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Stop-motion animation holds its own

Ryan Huddle/Globe Staff

It has nothing to do with drawing and, in most cases, there’s nary a computer in sight. Yet the old-school animation style known as stop motion — you know, Gumby, Speedy Alka-Seltzer, the California Raisins — appears to be the latest craze in feature films.

On the heels of “ParaNorman,” which opened Friday, “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” is getting its DVD release later this month. Early fall will see an English-dubbed theatrical premiere of the fantastical but creepy 2009 Czech-produced fable, “Toys in the Attic.” And in October, Tim Burton’s highly anticipated remake of his live-action short, “Frankenweenie,” will premiere in theaters as a stop-motion black-and-white feature.

“ParaNorman,’’ the new 3-D stop-motion zombie comedy, introduces moviegoers to the Babcock family, whose members (from left) are voiced by Elaine Stritch, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Anna Kendrick.

LAIKA, Inc.

“ParaNorman,’’ the new 3-D stop-motion zombie comedy, introduces moviegoers to the Babcock family, whose members (from left) are voiced by Elaine Stritch, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Anna Kendrick.

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Why the sudden love affair with casts of puppets being moved one frame at a time? It’s probably not because studio decision-makers believe that audiences have had enough of computer-generated hits such as “Avatar” and the “Ice Age” movies. Maybe they see more millions and repeat returns in the “what’s old is new again” approach. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is still a much-loved holiday classic; the 1993 film “The Nightmare Before Christmas” was very profitable by the time it had its fourth re-release in 2008.

Cost may also be a factor. But animated films, like all movies, vary widely in that department. Traditional cel-drawn films include 1999’s “The Iron Giant” (budget, $70 million) and last year’s “Winnie the Pooh” ($30 million). CG films are the most expensive to create, as demonstrated by 2009’s “Avatar ($237 million) and 2010’s “Toy Story 3” ($200 million). Stop-motion films range from 2009’s “Coraline” ($60 million) to “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (a bargain at $18 million). Disney is being tight-lipped about the cost of the upcoming “Frankenweenie.” But Trey Thomas, the film’s animation director, has said, “It’s a very personal project for Tim [Burton]. He wanted to do it in stop motion and he wanted it to be in black and white. So it’s a low-budget movie, and it’s a very retro movie.”

The artists who make stop-motion films, peopled by puppets with steel armatures covered in either clay or silicon, have their own opinions about the current popularity.

Chris Butler and Sam Fell are the British fellows who co-directed “ParaNorman,” which they describe as a stop-motion zombie movie. They both admit to first being blown away by the technique when, as kids, they saw the stop-motion work of Ray Harryhausen in “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” and “Jason and the Argonauts.”

Butler, who was the storyboard supervisor on the Oscar-nominated “Coraline,” points out that stop motion is an “age-old technique.” Film historians credit the long-lost 1898 short “The Humpty Dumpty Circus,” by Albert E. Smith and J. Stuart Blackton, as the first example of stop motion. The 1902 Edwin S. Porter short “Fun in a Bakery Shop” is available for viewing on YouTube. Stop motion really entered the mainstream when visual effects master Willis O’Brien brought King Kong to screen life, one frame at a time, in 1933.

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“Esthetically it’s different from CG because it has all the imperfections of a real object,” said Butler. “There are generally fewer stop-mo movies, so when you see one, it does actually challenge the audience to think, ‘How did they do that?’ ”

“There’s this basic, very simple, but astonishing bit of magic that happens,” said Fell, co-director of the 2008 CG film “The Tale of Despereaux.” “These inanimate things come to life before your eyes. And you know that they’re real things. Your eyes tell you that they’re cloth and goat hair, with real light falling on it, but somehow it’s imbued with life, and it’s really moving and talking.”

Trey Thomas worked his way up from being one of many animators on “The New Adventures of Gumby” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas” to lead animator on “Coraline,” and now animation director on “Frankenweenie” (set to open Oct. 5). Another big fan of Harryhausen, whose films he said had “an indescribable visceral quality to them that was just haunting,” he defined stop motion as “a process where you animate puppets, a frame at a time, 24 frames per second. You move them in tiny increments, then photograph them again, tiny increment, photograph them again.”

Thomas believes that the market is saturated with CG films, and that because so many of them look vaguely similar, “people are looking for something new, something different. Stop motion is accessible, and the handmade quality makes people like it.”

In a 2005 interview for his film “Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” producer Peter Lord, who co-
directed this year’s “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” (on DVD Aug. 28), pointed out that what’s fun for viewers to watch can be more fun for animators to make.

“There’s this basic, very simple, but astonishing bit of magic that happens,” said Sam Fell (left), with “ParaNorman” co-director Chris Butler, of the stop-motion technique.

John Tlumacki/Globe staff

“There’s this basic, very simple, but astonishing bit of magic that happens,” said Sam Fell (left), with “ParaNorman” co-director Chris Butler, of the stop-motion technique.

“Animators are trained to animate objects,” he said. “And they find it very hard to resist doing things like blinking. It may take two days to do a three-second shot, and the animator thinks, ‘Oh, I haven’t made this character blink all afternoon.’ So they stick another blink in. But it’s actually only been a second since they last blinked.”

A stop-motion production can often be much more complex than even a live-action film, especially when there are multiple sets being worked on at the same time. For “Frankenweenie,” the story of Victor, a young boy who, through science, brings his pet dog Sparky back to life after he’s run over, Thomas had up to 40 sets going at once.

“We had 20 Victors, eight live Sparkys, and eight dead Sparkys,” he said. “The puppets were being worked overtime; as soon as they finished one scene, they would be rushed across the set to another scene.”

The same thing was going on at the 52 sets for “ParaNorman,” the story of Norman, a young boy who can see and talk to ghosts, and must save his town from a zombie attack.

“Every character was in multiples,” said Fell. “We had 28 Normans.”

If that wasn’t difficult enough, Butler made things even more challenging.

“Our approach was that all the things you shouldn’t do in stop motion, all the things that are really difficult, we thought, let’s do it. Things like crowd scenes, extensive sets, fire, clouds, big effects.”

Is all of this toil worth it? Looking at key projects in the pipeline, the answer seems to be yes.

Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) is in preproduction on a 3-D stop-motion version of “Pinocchio,” with Daniel Radcliffe already onboard to voice the title character. And Laika, the production company behind “ParaNorman” and “Coraline,” has optioned the soon-to-be-released Philip Reeve novel “Goblins,” as well as “Wildwood,” the novel by Decembrists lead singer Colin Meloy.

Animation fans like what they see on the horizon.

Gabriel Polonsky, an animator with his own studio in Belmont, credits the stop-motion TV series “Davey and Goliath” with getting him interested in filmmaking as a kid growing up in Newton. That led him to work at the now-defunct Olive Jar Studios in Boston, where he helped create stop-motion IDs for MTV, Nickelodeon, and the Cartoon Network.

“I’m really glad these films are coming out,” he said. “It’ll give a real shot in the arm to the medium and the industry. And it’s never going to go away. There’s something about it that grabs people in a certain way, and you cannot get it with any other technique.”

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

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