Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Stop-motion, Scale & Landscape

This past month's issue of Metropolis magazine had an article on the stop-motion animation version of Neil Gaiman's "Coraline" that should be out later this year. The director is Henry Selick, who also directed "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "James and the Giant Peach". Both of these are also primarily stop-motion animation features. I've enjoyed this style of animation for a long time now, probably first getting introduced to it in the form of the Rankin & Bass produced TV Christmas specials such as "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer".

There are a couple of features of stop-motion animation that I think make it uniquely interesting to me. The first of these is that you're taking these physical, real-world objects and injecting life into them. In some ways, it's like a magician's creation of a Golem, and there truely is something magical in the illusion of life given to these inanimate things. The second feature of stop-motion that I find really intriguing is how it plays with our pre-conceived notions of scale. Miniratures shot close-up with a camera look huge on the screen. So you can either create doll-house sets to represent the "real" world (as you find in the amazing "Wallace & Grommit" films by Nick Park), or you can abstract existing "real" scale objects to create the landscape of the film. One animated short I remember that did this very well in an animation festival I saw years ago was called "The Potato Hunter" by animator Timothy Hittle. In it, baked potatos become buffalo roaming the plain (or plane in this case) of the dinner table.

There's also a hybrid abstracted-dollhouse landscape that seems to be what I enjoy the most. The animation of The Brother's Quay fall's into this category. They bring an incredible graphic design sensibility to their animated worlds, transforming a packaging barcode from the "real" sized world into a wall paper pattern. The characters and stories they introduce often create a nightmare dollhouse world with its own dream logic in the landscape they have crafted.

This dream-like quality and landscape abstraction also can be seen in Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas". That film presents some beautiful examples of traditional landscapes abstracted into a dream-like spaces. The traditional cemetery is warped into a jack-o-lantern filled, rolling hill graveyard. That they were minirature sets blown up to full-size on screen somehow connects back to that magic of the golem creation myth.

I think this abstraction of scale is something that can have a strong impact on people's imaginations. In gardens the creation of bonsai comes to mind as one of the most popular forms. To shrink a tree down to such a compact form in a way compresses the landscape into minirature. The whole world is contained in a single pot. We hover over it like a giant. On the flip side of scale, there have been many artists who blow-up mundane objects to gigantic size, such as this saftey-pin sculpture at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco that I took a photo of. The re-scaling of the object not only makes us rethink about the aesthetic shape of the object, it also shrings us down to the world of the object. We are the size of insects. Thinking about these things, it is clear to me that scale can be a powerful tool in affecting how people experience a space. I'll try and be more conscious of it in the future.

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