Shaun the Sheep leads the stop-motion animation revival

As the Shaun the Sheep Movie bleats its way into the hearts of North American moviegoers, critics are raving about its stop-motion animation. The technique didn’t go out with Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs — despite the rise of computer-generated imagery (CGI), the art of painstakingly filming puppets and models, one incremental movement at a time, has been preserved by a small gaggle of enthusiasts.

In a CGI world, the classic animation technique is gaining adherents

Shaun' (left), 'Slip' (center) and 'Bitzer' (right) in Shaun the Sheep movie. (Lionsgate)

As the Shaun the Sheep Movie bleats its way into the hearts of North American moviegoers, critics are raving about its stop-motion animation. The technique didn't go out with Jurassic Park's dinosaurs —  despite the rise of computer-generated imagery (CGI), the art of painstakingly filming puppets and models, one incremental movement at a time, has been preserved by a small gaggle of enthusiasts. And their flock is getting larger.

Studios such as Aardman in the UK (which launched the TV series Shaun the Sheep in 2007, co-developed by Vancouver-based animators David Fine and Alison Snowden) and Laika (ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls) in the U.S., have been joined by indie directors who have sizeable followings on YouTube. In Canada, more and more stop motion animators are working with the National Film Board, drawn to the technique by nostalgia for characterful films by the likes of NFB legends Norman McLaren and Co Hoedeman.

The cameras, and the motion-control devices are getting better and cheaper. The real "game-changer," according to Hayward, is the technique of 3D-printing sets and puppet s

Stop motion films, says Michael Fukushima, Executive Producer of the NFB's English Animation Studio, have an "artisanal quality that really fits with the ethos of this younger generation of artists. … They want to feel like they've made [their work] with their own hands," he says, and that their films' quality is "not driven by how big your computer is."

Dale Hayward is one of these directors; the 34-year-old Montrealer denounces the "super-hyper-realism" of computer-generated effects in franchises such as the Transformers films, where "there's so much detail, it's impossible. You don't even know what to look at."

Hence the stated desire, by directors such as J.J. Abrams of Star Wars, to use "practical effects" such as prosthetics instead. Conversely, the recent CGI smash The Lego Movie, says Hayward, was "imitating stop motion constantly." When Hayward and his partner Sylvie Trouvé worked on a stop-motion sequence for the upcoming, mostly CGI film The Little Prince (featuring the voices of Rachel McAdams and Ricky Gervais), the other animators "kept coming to us and being jealous. When you put a camera through the texture on things, you've got something visceral and real."

Today's stop motion animators are hardly Luddites. Digital cameras give them instant feedback on whether or not a sequence is working – "I can't imagine how [King Kong animator] Ray Harryhausen did what he did, [flying] blind on film," says Hayward.

 The cameras, and the motion control devices that move them with mechanical precision, are getting better and cheaper, and the real "game changer," according to Hayward, is the technique of 3D-printing sets and puppets, as used by Laika on ParaNorman. Hayward and Trouvé's upcoming short, Bone Mother, an origin tale for Dracula, will be the first NFB film to do so. Where stop motion has traditionally limited puppets' facial expressions because of the time and resources involved in the sculpting process, now large series of individual faces can be printed out, yielding much more complex characters.

The technique of pixilation – or stop motion using live actors, found in films such as Norman McLaren's Oscar-winning 1952 short, Neighboursis having a resurgence too. The Los Angeles team Corridor Digital use GoPro cameras to make films featuring outrageously over-the-top fight and chase scenes, while PES (a.k.a. Santa Monica director Adam Pesapane) blends live action with visual-pun-filled animation in pieces like the Oscar-nominated Fresh Guacamole (2013), where Pesapane scoops avocado flesh out of a grenade.

And these filmmakers' followers are being inspired to do their own DIY work, in a field where the costs of entry are low and the learning curve isn't steep. Fukushima insists that with the NFB's StopMo Studio app, released last year for $3.95, "someone's eight-year-old child can make pretty accomplished and complete stop-motion film on their own, on the iPad that they have in the living room."

For all stop motion's emphasis on painstaking craft, says Hayward, "You can just jump right into it, set the camera up, put the light on, and start pushing things. It's the purest form of animation. Your limitations are gravity [and] whatever your imagination can create."

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