Stop Motion's charm and its impact on CGI - Dissertation Idea, Would like opinions and advice from Stop-Motion fans!

Hello everyone!

I'm an animation student fom DJCAD art school in Scotland, I'm studying animation and am about to enter my 4th year... which means dissertation time!

Being a big fan of stop-motion, I wanted to use it as the central theme of my dissertation, whilst looking at something new that I can learn from. I have come up with the loose theme as follows:

I'm going to explore stop-motions history and try and examine where stop motion gets its charm and appeal, that is unique to its medium, and not found in others. I will be trying to point out what makes the medium unique.. then I will look at how that has impacted the development of CGI animation and effects, and why digital animation does not fundamentally have the same charm as stop-motion... Then after establishing that, I will go on to explore attempts by CGI to try and capture the appeal and charm of stop motion, by exploring films and other case studies, and evaluating how successful they were. 

Firstly, any thoughts on my area of focus? Do you think this is interesting? Your opinions as well on the matter would be of great help to me, in building arguments for and against.

Also does anyone know of any great articles or written material out there on this subject that may prove useful? I am finding things, but there is a lot of stuff out there to trawl through.

And also most notably, does anyone have any great suggestions of CGI films that try and emulate/capture the charms of stop motion? I have been thinking of films that do this in varying stages of success, and one main contender for a case study is The Lego Movie, and I was also considering The Book Of Life (not so much for its capture technique, but for the fact that it embraces a very stop motion-esque model style, with the wooden puppet characters) Anything that you can think of would be of so much use and I would really appreciate it! 

Also on the same note, I am trying to create a list of films that have a direct stop motion and CGI comparison, either through the fact that they are a remake (Clash of the Titans, for example) or sequels, (Terminator, Star Wars original vs re master and prequels) or films that cut stop motion in favor of CGI (Jurassic Park) Any Ideas?

Thank you so much for your time and for reading this anyone! :)

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A very intriguing topic! There's so much crossover between today's stopmotion and CGI that it's hard to imagine what either one would look like without the other. 

A while back there were a few threads focused on a CGI package that was actually created to mimic clay animation - I don't remember if that was on this board or the old one. Did it actually include fake fingerprints on the puppets? Or was that something we were joking about? Wish I could remember where the threads were. 

As for scenes in CG movies that look like stopmotion, the whole beginning of Hellboy: The Golden Army looked like little stopmo puppets. Just about any CG scene with living skeletons is a tribute to Harryhausen's originals of course. I remember some talk on the board about the Scorpion King - when the creature first appeared people said it used frame dropping in order to deliberately mimic that stuttery stopmotion effect. 

Here's a video somebody just posted about today that goes into some detail about how modern stopmotion is using the tricks and tools developed for CG to sweeten the pot: Stop Mo Compositing: The Power of Controlling Time. Pretty amazing what can be done now using a mix of old fashioned puppet pushing and modern digital effects and compositing. 

I've just been watching that video Strider linked to -  where a compositor explains some of Laika's techniques in The Boxtrolls, and that is a film that is really a hybrid combining stop motion and cgi together.  And rather than look for a pure cgi film that comes close to stop motion, this is one where the cgi has to look the same to blend in, and it does.  Usually there are one or two stopmotion puppets that are the main focus, with a lot of background characters done with cgi duplicates.  The set can be models, all cgi, or a blend.  It does not aim for a crude and obvious stopmotion look, the actual stopmotion is smooth enough to stand up next to cgi so there is no need to make the cgi any different.

When I first saw stopmotion creature effects on screen - it was the cyclops in Seventh Voyage of Sinbad - I think it was something about the slight unreality of the creature that appealed.  It had the freedom of movement that live puppets almost never do, and clearly wasn't shaped like a man in a suit, so in many ways it could do something that no other method could, back then.  But there was something about how it moved - derided by some moviegoers as fake, but a key part of its charm for some of us.  

I don't know that it was the slight steppiness, or the lack of motion blur,  both of which are characteristic.  Because for me, the appeal is still there with the much smoother animation we can do now with framegrabbers, and even when motion blur is added in post so it blends in more with the live action.  I think it has something to do with the way the animator has to direct the movement frame by frame.  It's never random or pointless, maybe because it's so much damn work to do, each frame is helping to tell the story, and I think something of that conscious control comes through.  It doesn't so much, in keyframe animation where the cgi animator is relying on a few keys and the automatic calculation by the computer of all the in-betweens, but there is some of the animator's touch when they take charge of every frame.  It's like the artificial hyper-expressiveness of classic cel animation, it seems to say more than accurate rotoscoping of live actors ever could.  It's more subtle than the old 2d squash 'n stretch when it's a stopmo puppet, but there is still a sense of an art to the movement.  Of course there is an art to live movement (like dance or puppetry) too, but it's a different medium, just as a line drawing is less real than an oil painting, and a painting is less real than a photograph, but each has a power of its own.

The fact that it is a physical object with real light falling on it must be part of it too, but that is true of a rod puppet as well.  And there is a stylisation to the way a rod puppeteer moves his character too, but not exactly the same style as the work of an animator.

So I guess it is that each medium imposes certain limitations on the artist, but these limitations also give that form it's individuality and greatest strength, and that is just as true of stop motion.

But getting back to the Boxtrolls, where the puppets used computer printed replacement faces, and a large portion of what you see on screen might be cgi, I did feel there was some loss of the unique stopmotion feel.  For sections of the film I felt some detachment, despite the awesome skills on display.   I couldn't tell that anything I was seeing wasn't really stop motion, but I think the charm was somewhat watered down.

Wow Nick - some excellent observations! You've gone farther with this post than any discussion we've had on the boards before on the subject. Indeed, Laika treats stopmotion with reverence and respect, unlike so many CGI studios that see it as clunky and stuttery and old fashioned in their 'tributes' that are actually more like insults. In fact, Laika has done more than anyone else to bring the two disciplines together rather than see it as a simple black and white battle, and to advance both while sort of merging them stylistically. I also felt a detachment in some scenes, but I think it was mainly because there was just too much stuff moving around all the time, like a Transformers movie, and that's doubtless because they used CGI so extensively - if it all had to be stopmo animated, the scale of the film would have been smaller I'm sure. I also felt exhausted by the end, as I tend to with each Laika film - they seem to want to have very complex multiple climaxes at the end, which I think was started by Cameron with his "Oops - and you thought it was over" trick endings**. But I don't mean to bash on Laika - just trying to explain that I'm not sure the detachment I felt was directly due to the CGI itself. Actually, though I knew they used CGI, I couldn't pick it out while I was watching - I need to give it another whirl. 

** Though now that I think about it, the original Alien used that trick as well, didn't it? So I can't blame Cameron entirely. I'm sure it's an old trick really. But he seems to have really taken to it and made it a thing in modern effects filmmaking. 

Strider - Thats a great response, that animation package sounds pretty interesting, it reminds me of reading about the making of the Lego movie, where to make it seem more realistic, they would calculate the amount of dust, lint etc, that should appear in frame, and fingerprints etc. Also, good call on the intro to Hellboy, I had not considered that! but it's a good point, its similar I think in part to 'The Book of Life' both are animations that I think try to take the design of a stop motion film, and make the characters look like puppets, which is certainly charming, however they didn't really try to emulate the appearance of stop motion that much, with the animation being very smooth and inbetweened. But still very interesting! And that Laika talk was pretty eye opening, I think Boxtrolls might make for a good case study, as they have managed to create quite a good mimicry of stop motion to accompany their main puppets... this is worth looking into further!

StopmoNick - Thanks for the response! Strider was right, thats a very nice, detailed post, so thank you very much! I really like your point about stop motion frames being so planned and important, that makes a lot of sense, the idea of every single thing having meaning and adding to the point of the animation! Your other points about stop motions appeal are also very perceptive! I am wanting to explore points like this as I analyze the charm, I would like to be able to try and study it from a couple angles, like the technical things that make it charming, like the motion blur, realistic lights etc, and more subjective things, like the attention to detail in each frame, the appeal of seeing a puppet coming to 'life' in front of you etc. I certainly think that a large part of it is the emotional connection you feel with the form, knowing that an animation was present for every single frame of the film, and that everything you see was crafted by hand frame by frame, watching hours of work compressed into seconds... there is a lot to consider!

I would agree with your opinion on the Boxtrolls as well, there are times in the film where things can feel just a little too complicated, and a little too polished to the point where you start to think 'is this stop motion? seems pretty complex' etc, I think its the same thing with the Lego movie, they try to look like stop motion, but there are scenes in the film (such as the wave effects) where its just so large and complex that it breaks any illusion created, as the effect becomes more obviously CGI when you see it used in such large instances. If that makes any sense?


Strider (2nd Post) - I totally agree, I think Laika is a great institution of stop motion, I'm glad we have them, as I think they really have helped stop motion, especially in cinema of late. I think you have hit the nail on the head with the CGI stuff in it though, its due to the scale of the film, which is maybe why I preferred their earlier films to The Boxtrolls, when it was a more subtle blend of CG, in for example Paranorman.

Oh wow, how did I not remember this? Some time ago a member on the original board (of which this one is a reincarnation) named Moviestuff made a very pertinent observation, to the effect that the strengths of stopmotion are the weaknesses of CG and vice verse. I wish I could remember the whole thing, but what I do remember - CG characters by their nature move in unnaturally smooth spline curves. In order to give their motion anything approaching realism or character you need to work extremely hard to deliberately inject some imperfections. With stopmo it's the opposite - you need to work really hard and develop a great deal of skill to make the movement look anything like smooth. 

This is closely related to another issue connected with CG that we've discussed many times - that because anything is possible in the digital realm they tend to go for extreme spectacle - for example all the various creatures that move impossibly fast and as if gravity doesn't affect them. In the first round of Spiderman movies you could always tell when they switched to the CG spidey because he started leaping around like he was on a low gravity planet or something. Less-than-professional films aside, most stopmotion animators have always tried to duplicate real world physics as closely as they can. For whatever reasons, CG animators don't feel compelled to do the same. Though I have seen rants by many CG animators about this as well,and it's become clear that it's often the producers demanding that kind of motion because they think it's what the audience wants to see (extreme spectacle). 

Very much so! I completely agree, the sometimes apparent weightlessness of CGI animation is certainly something that makes it stand out in a bad way!.... and it is definitely something it could learn a bit from stop motion with... I think it also links a little to what StopmoNick was talking about, where in stop motion you need to consider each frame so much, so these things are very well thought out, and the animation can be more convincing as a result, cause they have considered some of the fundamentals of animation (the parallel here i guess would be solid drawing in 2D, the idea of your drawing having weight etc.) And the idea of CGI grabbing on to the spectacle is I think a reason that people are more critical and expect more of CGI sometimes, as their expectations are raised, and they want it bigger and better the next time, which leads to disappointment and more scrutiny of things like how realistic it is. Whereas on the other hand, with stop motion, you pretty much know what you are seeing, and you accept the limitations of a physical model, and as such, its more appealing I think, as you are not wanting more spectacle, you are just taking it for what it is, the magic of it!

Also that point you mention from the old boards sounds really useful! It would be very interesting to read it, as it is something that seems to fit right in with the matter I'm trying to explore! It also would help point out why CGI needs to learn from stop motion, by exploring the failings of CGI, its weak spots, like the clinically smooth animation, and things like the uncanny valley. It is a very apt description of the 2 genres of animation, and one definitely one that I think i will touch upon when It comes time for me to write!

Only for add some ideas:
I think stop motion is a true “art”. You build puppets and sets modeling with your own hands like a sculptor or painter; and the way you animate it becomes a kind of art form also (like StopmoNick suggests). We can add the cinematographic aspects to all this stuff. By contrast, when CGI imitates Stop Motion or real life, it seems don't have a own artistic objetive. It is dedicated to imitate other things so perfectly as possible. It gets a real life copy used in films for complicated or spectacular scenes or in stop motion for reduce animation working load.
It looks something like:
-“This scene is too dangerous, we will do in CGI”
-“We have no budget for building that. Will do in CGI”
-“We can’t animate so many puppets. Will do in CGI”
I don’t mean that CGI is not difficult or meritorious. It really is a lot, but in those situations it looks like the “delivery boy” doing work that add nothing to the artistic stuff.
Of course I refer to imitating application of CGI, not to specific CGI films, really nice work in that field.
When CGI imitates other things, at end, the true artistic opus is the film. CGI try get in on the sly and trying nobody noticed it.
I’m sure people don’t want see a complete true image film made in CGI today. They want see actors moving there and know they are real persons (and do selfies with them).
¿What will happen when CGI does the stuff so well that people cannot differentiate it from real thing? It is a interesting question cause this is happening today with stop motion. CGI does the stuff really very close to real stuff. ¿Can it substitute to real stop motion? Well, cinematographic industry will do that results cheaper and people can take but we must not lose perspective, if you wants play violin, you buy one and take classes. You don't buy a computer and try get a violin sound!
I think the true forms of art will survive. Always will be people playing real violins and making real stop motion, and people ready to take it. Of course, the “great industry moment” of real stop motion will go descending. And in this point we can think if we are speaking about art or about money. We could ask ¿An art form is died if it's no industry around it and you cannot be a professional of it?

Well, they are just ramblings
(Sorry the spanglish)

What a fascinating thread! Here's a couple of thoughts:

Dropping computer-generated effects into a stop-mo film is just another way of expanding one's artistic palette. So things like fire, smoke, water, motion blur, eyelid blinks, combining live action with stop-mo and creating CG backgrounds can add to the film, but are clearly not purist. Where you position yourself along the curve is an artistic decision.

There will always be something fascinating about watching real puppets moving around on a real stage. Perhaps it is inherent in the uncertainty that must accompany animating straight ahead as opposed to setting keyframes and filling in in-betweens. There is risk and jeopardy, something might not go quite to plan. It's more like real acting. I think an audience senses that in the performance.

Antonio - Some very nice thoughts and comparisons there! Thanks! I especially like your metaphor about the violin, its a very good point. Also the idea of money versus art is a very interesting comparison, its a very nice way of thinking about it! just cause its not at the forefront of marketability, doesn't mean the form is dying :) I like that.

Simon - Thanks for the reply! I like your thought about the audience seeing the minor hazards and flaws associated with animating straight ahead, its one that I plan on talking about when it comes to the charm of the form. I think that whether recognized by the audience consciously or subconsciously, the flaws are picked up by us, and that goes a long way to establishing the appeal of the form for us. I think a comparison there might be similar to the difference between film and theatre, where in film, you can take many takes to get it perfect and the way you want, where in a live performance, you have to jsut go with the flow, 'straight ahead' you could say. The audience like this I think, and that is why theatre as well, still has a place.

Exactly, there is a tension - we know that the actor in a play, or indeed the puppet actor can deviate from what was originally intended. In another thread some more experienced animators than me mentioned the value of filming themselves performing an action before animating it, because they can capture those little human quirks that would otherwise go unnoticed. Strider said much the same above.

Some good stuff for your dissertation!

Yes, this is all amazing insight for my dissertation, thank you to everyone so far for helping me discuss the subject! It has been invaluable to my research!

Also, I know what you mean Simon, in classes on my animation course we had to do the same thing, we had to record and act out things we would be animating, so that we could look for the things you mention, and so we could 'feel' the movement and expressions etc!

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