Twenty first-century mainstream cinema is obsessed with achieving the photoreal representation of the impossible. Blockbuster after blockbuster parades superheroes battling super villains, cataclysmic natural disasters or intergalactic beings rampaging through both imaginary and familiar worlds. It has been 30 years since Tron (Steven Lisberger, 1982) wowed audiences with a wire-frame representation of cyberspace in 1982, and 19 years since realistically flocking dinosaurs rushed past an amazed Sam Neill in Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993). Since then, as if Moore’s Law[i] has an additional correlation to talking animals and hostile aliens, there has been a corresponding growth of impossible images that an audience can accept as plausible in mainstream live action cinema. There is little that can’t be visualised in the special effects cinema world and William Blake (1794) might well have wondered “What immortal hand or eye / formed thy fearful symmetry”; when now that god-like hand most likely belongs to a technician labouring over a Wacom tablet at a workstation in a cubicle in Los Angeles (or London or Sydney or Wellington).
This paper examines the place of digital photorealism in contemporary mainstream filmmaking and some alternative paths, particularly stop motion animation, in visual storytelling and special effects. My first section outlines the history of stop motion and visual effects in two iterations of the film King Kong; the second part focuses on Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep (2005) as an example of the repurposing of stop motion animation as a narrative element that challenges mainstream conceptions of visual effects.
Digital effects, particularly those designed to appear to be seamlessly integrated into live action footage, are now a standard form of visual expression in mainstream cinema. Pre-digital filmmakers instead used physically constructed trick-shots, matte paintings and complex optical printing to create special effects. Stop motion animation, or puppets shot frame-by-frame in either miniature sets or composited with live action footage, was an integral part of the special effects visual vocabulary. Early examples of the blockbuster special effects genre, The Lost World (Harry O. Hoyt, 1925) and King Kong (Merian C. Cooper/Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933), for example, were reliant upon stop motion to create their fantastic scenarios. The decline of this type of animated form as a special effects tool in blockbuster films began with Jurassic Park, when initial plans to use stop motion dinosaur puppets were shelved. Stop motion animation, rather than being a special effect for the screen instead became a form of animated motion capture in a workflow that utilised the stop motion animator’s work as the movement reference for the Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) puppets. This capture system was initially called a “Dinosaur Input Device” (DID) and was later changed to a more general “Digital Input Device” (Rickitt 2006, p. 207). Stop motion animator Phil Tippett, who had worked on special effects classics such as Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977), was with Spielberg at a CGI screening test for Jurassic Park. When he saw the test footage of the digitally-animated dinosaurs, he presciently remarked, “I’m extinct” (French 1999, p. 40). What Tippit foresaw was that, as techniques like stop motion animation are difficult to seamlessly integrate into live-action footage, that they would ultimately be replaced as filmmakers transitioned to more versatile digital techniques.The clunky, jerky miniature stop motion creature lurching fuzzily through a clumsily-composited shot had been discarded by the late 1990s in favour of the cool, near-perfection of a digital aesthetic.
While contemporary filmmakers telling similar blockbuster stories now favour these digital techniques, some contemporary filmmakers approach special effects differently, conceptualising special effects beyond verisimilitude. Even as CGI visual effects become more visually sophisticated, stop motion animation has experienced a repurposing as a special effect that has its own visual language and its own emotional resonance as a visual element within the larger vocabulary of film techniques. Filmmakers such as Michel Gondry redefine commonly accepted notions of special effects when they revisit techniques such as stop motion animation in live action feature films. These films, moreover, supply an alternative view to effects aesthetics within contemporary cinema. As filmmakers are able to create increasingly more sophisticated imaginary environments and characters, the integration of the fantastic into feature films has become so commonplace as to be unremarkable.[ii] The days of touting particular special effects processes as part of a marketing strategy to emphasise a film’s promise of visual novelty, such as the campaign conducted to promote Ray Harryhousen’s “Dynamation techniques”[iii] are long gone, and the blandly non-descriptive term “CGI” covers most technical advances[iv].
Contemporary mainstream cinema aims for photorealistic depictions of the physically impossible in a filmic world. Stephen Prince (1996, pp. 34-35) argues the creation of impossible photographic images become credible though what he describes as “perceptual realism,” or a means by which to understand an image whose primary subject may not contain any real world indexical referent (for example, a dinosaur). Images of this nature instead rely on visual cues to maintain a sense of photographic realism. Elements like shadows, reflections, textures and character performance are all “multiple levels of perceptual correspondence [that] are built into the image. These establish reference points with the viewer’s own experientially based understanding of light, space, motion and the behaviour of objects in a three-dimensional world.” The development of visual effects processes is one that constantly finds and refines ever more minutely defined “levels of perceptual correspondence” in creating more complex representations of the fantastic. Many of these are layered and, as individual elements, are invisible to the audience but work in combination to create a cohesively believable whole. Chris Landreth, an animator who specialises in short experimental CGI films, talked about achieving a photoreal CGI skin for a human-like character for his film, Spine (2009). He listed a partial process of CGI elements that includes a skin texture, a displacement texture, specular shaders, a subsurface front scatter and a subsurface back scatter (Landreth, 2009). Each one of these is a different method of controlling the way light and textures are rendered within a 3D CGI environment. Subsurface front and back scatter in particular are ways of replicating the way light reflects from under skin as opposed to the way light simply reflects from skin. Every element provides a thin layer of believable visual authenticity in constructing the whole; in combination they provide Landreth’s characters with surprisingly human-like skin.
Making CGI objects convincing, believable and seamlessly integrated into a live action film visual environment is what Julie Turnock (2009, p. 134) terms the “ILM Aesthetic,” the dominating photorealistic style of special effects promulgated, in part, by the special effects giant Industrial Light and Magic (ILM). She positions this as a deliberate aesthetic rather than the inevitable visual result of working with computer generated imagery. Turnock argues the economic domination of the industry in the 1980s by ILM set the Hollywood standard in the production of a homogenized form of photoreal visualisation. She contends that the “success of Star Wars on the one hand increased the volume of the special effect business across the industry, but ironically eventually decreased the variety of aesthetics of effects”. The Star Wars trilogy proved the box office viability of the visual effects-propelled ILM-style blockbuster and that template, and its aesthetic aims, has not changed over the last few decades. As a result, Prince (2012, p. 33) describes “the creation of perceptual realism [as] a major goal of visual effects artists. Visual effects seek to persuade viewers that the effects are real within the referential terms of the story”. The tools have become more sophisticated, the computing power exponentially greater and the results increasingly immersive.
The overall look of CGI is still the result of aesthetic and stylistic choices, although the aesthetic development is circular, in that the CGI process informs the aesthetic results, which in turn inform the future development and refinement of the CGI process. It is a look that is often visually literal in its construction, as CGI aims to reflect a form of realism through emulating physics, lending the pervasiveness of the aesthetics a certian inevitability. Many CGI processes are forms of simulations of physical properties and are concerned with minute replications of real life physical effects, resulting in an aesthetic defined by algorithms that control the bounce of virtual hair, the fall of virtual light, and the casting of virtual shadows, reflecting the sophistication of the digital processes used to create them. Much of this detail would be impossible to animate in any non-digital form; ever-more-sophisticated procedural animation can compute the complexities of particles and fluids, making the processes of simulating real-world physics increasingly accurate and the visual results seem closer to reproducing live action cinema. As such, the quest to replicate the indexical relationship of camera to subject presents one future of animation in feature films, in the service of physics in the creation of visual literalism.
Photorealism, however, was not always the goal of visual effects. Before the CGI of the contemporary blockbuster; before Tron and even before the very first example of pixelated computer effects in Westworld (Michael Crichton, 1973), it was entirely acceptable to film the fantastic using combinations of optical effects, in-camera effects and animation. Up until stop motion’s demise as an integrated special effect in the late 1980s (its last gasps being seen in films such as Robocop (Paul Verhoeven,1987) or Willow (Ron Howard, 1988) it was, particularly in creature films, the traditional effects vehicle in constructing fantasy imagery. Stop motion animation, ironically, is not photoreal. It leaves too many remnant visual cues that reveal the processes of its creation. The nature of photographing and compositing miniatures into live action footage reveal cues of difference between live action natural movement in real time and artificial frame-by-frame movement, or in photographic depth of field from miniature to full scale, or the lack of motion blur in an animated frame. These elements invariably reveal the edges and the seams between the two visual forms.
As such, King Kong is a film that neatly spans the history of animation in live action cinema special effects. In 1933, King Kong’s effects were groundbreaking. Willis O’Brien’s gigantic gorilla monster grappling with “dinosauria” (New York Times, 1933) on the extraordinary Skull Island, or straddling the Empire State building clutching a screaming Fay Wray is a milestone in fantasy filmmaking. Kong has gone through several incarnations in his 80-year history, the most recent of which was Peter Jackson’s 2005 CGI epic, which makes Kong an interesting case study in visual effects fashions, the technology that drives visual effects and the ascendency of the photoreal as an aesthetic in visual effects history, a complex and sophisticated amalgam of miniatures, stop-motion animation, full-scale puppets, rear projection, matte shots and optical printing. The combination of effects, puppets and people into a cohesive visual whole was technically astounding but even the studio, RKO Pictures, seemed to doubt the film would be able to carry the burden of realism enough to convince its audience. The film was thus promoted as being rooted firmly in the realm of scientific fact. The New York Times reported that three months:
were spent investigating scientific records before a scene was photographed on the RKO-Radio sets where “King Kong” has been in the making since 1931. Geographical data concerning the vegetation, location and population of an imaginary island pictured in Edgar WaIlace’s story were checked with experts and university research departments. Paleontologists were consulted by Willis O’Brien, whose job it was to animate the dinosauria and other prehistoric monsters that figure in the jungle scenes. Murray Spivak, the studio expert on sound effects, had the task of giving voice to the ape hero and other weird creatures. He went for suggestions to Dr. O. A. Paterson, curator of mammalian paleontology at the Carnegie Museum, and Dr J W. Lytle, vertebrate paleontologist of the Los Angeles Museum. (New York Times, 1933)
The contributions of these experts provided an extra layer of veracity and authenticity that the puppet Kong may have lacked. First release film reviews revealed that audience reactions were also complex and sophisticated; the demands the film placed on viewers were noted by the critics of the day. Joe Bigelow in Variety wrote that it:
takes a couple of reels for “Kong” to be believed, and until then it doesn’t grip. But after the audience becomes used to the machine-like movements and other mechanical flaws in the gigantic animals on view, and become accustomed to the phoney atmosphere, they may commence to feel the power. As the story background is constantly implausible, the mechanical end must fight its own battle for audience confidence. Once won, it reaches a high pitch of excitement and builds up to a thrill finish in which the ape almost wrecks little ol’ New York. (1933)
It is the point reached after “a couple of reels” that is of interest here. While the press releases from RKO and movie mythology demand that Kong be seen as a technical masterpiece, or perhaps even scientific fact, it certainly does not read as ‘real’. The elements that reveal the artifice are, to a contemporary audience, very obvious. Even allowing that a 1933 audience might be less inured to the fantastic, Bigelow was noting a significant detail in this observation. In describing what happens after “a couple of reels,” and pinpointing what could be termed a third reel moment of audience belief, he indicates that no one, anywhere, was fooled. The enjoyment was not one of being convinced of the impossible, but the enjoyment of suspension of disbelief and subsequent immersion in the filmic narrative. This resonates with Tom Gunning’s assertions that the pleasure for early cinema spectators lay in accepting the impossible visual world being presented. He observes that “rather than mistaking the image for reality, the spectator is astonished by its transformation through the new illusion of projected motion. Far from credulity, it is the incredible nature of the illusion itself that renders the viewer speechless [. …] The astonishment derives from a magical metamorphosis rather than a seamless reproduction of reality” (2004, p. 118) Dan North (2008, p.89) similarly discussses the uncanny aspects of stop motion’s relationship to photographic reality when he contends that it is “Kong’s resemblance to a machine pretending to be an ape that is unsettling, as opposed to the realistic depiction of a mythical beast.” The “mechanical flaws” of Kong’s creation could recede in the audience’s mind while the real amazement was that a stringless puppet could exist in the same frame as Fay Wray at all.
The suspension of disbelief is perhaps one of the most important aspects of stop-motion animation in live action film. Animation of this nature is never photoreal and has never tried to be. The approximation is enough. The act of being transported or immersed in an effects films like this is part of the pleasure of experiencing it. Neuroscientist Norman N. Holland describes a system proposed by Richard J. Gerrig, in which belief is an integral part of the process of comprehension. Disbelief, however, needs to be actively constructed, and as such is a reaction to, or a critical judgment of, that understanding. Holland contends that “we do not suspend disbelief. We believe and then we partly disbelieve” (2008, p. 312). In Holland’s formulation, given a situation in which we know we don’t have to test reality by any action, such as a fictional narrative, we are quite happy to believe almost anything. According to Holland, then, we
do not plan to act in relation to the literary work. Neurologically, because we do not plan to act on what we are paying attention to, our brain’s reality-testing systems shut down. We don’t doubt. Psychologically, mere comprehending entails belief. We experience ‘anomalous suspense’, believing, for the nonce, things that we know perfectly well are not true and could not be true. (2008, p. 319)
“Anomolous suspense” is where Holland sites a collision of comprehension and belief, and it could also be constructed as that “third reel moment” in King Kong observed by Bigelow as the tipping point of audience collusion with the film. So that once the audience had orientated itself to the visual conceit of puppet interacting with human they were happy to go along for the cognitive ride. In another contemporary review of the 1933 King Kong, Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times describes the “camera wizardry” and compares it to the The Lost World (Harry O. Hoyt, 1925), asking his readership to imagine “a 50 ft beast with a girl in one paw climbing up the outside of the Empire State building” (1933). The image he describes is a powerful one, but the film itself offers a ruffle-furred puppet climbing an obvious minature model of a building, followed by a cut to an interior full scale set. Kong now appears as a giant mechanical paw, where the scale and manufacture of the prop indicates it belongs to a separate beast entirely. The paw bursts through the set window towards a screaming Fay Wray. These scenes, and their special effects, cannot carry a close examination. The visual discontinuity between the miniature puppet Kong, the large scale prop gorilla paw and the live action actors on a studio set is glaringly obvious, but once the audience agrees to believe there is no need for forensically convincing visual detail to guide the viewer through the narrative.
Even the willing suspension of disbelief, however, can test the limits of credulity. Contemporary reviewers noted that the film provoked laughter, although the explanations varied. Hall observed of the screening he attended that “Needless to say this picture was received by many a giggle to cover up fright. Constant exclamations issued from the Radio City Music Hall yesterday” (1933). Bigelow from Variety, at the same venue, didn’t feel the audience was as immersed as Hall indicates and suggests that the giggles were a result of the visual effects eliciting audience ridicule. Bigelow continues that there are
times when the plot takes advantage of its imaginative status and goes too far. On these occasions the customers are liable to laugh in the wrong way. A most tolerant audience at the Music Hall broke down now and then, but on the whole was exceedingly kind. It seemed that while a few details were too strong to swallow the picture, as a whole, got them. (1933)
According to Bigelow, audiences clearly understood that Kong was a visual conceit and once they became “accustomed to the phoney atmosphere” of the stop-motion effects and accepted their integration into the narrative they were then able to “commence to feel the power.” Feeling the power made for a very lucrative franchise indeed. Kong has made a fortune for his filmmakers, spawning seven remakes and spin-offs, each turning excellent profits (the-numbers.com, 2012). At the core of each film, however, are the visual problems presented to filmmakers in creating a world that, in Bigelow’s pithy summation, is “mostly about a 50-foot ape who goes for a five-foot blonde” (Bigelow, 1933).
There have been various techniques used to bring ape and blonde into the same frame over the many iterations of the film. Dino De Laurentis’ 1976 King Kong replaced the miniatures and stop motion puppets with a human actor dressed in an ape suit. The film received mixed reviews from critics, but won a Special Achievement Award for visual effects at the 1977 Academy Awards and was a top-grossing success at the box-office. Fans, particularly those active on internet fan forums for Jackson’s 2005 King Kong, remain divided on the merits of the 1976 remake. The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) forums for the 2005 King Kong still have active threads discussing the matter that run to several pages of comments, including one entitled, “Well we’ve got 2 masterpieces now, this and the original. ’76 just sucked” (IMDB, 2009). It is not just that the De Laurentis version is a crassly lowest common denominator blockbuster, since the original never pretended to be otherwise, it is the indignity of Kong as a man in a suit, and the film’s sly self-parody. When the wisecracking Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges) forshadows Kong’s arrival by surveying the wreckage wrought by the as yet unseen Kong and declaring “What the hell do you think went through there? Some guy in an ape suit?” the meta-reference is both a nod to the audience regarding the means of Kong’s creation and a knowing dig at the theatrical practicalities of creating a physical prop Kong to successfully inhabit the concepts described by the written script Kong.
The prop Kong struggles for credibility because of the contrast inherent in representing untamed, brute power masculinity by embodying it in a series of miniature puppets, outsized hairy paws and character suits. Susan Sontag named the 1933 King Kong as one of her “random examples of items which are part of the canon of Camp” (2001, p. 277) and perhaps the titters that the two Radio City Music Hall reviewers differed over in the1933 audiences were reactions to what Sontag identifies as:
a double sense in which some things can be taken. But this is not the familiar split-level construction of a literal meaning, on the one hand, and a symbolic meaning, on the other. It is the difference, rather, between the thing as meaning something, anything, and the thing as pure artifice. (2001, p. 281)
Here Sontag notes that ‘the pure examples of Camp are unintentional; they are dead serious” but that it is “a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.” (2001, p. 282). The visual disjuncture between the puppets, the story and the live action in the 1933 original is an integral part of the film’s visual fabric and reconciling the narrative and its visual artifice is the process the audience undertakes to get to that “third reel” moment of narrative acquiescence. Once that artifice is foregrounded it is no longer possible to achieve Holland’s “anomalous suspense”, or as Bigelow put it, “to feel the power”. The moment the 1976 King Kong states its ironic detachment from the original and draws attention to the specific artifice of its creation by naming Kong as “a guy in ape suit.” is the moment the audience’s complicit enjoyment of the visual conceit is diminished. As Sontag notes, “intending to be campy is always harmful” (Sontag 2001, p. 282).
Conversely, Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong is not interested in ironic detachment and seeks to obliterate all traces that Sontag identified as camp artifice in the original by embracing the literalism of the photoreal. Audience suspension of disbelief can be nearly effortless when there is no visual discontinuity to impede audience complicity. Jackson aims for an immersive filmic experience and he self-reflexively refers to the ideals inherent in the photoreal in the initial presentation of the Skull Island dinosaurs. As Carl Denham (Jack Black) films the grazing brontosaurs, he urges a reluctant Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler) to move closer and pose in front of the camera, asking Baxter to be in the shot, “or people will say they’re fake.” The CGI brontosaurs contentedly graze as Baxter edges cautiously towards them while replying, “Oh, nobody’s gonna think these are fake!” The exchange between Denham and Baxter is a filmmaker’s in-joke about technical processes, but perhaps also an indication that Jackson dares his audience not to believe his lavish CGI creations.
Jackson’s reverence for the 1933 King Kong dates back to his childhood. When he was a boy Jackson tried to create and film his own homemade King Kong: “I got the Empire State Building done. I got Kong. I did a little bit of test shooting. I got so far and just realised it was never going to be what I was imagining it to be in my mind. And so I gave up on it eventually and moved onto other things.” (Pellerin, 2006) Jackson’s revisiting of the film as an A-list film director gives him the opportunity to recreate it with every 21st century tool available. The photorealism of CGI gives opportunity for him to create it as he “was imagining it to be” (Pellerin, 2006) as a child. There is nothing of the self-aware parody of the1976 King Kong here. Every part of Jackson’s production was designed to make audiences believe the gorilla is occupying the same space as the human actors. Kong’s performance is based, via motion capture, on the performance of actor Andy Serkis. A team of special effects experts laboured over Kong’s design, characterisation and animation. Kong was visually redesigned to perform in a way that the original puppet could not, and the combination of animation, motion capture and actor was to try and establish a more complex emotional range in the beast and thus a more complex emotional connection between Kong and Anne Darrow (Naomi Watts).
In “Recreating the Eighth Wonder: The Making of King Kong,” a featurette on the collectors’ edition DVD release, Jackson and the production team describe the creative considerations in creating the film. The visual design went full circle, from zoological realism to visual dramatised exaggeration and back to zoological realism throughout the pre-production period. Eventually the process of 3D creation itself started to form the shape of Kong. Character-driven visual elements like snaggle teeth, a swayed back and a smashed jaw made the digital puppet difficult to animate and became part of a series of elements that Gino Acevedo, Creature Effects Art Director, described as visual ideas that “looked great in the designs but it just didn’t work in the actual puppet when he had to move around” (Pellerin, 2006).
A digital puppet is simply a series of mathematically-determined geometic points in a representation of three dimensional space, and accordingly, has no actual physical mass or defined edges. Without specific instruction, a digital ball for instance, won’t bounce on a digital floor; the two shapes will simply pass through one another. If it is a procedural animation, the paramaters for bouncing must be defined through assigning specific bouncing properties to the ball and specific rigid properties to the floor. If it is being animated frame by frame than the ball geometry would be squashed and stretched when it appears to hit the floor, just as in drawn animation, to match an approximation of a ball bouncing. While digital puppets have a type of armature formed through a process called rigging that echoes the range of motion of joints, they don’t have anything that might define their movement through real musclature. Being a mostly empty shell (or more precisely digital textures wrapped around geometric points in imaginary 3D space) it is easy for a complex puppet to tuck in on itself, lose limbs inside its own body or simply move and fold in impossible ways. Types of visual exaggeration that might go unnoticed in 2D animation, such as animating a Kong with a snaggle tooth that interfered with the range of motion of his mouth, can quickly become unworkable in a 3D animated environment. The process to ensure the design was workable meant some of Kong’s more exaggerated physical characterisations were erased. According to Guy Williams, the Digital Effects Supervisor, they “had to rein the tooth back in, we had to straighten the jaw back out so that we actually could work with it” (Pellerin, 2006). While CGI seems to offer a chameleon-like ability to copy or duplicate anything it does force a particular aesthetic because the technical processes required to make it successful can be limiting in order for an object or puppet to make cohesive visual sense within a 3D environment.
To have Kong make visual sense and integrate seamlessly into the film, Jackson describes how the ape’s character development was shaped both by the CGI process and the technical and management infrastructure needed to support it. Jackson recounts that:
Kong’s design certainly was a process. And it was process where, like anything that involves big special effects you have a large group of people. So the danger of that is it becomes a little bit of a committee. As Kong developed through the much more refined technical pipelines to be made to look realistic. He started to drift off course a little bit. We had lost something of the power of Kong, the translation had been such that he was becoming a bit weak. (Pellerin, 2006)
This slow, creative committee free-wheeling was brought to an end by both a looming deadline and a creative decision by Jackson to embrace some aspects of Kong’s visual realism. Christian Rivers, the Animation Director notes that “as soon as he started looking like a real gorilla, everyone was happy. Hey that’s what he should look like. A real gorilla” (Pellerin, 2006). The aesthetic of Jackson’s Kong is a necessary struggle between the illusion of limitless promise of photoreal CGI, in which anything can be made to seem to exist in a digital environment, and the technical considerations needed to achieve that photorealism actually reducing the amount creative solutions available.
Through the comprehensive visual reworking of Kong and the ultimate aesthetic decision to make him “a real gorilla,” Jackson still carefully constructs a respectful homage to the animator Willis O’Brien and his work on the 1933 original. When Kong vanquishes a dinosaur to protect Anne Darrow, the character action of Kong is recreated almost frame for frame to match the original. These two scenes, shot some 72 years apart, illustrate a paradigm of two forms of filmmaking. From 1933, the miniature physicality of O’Brien’s animated rabbit-fur and foam puppets as they wrestle in their tiny toy-like forest, a diorama exaggerated by the proscenium effect created from the different visual qualities of the composited layers and the need for shots made of separate elements to be static and locked off. Anne Darrow cowers in the foreground while the fuzzy miniature battle rages behind her. But in the twenty-first century Kong, the swooping virtual cameras revolve around him in his new incarnation as a giant life-like silverback grappling with the invented V-Rex dinosaurs. Here he exists in an endless, virtual CGI space where the camera, and thus audience, are swept into the action to travel with him. It seems a logical visual endpoint to merge special effects and live action cinema into one visually indivisible whole, and one failed trajectory of stop motion animation as a special effect includes some attempts to achieve this aim.
Go-Motion animation, a visual effect that involves micro-movements of puppets while they are being photographed was developed and trialled in films such as The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980), Dragonslayer (Matthew Robbins, 1982) and RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987) but it never became a widely used stop motion effect. Part of the visual artificiality of stop motion animation results from a lack of motion blur in the projected footage. Stop motion puppets need to be locked to a stationary pose to be photographed for each frame. Since animation is made of thousands of such still images, this creates frame-by-frame footage where everything is in focus, all of the time. Cinema film, running through the camera at 24 frames per second (or the video and/or digital equivalent) tends to record real-time live action movement as varying degrees of blur and this effect forms one of many visual cues that indicate a cinematic or photographic representation. The motion blur, focus changes and visual imperfections of live action footage are the cues and conventions by which an audience understands a photographic reality within the filmic world. It is difficult to replicate these visual cues using static miniature sets designed for frame by frame animation of static puppets; camera speed, depth of field lighting and motion blur are all visual elements that are handled quite differently in miniature shoots to make them appear full-sized. Go-Motion, by forcing slight movements of the puppets while the camera shutter is open, gives an approximation of the blur that on each frame of live action footage, betrays real movement on film. [v]
Go-Motion, however, was doomed to failure. As an animation technique, Go-Motion betrays what makes stop-motion special. By trying to mimic live action cinema, it destroys those elements that make stop-motion work as an effect in the first place. Harryhausen himself was well aware of stop-motion animation’s uneasy relationship with live action footage, and that it has its own visual properties that are quite distinct from other forms of filmmaking. He observed that the process of stop-motion “provides a unique form of fantasy that is difficult to analyse because it provides an atmosphere of a dream world rather than a fake reality” (2008, p.113). Stop-motion’s dream world aesthetic results partly from the entirely different production methods needed to create it when compared to those used to construct full-scale, live action cinema. While ostensibly producing the same moving image outcome, every aspect of stop-motion’s production is different to its live action cousin, and each aspect affects the visual outcome. Scale, perspective, construction, materials, sets and character performance all need to be considered differently in a frame-by-frame process on a miniature set. The outcomes show a visual world rearranged in miniature through these processes, and this forms the basis of stop-motion’s aesthetic. In trying to push miniature work and stop-motion into Harryhausen’s decried “fake reality” by mimicking some of the visual aspects of live-action cinema, the Go-Motion effect demonstrated that forcing stop-motion into behaving like live-action film does not do service to either technique. The result is neither real enough nor artificial enough to be satisfying.
Stop-motion’s strengths – its otherworldliness, its otherness, its constant visual and spiritual tussle with the qualities of that which is animate or inanimate – are not a part of the visual canon of contemporary mainstream film. Peter Jackson, discarding the puppet creatures of the original, made his King Kong an accurately monstrous silverback and the process of making real spread obsessively to all aspects of the film. His New York City of 1933 was recreated from a sophisticated mix of maps, photo references and procedural CGI city-building bots. R. Christopher White, the 3D CG Supervisor notes, “it was important to us that if you align our reference photos with the skyline of (the 3D) New York the end result would match what 1933 New York was” (Pellerin, 2006) To accomplish this, over 100,000 buildings were created, both by hand and by procedural bot, to make a period accurate New York (Pellerin, 2006). Some film critics, however, complained that Kong’s new realistic incarnation diminishes his mystery and his power. Robert Cashill protested in Cineaste that “suspension of disbelief has been overridden; what’s left are the many niggling details that come when the reality isn’t real enough. Fantasy has been overtaken” (2006, p. 43). But it is the slavish recreation of New York that seems to be the most telling aspect of the CGI aesthetic. The New York that Kong destroyed in 1933 is as much a place of the imagination as Skull Island. It seems an act of either hubris or imaginative defeat to need to recreate it in perfect real-world detail.
The layers and layers of “perceptual correspondence” inherent to CGI processes (Prince 1996), are relentlessly drawn to (and derived from) the description of the physical and of the real. As a visual tool, CGI is dependent for so many of its visual outcomes on the imitation and simulation of real physics and it is this aspect that informs much of its aesthetic. This is most evident in procedural animation, the types of CGI that are formed by computer-run simulations dictated by a variety of physical rules and parameters. The sea in Jackson’s King Kong, for instance, was not actually animated. The sea is instead a computer simulation designed by Weta Workshop that calculated a variety of variables, controlling aspects such as wave style, height, wind, foam and colour. The vast virtual sea created by the simulation was then combed by Weta staff “spotters,” who “flew” over the virtual ocean and picked out sections that suited the purpose for a particular shot. (Pellerin, 2006) This style of animation is dependent on the efficacy of the algorithms written to produce the simulations, and the computing power available to perform the vast amount of calculations needed to create something as complex as an ocean. That something so mathematically precise, located so firmly in replicating the physical world, is employed to create the fantastic is one of the paradoxes that make CGI so interesting. CGI still has difficulty creating things we understand intimately and intuitively (such as other people), but it is at its most convincing when used to create things we can’t possibly know; such as dinosaurs or complex physical systems like oceans and storms. Stop-motion animation, in contrast, creates an alternate visual space that while still firmly linked to our material reality, provides an altogether different perspective and allows entry to another style of visual world. Contemporary effects cinema is not interested in alternate aesthetic worlds that might run visually parallel with live action but instead is obsessed with unifying disparate worlds, live action and CGI, into a single seamless reality.
Michel Gondry is one of a few contemporary filmmakers to exploit this friction between the photoreal and the real through stop-motion animation. Gondry’s work is largely concerned with materiality rather than photoreality and he is celebrated for his low-fi in-camera aesthetic. He has been working since the late 1980s as a music video director and is best known for his work with singer Bjork and the band The White Stripes. Gondry has also paid homage to King Kong and his music video version, in Steriogram’s Walkie Talkie Man (2003), re-envisons Kong as a knitted-doll nightclub bouncer scaling a knitted Capitol Records building and smashing a giant soft-toy hand through a recording studio window. The huge fabric-covered hand is a suit maneuvered by a puppeteer and their black-clad stagehand legs are incongruously visible controlling the giant hand of Kong. Beset by knitted-toy helicopters, the bouncer Kong ineffectively gropes at the lead singer. The direction and production design is the stylistic antithesis to Jackson’s photoreal Kong. In exploring King Kong as a cultural meme rather than a recreation, Gondry’s knitted toys are a parody of the original. By choosing to use stop motion animation cut together with live action footage and puppets he is, however, almost closer to the visual style of the 1933 King Kong than Jackson’s 2005 remake.
Apart from numerous music videos, Gondry is also the director of the feature films Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and The Science of Sleep (2006). In The Science of Sleep Gondry’s cinematic storytelling relationship to visual metaphor is at its most pronounced and he uses stop motion animation, and in-camera special effects to realize his visions of the fantastic. Visually, it is the feature film closest to his music video work, repeating and exploring many of his recurring obsessions with representing scale, reality, subjectivity and memory. Gondry’s visual motifs are constructed within cardboard sets, through in-camera tricks of rear projection and reflection, in papier mâché costumes and bizarrely, in gigantic puppet hands. Gondry is not about seamlessly integrated photoreal worlds. His work is textural, material and emotional. He is obsessed with perceptual tricks and optical illusions but always delights in leaving the artificiality exposed. He invites the audience to join his mismatched aesthetic world rather than constructing a seamless photorealism that slides into theirs.
The Science of Sleep is a curious feature that follows Stephane (Gael García Bernal) in his doomed quest to win the heart of his next-door neighbour, Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Alternating between sweetly obsessed and disturbingly obsessed, Stephane has a problem separating his waking life from his dreaming life. His emotional interior is represented by a make-believe cardboard television studio and his dreams and fantasies are homemade cardboard and sticky-taped props that cross, uncontrollably, into his everyday life. He is infatuated with Stephanie, who is occasionally able to connect with his flights of fancy. She proves to be as emotionally haphazard as Stephane, and their relationship lurches from disaster to disaster. When they do have moments of connection, Stephane describes the phenomenon as “Synchronised Parallel Randomness,” or the improbability of two separate subjectivities merging. It is a term with a quasi-scientific authority, that is both patent nonsense and poetically accurate. It is also a phrase that could be loosely applied to stop motion animation and its relationship to live action film, where the visual artificiality of the stop motion animation within the presumed indexicality of the live action footage creates a sense of two worlds that crazily exist both together and separately. A visual form of Holland’s “anomalous suspense” that calls for the audience to construct belief within the impossible.
In this framework, Gondry’s film worlds run parallel to traditionally-accepted ideas of representational reality, as well as current trends in special effects. His films celebrate an aesthetic of cotton wool clouds and cellophane fires that have a half-remembered air of kindergarten about them, a faux homemade aesthetic. They are faux because the jauntily crafty DIY props and sets are not as Do-It-Yourself as they appear and it took ten crew-members working for almost three months to give those cardboard miniatures that disingenuously amateur handmade look in the Science of Sleep. (Ball 2006, p. 56). The reproduction of handicrafts evocative of childhood is part of Gondry’s charm, and part of his intention in depicting Stephane’s inner world. As physical manifestations of the hero’s psyche, the cardboard cameras and cars look like they could have been assembled by the bumbling Stephane himself. Gondry’s stories are about engaging with the idea of play, a province of childhood, and of exploring symbolic representations rather than literal ones. The film creates a world where the combination of stop-motion and real life is entirely plausible and the physical impossibility of the effects are used to raise questions about the subjective state of the protagonists. Stephane steals Stephanie’s toy pony and later returns it to her as an animated pet that gallops happily across her floor. Stephanie asks him how he accomplished it, but does not wait for a reply. Moreover, she makes no comment on the impossible nature of the toy’s new behaviour. There is no indication whether she too can see it when it leaps to her piano and trots over her piano keys or if this image is simply part of Stephane’s fantasy world. As such, Gondry’s special effects work to disrupt conventional filmic worlds rather than construct immersive filmic environments; the gap between the real and the imagined is an integral part of the narrative. The materiality of Gondry’s aesthetic serves to highlight these filmic ruptures between real and imagined worlds and the effects are designed to be seen as separate visual elements distinctly apart from the live action. Gondry’s effects function differently to the aesthetic imperative of CGI which, as exemplified by Jackson’s aesthetic directions for King Kong, finds its visual strength in creating seamless and unseen integration into live action film.
As an example of filmic rupture, Stephane’s galloping pony toy is a gift that celebrates life, but animation’s ability to breathe life into the inanimate can also be the stuff of nightmares. Gondry exploits the power of stop-motion to both delight and disturb in that the toy made flesh is both whimisically fantastical and an object of dread. The feeling of dread in Gondry’s films is less about the cataclysmic horror of the unexplainable or uncontrollable and more about the mundane horror of Stephane’s social anxieties. Stephane finds himself paralysed with embarrassment in having declared his attraction to Stephanie by asking out her best friend instead. His angst manifests in a typing-spider: a cave-dwelling, arachno-powered Underwood dictaphone that helpfully clatters out a typewritten screed to accompany Stephane’s monologue of frantic excuses. The dream sequence in which Stephane finds himself in a cave and dictating to a typing device with legs is part of a visual flow of meaning between the special effects and the narrative within the film. It’s never quite clear where the dream sequence ends and where the character’s subjective reality begins. The special effects resist being seamless precisely because they are designed to exploit the conceptual gap between the live action and the artifice of the animation.
Gondry’s emotional landscapes are about memory, dreams, anxiety and disconnection. His visual landscapes are obsessed with scale, forced perspectives, reflections, rotated disorientating worlds and miniatures. They are made of cardboard, yarn and tape, producing an aesthetic that is mannered, artificial and dreamlike. Gondry risks trivialising his narrative by including tropes that suggest that the narrative can be reduced to “it’s all a dream,” which provides a narrative and philosophical excuse to wallow in loosely connected episodic moments. It does, however, allow for moments in which the confusion caused by the conflation of Stephane’s waking and dreaming worlds expose the fragility of the character’s subjective experience. The Science of Sleep is at its most interesting when what the audience might assume is Stephane’s dreaming world is shared by other characters, and his filmic universe transcends what is plausible. When Stephane discovers that playing the right chord on the piano keeps cotton wool clouds hovering in the air for Stephanie, and the camera concentrates on her delight, Gondry fractures the audience’s understanding of whose fantasies belong to which character. When Stephane’s magician stepfather makes the family dinner momentarily disappear and reappear, with no reaction or acknowledgement from the surrounding characters, it engenders a disruption to the narrative flow that challenges ideas of what is real and what is not within the film. Matthew Campora (2009) uses ideas of metalepsis, or the disruption of diegetic boundaries between characters and narrative, in his discussions of Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He positions this film as exemplary of a narrative technique that marks a hybrid “New Hollywood” style of filmmaking which incorporates art cinema techniques in mass-market films to explore more complex multiform styles of narrative.
Gondry’s moments of diegetic disruption are antithetical to the seamless world of blockbuster films with CGI effects because they simultaneously draw attention to, and yet away from, the artificial nature of the effects. The goal of blockbuster special effects is to convince the audience that the disparate visual elements that make up a shot are within the frame and filmed with the actors. Many of the points of perceptual correspondence in conventional live action films that combine actors and animated characters are designed around the actor. The actor is shot as a separate element or plate and the role of the effects team is to base the construction of the shot in response to the actor’s performance as the central visual element. They combine the rest of the digital elements to match the cues provided by the live action; reconstructing a background to match the way the light falls on an actor’s face for instance, or animating a digital character’s reaction to an human actor’s action would be a starting points for the layers of visual construct that follow in order to sell the shot to an audience as an integrated whole. By contrast, the effects in The Science of Sleep appear dreamily wrong precisely because they do exist within the frame with the actor. Many effects in The Science of Sleep were shot in-camera (without digital compositing) and there was little need for this type of integration as the effects are simply as they appear when shot. When Stephane appears to be flying across an animated cityscape, the actor is swimming in a large tank of water in front of a rear projection of the animated footage (Partizan Films, 2006). The artificiality of the individual elements, such as the flipping cardboard city beneath the weightless flying actor, removes the burden of making photorealistic representaitons and declares real can be faked and the faked can be real. The irony, however, is that Gondry’s layered fabrications demonstrate an illusory dream state that actually presents an indexical relationship between camera and its subjects, created in one uncomposited shot. The construction and effect of the shot is completely counter to a CGI aesthetic that artificially unites a variety of disparate elements to give the appearance of having occurred in front of the camera.
The development of Gondry’s visual aesthetic is firmly linked to his music video roots. Carol Vernallis links the music video form to Gondry’s feature film work, describing the shared visual styles in both forms of his work. Music video storytelling requires different formal qualities to filmic storytelling. Gondry’s prioritising of affect over narrative coherence, the story-line ellipses, the visual non sequiturs created by using of props as visual metaphor all spring from the music video form and belong to “music video’s high emotional intensity. Because music is rich in affect, music video imagery tends to have a moment-by-moment semiotic wallop unparalleled in film. This imagery, in combination with its speed and flow, creates a sense of compression and disappearance” (Vernallis 2008, p. 283). Gondry’s use of this type of imagery in mainstream cinema marks a different sensibility in approaches to narrative and cinema, and his use of stop motion animation informs a significant part of his visual style. Stop motion animation inserted into live action footage lends itself to exploring ideas of narrative difference, as stop motion’s formal qualities work counter to filmic ones and stop motion’s process of production gives it visual qualities that work in opposition to cinematic norms of scale, space and time.
Gondry, however, is not the only contemporary filmmaker to use stop motion animation. Digital stills camera capture has made the process of creating stop motion animation faster and more immediate, and has resulted in a resurgence of stop motion feature films such as Mary and Max (Adam Elliot, 2009), $9.99 (Tatia Rosenthal, 2008), Coraline (Henry Selick, 2009) and The Fantastic Mr Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009). Although Anderson used stop-motion sea-creatures in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) as illustrative of emotional yearnings rather than literal creatures, using stop motion animation in live action feature films is less common. Like Gondry, Anderson’s inclusion of stop motion animation is a device that disrupts the visual fabric of his films and thus adds a layer of narrative complexity. Anderson’s animator on The Life Aquatic, Henry Selick, observes that Anderson “was fine with people knowing that the creatures weren’t real, but he wanted people to wish they were” (Epstein, 2004). Stop-motion animation is currently very much the province of the auteur filmmaker, but the ways in which it is being employed are creatively emblematic of different forms of storytelling in contemporary film. By not pursuing the photoreal, these filmmakers celebrate the impossible by representing it as merely improbable.
Jane Shadbolt is a Lecturer in Visual Communications at The University of Newcastle, Australia.
[i] Moore’s Law predicts the doubling every two years of the number of transistors possible on an integrated circuit . It therefore corresponds to overall computing processor power and originated from Gordon E Law’s 1965 paper “Cramming more componants into integrated circuits” in Electronics 38:8
[ii] Four out of ten of the top box office films in Australia in the week ending June 19th 2009 were what could be termed “effects movies” (2009b). Not one of them, Terminator Salvation, Star Trek, Night at the Museum, Land of the Lost would be possible in their current form without CGI. But ten out of seventeen Terminator Salvation reviews in the popular press (Top Critics from the movie review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes) fail to mention the film even has digital effects at all. (rottentomatoes.com, 2009)
[iii] A marketing trailer for Ray Harryhausen’s Seventh Voyage of Sinbad describing the special effects; “This is Dynamation! This is Dynamation! This is Dynamation! This is Dynamation! […] Dynamation is a new process which utilises new technical and scientific advances in electronics and colour to open up vast new vistas in motion picture entertainment…Anything the mind can conceive can now be brought to the screen.” (Columbia Pictures, 1958)
[iv] A notable exception would be James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) which made extensive use of technological novelty as a marketing tool.
[v] Jurassic Park was going to use the technique but in the end chose to make its dinosaurs computer generated, subsequent blockbusters followed suit and CGI became the predominant special effects pathway (Rickitt 2006, p. 207).
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© Jane Shadbolt
Edited by Amy Ratelle