When people ask me what was my favourite film of 2022, I’d probably join almost everyone else that saw it in claiming Every Everywhere All At Once. But if you asked me what was the most inspiring film that I saw last year? That would be a fascinating little oddity called “Mad God.”
A dizzying fever dream of a film that’s just over an hour in length, it’s an experimental horror film around 30 years in the making. The project is the work of one man – legendary stop-motion animator Phil Tippett; the man who brought to life some of the most memorable effects in the original Star Wars trilogy, Jurassic Park and countless more. It’s a passion project of singular ambition and, while it certainly won’t be for everyone, it’s impossible to deny how impressive it is.
What makes it so absorbing however, isn’t the plot (there barely is one) and it certainly isn’t the characters (again, none to speak of); it’s the oppressively unsettling atmosphere and that atmosphere is almost entirely down to the animation style. This is probably the first stop-motion experimental horror film to exist on such a scale and is testament to the enduring power of the artform.
But in an age where even Aardman (arguably the most famous name in the stop-motion game) choose to use computer animation to bolster their efforts, is there still room in the creative toolbox for such an antiquated animation method?
Imperfection is a very difficult thing to fake. There’s a certain eerie, wanky quality to early stop-motion efforts such as Bagpuss and Trumpton that lend them a unique charm; a spidery, otherworldly quality makes us feel as if we're peering into another world. It’s this imperfectly perfect style that makes stop-motion so magnetic.
Of course, when stop-motion was first used back in the early 20th century in films like The Lost World and King Kong, the idea was to make it look as realistic as possible. Audiences back then, however, were easier to fool as filmmaking in general was still in its infancy. Fast forward to the 60s and 70s and the incredible works of Ray Harryhausen and the style had evolved into what was, at the time, the equivalent of today’s CGI animation.
Even in the 90s, when computer graphics had finally started to live up to the hype, the likes of Wallace and Gromit and The Nightmare Before Christmas kept the embers burning. Then there were the music videos (everyone from Peter Gabriel and Tool to The White Stripes and Radiohead) and the iconic adverts. Indeed, it’s in the short-form world of advertising that the artform has arguably found its forever home. And it’s easy to see why.
The benefits of stop-motion
Aside from the singular aesthetic, there are several reasons to opt for stop-motion over “easier” options.
Easier to use than to build
Stop-motion sets the stage for modern animators now that we have animation skills to follow and make a video. The films created are stunningly beautiful as they make use of real-time props and frames. Tangible things such as food, vegetation, and so on are also utilized in some contexts. It is often easier to use an object than to create it using intricate computer animation.
You may save money and time by using the appropriate concepts and employing an experienced stop-motion animation team. Stop-motion movies may require a large sequence of images to be shot, but once the frame is set, the shoot can be made relatively quickly and efficiently.
Physically real props
The realism of stop-motion animation is part of what makes it so appealing. Highly talented artists and animators create all the props and objects, resulting in a physical reality that is difficult to confuse with computer-generated visuals.
The manual effort
For hours, a team works tirelessly on a prop set, moving items a few millimeters. This demonstrates excellent preparation and execution. It takes a lot of work but yields a superb dimension with limitless possibilities.
Where are we seeing it today?
Besides advertising and fringe cinema, stop-motion is still working its magic in Hollywood. Just look at the incredible Fantastic Mr Fox and Isle of Dogs films from Wes Anderson. Indeed, the upcoming Chicken Run 2 is set to be almost entirely stop-motion and is set to debut later this year on Netflix, more than 5 years after first being announced.
Why did it take so long? Because stop-motion takes as long as it takes and, honestly, that’s half of what inspires me about it. We live in a world that’s obsessed with immediacy and quickfire satisfaction; a world that is diametrically opposed to the tentative and drawn-out art of stop-motion animation.
It’s a technique that allows its creators to truly bask in their vision and luxuriate in the process. As creatives, isn’t that something we should be celebrating?