Today’s excellent Top 10 comes from Kansas City animation student Jessica Wisneski. Make sure and watch some of the amazing stop-motion animation shorts and clips embedded within the post. If you have an idea for a Top 10, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Here’s Jess:
After I talked some trash on a Top 10 list, Eric, in his polite way, suggested I put my money where my mouth is and come up with my own Top 10. It was surprising to me that no one had made a list for stop-motion animation, so I wanted to show love for some amazing films. I chose the following based on new techniques they introduced and how influential they were (and are), as well as arbitrary awesomeness. Enjoy!
Honorable mentions: Street of Crocodiles (1986) by the Quay Brothers, Balance (1989) by Christoph and Wolfgang Lauenstein, Creature Comforts (1990) by Nick Park, Darkness, Light, Darkness (1989) by Jan Svankmajer, The Demon (1972) by Kihachiro Kawamoto, Valley of Gwangi (1969), special effects by Ray Harryhausen, The Lost World (1925), special effects by Willis O’Brien, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) by Wes Anderson.
10. The Wrong Trousers (1993)
“The Wrong Trousers” is a claymation short by Nick Park of Aardman Studios. Wacky inventor Wallace has modified ex-NASA trousers to create a remote ‘walker’ for Gromit’s birthday. To combat the rising stack of bills, Wallace rents out a room to a mute penguin, whom Gromit discovers (while out on his walk) is actually a wanted thief called Feathers McGraw. Hilarity ensues when Gromit tries to foil the penguin’s plan to use the mechanical trousers for a big heist. The Wallace and Gromit movies are well known for their slapstick humor and tongue-in-cheek jokes (Gromit reads a paper with a headline ‘Dog Reads Paper’). Some would argue that there are better Wallace and Gromit movies, but this one has a penguin in it and that’s all I care about. “The Wrong Trousers” won the Academy Award for Animated Short in 1993.
9. Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase (1992)
Joan Gratz is considered the pioneer of clay painting. In “Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase,” Gratz uses clay to render likenesses to original works of art. Starting with the Mona Lisa, Gratz then takes the viewer on an art history tour through the 20th century, seamlessly morphing between each painting as she goes. Did I mention that each work of art looks exactly like the original and that she’s working only with clay? Gratz even gives personality to the individual paintings – a wink, a sigh – before moving to the next work. “Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase” won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short in 1992, even without showing the titular Nude Descending a Staircase (although Duchamp makes an appearance).
8. Dimensions of Dialogue, Part One (1982)
Surrealist Jan Svankmajer uses mostly found objects and clay in his animation. I chose “Dimensions of Dialogue, Part One” for its statement on how colliding human cultures change each other as they meet, and also because it’s one of the few of his films you can watch at work. Two human heads in profile, one composed of food, the other of kitchen utensils, meet. The kitchen utensil head swallows the other, creating one giant head, as the utensils commence chopping up all the food. The utensil head then spits out the food, creating another human head made of smaller pieces of food. This chewing up and spitting out continues back and forth until the heads are clay replicas of real human heads. What is particularly awesome about this short is how he can separate out all the little bits that belong to each head after he mixes them together.
7. The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)
“The Adventures of Prince Achmed” is the oldest surviving animated feature film. Lotte Reiniger began production in 1923. Completed in 1926, it utilizes backlit hand-cut, jointed cardboard and lead-panel figures and sand to animate the stories of Prince Achmed and Aladdin. Reiniger spoke in an interview of her talent with scissors, which is evident in the amazingly intricate backdrops and figures. She was only in her 20s upon completing the film, and rumor has it that Jean Renoir helped her find the funding to finish it. This is the first recorded use of the multi-plane camera in animation (designed to give depth of field), although Ray Harryhausen claims Willis O’Brien was the first to use it.
6. The Hand (1965)
Jiri Trnka was regarded as the ‘Walt Disney of the East’ for his work in puppet animation. His films inspired many in Western Europe and the Communist Bloc, including filmmaker Jean Cocteau. “The Hand” was Trnka’s last film. It features a little artist puppet who wants to do nothing more than make clay pots for his beloved flower until a giant hand appears and demands that he make a statue of a giant, uh, hand. The artist refuses to do so, no matter what the hand bribes him with. The film takes a grim turn when the hand (wearing a lace glove) finally seduces the artist and puppeteers him into a cage to carve the statue. Things do not end well in this dark metaphor of the artist (and writer) experience under the Soviet regime. Trnka’s talent lies in the way he can give emotion to a puppet with a painted face. The puppet’s expression never changes, and yet the viewer can sense his changes of mood.
5. Coraline (2008)
Directed by Henry Selick (“The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “James and the Giant Peach”), “Coraline” is the first full-length stop motion feature to be shot entirely in 3D. Based on the book by Neil Gaiman, Coraline is a young girl who moves to a house in the country with her self-involved parents. She becomes bored and begins to explore her new surroundings, meeting her wacky neighbors and a stray cat. During her explorations, she finds a secret door and enters into the magical world of the Other Mother, who wants Coraline to stay with her forever. The attention to detail in the movie is nothing short of amazing – everything is handmade. Coraline’s sweater and gloves were hand-knit by a miniature knitting specialist; the cherry blossoms on the cherry trees are actually hundreds of pieces of popped corn, hand-painted pink in the center; every strand of Coraline’s hair can be animated separately.
4. Krysař (The Pied Piper of Hamelin) (1985)
Jiri Barta studied under Svankmajer, and Svankmajer’s love of the grotesque definitely shows in Barta’s “Krysař (The Pied Piper of Hamelin).” There are no children in this gruesome retelling; only greedy adults and greedy rats. Barta’s Hamelin is a beautiful town in wood-cut, Cubist fashion (Cubist! Not kidding – check it out), with hand-carved wooden puppets and reanimated rats. The townspeople spend their lives ripping each other off and arguing about prices, while the rats snag everything they possibly can. Enter the pied piper, who performs his hired task of ridding the town of rats, only to be ripped off by the mayor. When the only other good person in town is killed, the piper takes matters into his own hands.
3. King Kong (1933)
“King Kong” inspired a number of animators and filmmakers, among them Ray Harryhausen, who left the theater determined to make his own Kong. “King Kong” came to fruition after director Merian C. Cooper came across Willis O’Brien’s footage for the never-finished “Creation.” He scrapped the footage, but kept O’Brien’s dinosaurs and hired him to do the effects for “King Kong.” Not much is known about O’Brien’s techniques or methods since he refused to give interviews, although Harryhausen, who worked closely with O’Brien on “Mighty Joe Young” (1949), credits O’Brien with helping him refine his model construction.
2. Tale of Tales (1979)
Yuri Norstein’s “Tale of Tales” has been voted the best animated film of all time by several international panels of animators. Inspired by a Russian lullaby the film flits from image to image to emphasize the fluidity of memory, incorporating characters mentioned in the song. Norstein uses repeat images of a bull jumping rope with a girl, dancing couples, and the cutest little wolf cub you’ll ever see to help tie this otherwise unstructured narrative together. Some of the film’s most poignant moments are when the dancing couples are separated as the men are called off to war (the women wait patiently for those who won’t return), and the wolf cub’s journey through various landscapes, highlighting the progression of time. Norstein’s animating style is remarkable in his use of a giant multi-plane camera to create depth and his use of vinyl cutouts to create amazing texture and movement. Each layer of a face – eyes, mustache, cheek color, jaw – is a separate entity to allow each to be animated on its own (the documentary “Magia Russica” demonstrates his technique).
1. Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
Since this could have easily been a top ten list of Ray Harryhausen movies, I restricted myself to just one (but I put him at the top! Compromise!). Harryhausen has inspired generations of animators and filmmakers with his model animation sequences. I chose “Jason and the Argonauts” for the amazing skeleton fight sequence, which took four and a half months to film, including choreographing the live actors and counting frames for model placement. Harryhausen himself claims this to be his favorite film, due to his satisfaction both with the storyline and the animation. Along with his meticulous patience, Harryhausen also has a gift for giving personality to his figures. Talos is a giant bronze statue, but still manages to emote dying so convincingly you can’t help but feel sad for him. Another of Harryhausen’s talents: creating excellent scary monsters. I was four when I first saw “Clash of the Titans,” and Medusa scared me so much I threw up. For everyone who will hate me for not listing “Clash of the Titans” or whatever their favorite Harryhausen is, here’s a mashup of all his monsters.