been made yesterday. Watch Jurassic Park (also 21 years old), though, and it’s clear that time has passed since the making of the film, however timeless the story may be.
Again, this is not to say that all CGI ages badly, or that CGI is meritless because the quality today might not be as good as it is in ten years. Some CGI characters – like Toothless in How to Train Your Dragon (again with the dragons!) will probably not be obviously old in ten years. The CGI that does not strive for realism ages best (Toy Story!), while aiming to be photorealistic shows its age quickly. But even CGI that strives for realism is worthwhile… I mean, how impressive is it that we can create realistic fantastical creatures to put alongside real human actors? And how could we have evolved to the Gringott’s dragon without the efforts of every CGI animator up until that point?
In middle school, my English teacher had us create a visual media project. I don’t remember the precise requirements, but I do remember spending hours drawing page after page of one character, changing his position slightly on each page, so that in the end I had a very short, very poorly done animation of a boy picking a flower, which then turns into a bird in his hands and flies away. I take away three things from this recollection. First, my English teacher was pretty cool. Second, you have to be really, really committed to a story in order to animate it frame by frame. Third, I completed the project for under $10 using stuff around the house- a few seconds of hand-drawn animation is cheap (but you only get a few seconds) – but spent an entire weekend on the thing.
Every second of a stop motion film, just like every terrible frame of my school project, takes a certain amount of devotion and attention to detail, and this is what, in my mind, sets stop motion apart. There is gorgeous CGI, and it doesn’t lack artistry simply because there’s a computer between the artist and their creation. I do think, however, that the evident hand of a real human being, and that reminder of the labor that goes into making 90 minutes of a film we then sit and judge while eating popcorn, gives stop motion animation just a little bit more soul.