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March 18, 2008

halfway between puppetry and puppetfilms: pop-thru animation

by sven at 7:00 am

Wrote this last week Sunday (3/09) when the idea was burning a hole in my brain. Probably not as cool as I thought in the heat of the moment -- but still worth sharing. Sorry there's no accompanying video clip yet.

Mr. Grumpypants

Sometimes I wish I could use stopmo as if it were a 4th-dimensional sketchbook... Quickly and loosely "sketching" sculptures into existence that could then move on their own...

I'm thinking that maybe pop-thrus could help accomplish this wish.

What if a pop-thru were then presented as if it's a complete film? Based on a few related films that I've seen, and on how people relate to live puppetry, I suspect the audience would look past the flaws and accept it.

But would other stopmoes accept rough and stuttery pop-thrus as "real" stop-motion animation? Case in point, would accept a film that looks like this?

I think I could make a strong case that pop-thru animation should be considered a legitimate form of puppetfilm -- that it just uses a very stylized form of motion.

When I look at the broader context, it seems to me that pop-through animation could do something interesting. Puppetfilms exist on a continuum halfway between live puppetry and traditional hand-drawn animation... Exploring pop-thru animation could push stopmoes more toward thinking of themselves as puppeteers, rather than animators.

Exploring unfamiliar territory like that has just got to produce some interesting results...


Puppet animation takes a lot of time. Building the Professor Ichbonnsen puppet for my last film took 24 hours. When you add in building the set, recording the script, animating, and doing post-production, then I'm sure it took 3-4 times that long to produce the final 30 second clip.

I'm OK with that. I like pouring focused attention energy into art. But there are also times when I wish I could produce my visual ideas more quickly. I fantasize about stopmo being more like my sketchbooks... More like throwing ideas out fast and furious with a pencil and paper.

It's hard to take risks and grow as an artist if every experiment is so expensive.

True, I can explore ideas pretty quickly by drawing storyboards... But it's not really satisfying. It's not three-dimensional; the sense of forms, volumes, and space that I see in my head don't translate.

So I'm on a quest. I want to find ways to make stopmo feel more like sketchbooking. ...Not as the only thing I do -- but as one available option.


So, quest in mind, I set myself a goal: Find a way to build a puppet in one hour. It's OK if it's rough around the edges -- but it has to be actually functional for animation.

Mr. Grumpypants again

Here's the result. It took two hours to build -- but still, that's pretty good. And what's more, I genuinely like the look. The deliberately rough-hewn edges feel like they've got life in them.

With some initial success, now I'm thinking: How can I animate my puppet in a way that's equally fast... But which still captures the essential ideas of my vision?

There's an obvious answer: Do a pop-thru.

A pop-thru is an exercise pro-animators sometimes do, where they photograph their key poses but leave out all the inbetweens. It's usually only done during feature productions, when demanded by the director -- it's not something anyone usually keeps around for it's own sake.

But what if you did? What if you treated a pop-thru as your final product? I've experimented with films told through a series of still photographs, and they seem to work OK. And I've seen a few short segments on TV that do the same thing. If there's a worthwhile story, the audience seems to be pretty darned forgiving about how it's presented.

I think to myself: YES -- this is what a "stopmo sketch" must look like. It's not just "test" -- you can do a whole story in this style. And it's not necessarily sloppy -- you can put focus into choosing strong poses. I think artistically, this could really work!


Using pop-thru animation would make it much more feasible to get a short done in time for the March 31 "stopmo haiku" challenge. And when I think about submitting pop-thru animation, it excites me... Because it feels like it could expand people's horizons about what can be done with stopmo. But I also anticipate a backlash: people feeling that what I've done isn't actually "real" animation.

Not real animation? When I look at the tools that I'm using, the pop-thru is almost identical to any other stopmo film. I'm using gestures, key frames, X-sheets, puppets that have no visible connection to a puppeteer... Really the only difference here is that I've eliminated the inbetweens.

Perhaps someone will suggest that it's not really animation -- it's pixilation.

I think I'd disagree with this. The quintessential pixilated film has to be Norman McLaren's classic, "Neighbors." How is pixilation used in this film? Live actors are shot in static poses which then get strung together into a film. They pop around as if being filmed by time-lapse photography -- although the critical difference there, I believe, is that the camera's shutter is not being triggered on an automatic time-schedule -- the director has as much time as they need to pose each shot.

A pop-thru isn't made using live actors who can pose themselves -- there has to be an animator involved, putting the puppets into their positions. So, I'm inclined to think that a pop-thru isn't "true" pixilation; a pop-thru is simply a pop-thru.

It is its own unique thing -- and it is animation. It requires an animator and an animator's tools. What else could it be?


Even if people are willing to accept that the pop-thru is really a form of animation, I expect there may still be some resistance to accepting it as legitimate stopmo.

Why? Because the inbetweens are missing? I think there are some relevant precedents worth looking at...

In the realm of traditional hand-drawn animation, there's what's called "limited animation." Hanna-Barbera is a good example of this style. Constrained by budgets, animation houses were forced to stop drawing every frame of a cartoon, and instead used a lot of "talking head" shots and recycled walk sequences.

I've noticed that animation festivals sometimes accept shorts from 2D animators where it's just their pencilling -- no inking or coloring has been done. These shorts don't look "finished" -- but they're entertaining and worth watching as-is, nonetheless.

I think about the Academy Award-winning "Harvie Krumpet" and Adam Elliot's other stopmo works -- which for the most part are shots of the main character standing still.

Limited animation, unpolished animation, and animation that has a lot of still shots -- these all, nonetheless, generally aspire toward a sense of realism. Pop-thrus break with realism more noticeably, due to their stuttery rhythm.

But there are different aesthetics for motion. Ray Harryhausen aimed at a photo-realistic smoothness... Robot Chicken aims for exaggerated "pop"... And what about the Brothers Quay? They have a uniquely non-realistic approach to motion (e.g. the blurry skeletons in "Frida") -- yet no one would suggest that what they do is not proper stopmo.

My conclusion is that though pop-thru animation may look relatively "unfinished" and stuttery, it properly belongs to the family of stop-motion puppet animation. It simply has its own unique aesthetic for motion.


Let me take an unexpected turn now, for the sake of explaining why I think pop-thrus' motion aesthetic can work with an audience.

Puppet animation requires skills from many different art forms: sculpting, puppet-making, model-making, photography, acting, animation...

I think puppetfilms' closest relatives, though, are hand-drawn animation and puppetry. I think you could say that there's a continuum between these two extremes, and puppet animations sits right there in the middle.

I find this interesting: Stopmoes, we call ourselves "animators" -- not "puppeteers." But we could just as well call ourselves puppeteers, since our acting has to be transfered through our puppets... For that matter (to a lesser extent) puppeteers could call themselves animators -- since they invest life into inanimate puppet beings.

So, how are live puppetry and puppet animation really different?

Well, the most obvious difference is that that stopmoes manipulate their puppets during the invisible space between frames of film. From the audience's point of view, we are physically divorced from our puppets in a way that live puppeteers never can be.

But I think there's something more than this. When I think about all the different types of puppetry... Marionettes, Muppets, sock puppets, ventriloquist dummies, giant Bread and Puppets figures, Indian shadow puppets, and so on... What I notice is that the illusion of reality requires a greater suspension of disbelief.

Puppeteers may mask their presence by dressing in black, or hiding below the proscenium of the puppet stage -- but to forget that they are there, the audience must willingly play along. Skilled puppeteers can create stunning subtlety in their performances -- and yet, few puppets can actually capture a full range of human emotions on their faces. The audience participates in bringing the characters to life, using their imaginations to help isolate and animate the story.

This is what I'm asking the audience of pop-thru animation to do. Here's the deal: I'll give you the key poses -- you use your imagination to fill in the inbetweens for me.

I think this can work... Puppet shows don't seem to suffer from presenting imperfect illusions of reality -- if the story's interesting, the show's a hit. The same should be true for pop-thrus.


If there is a continuum between live puppetry and hand-drawn animation, then stopmo puppetfilms sit squarely between the two. If we try to place pop-thru films on the same continuum, then I think they fall halfway between live puppetry and puppetfilms.

An illustration might help here. Imagine a continuum that runs from 1 to 9. Here's where I'm suggesting these art forms would fall on it:

  1. hand-drawn animation
  2. stopmo puppetfilms
  3. pop-thru animation
  4. live puppetry

There's plenty enough to learn if you just want to become good at stopmo. But I think it's well worthwhile for the serious stopmoe to also make forays into the the realms of hand-drawn animation and live puppetry.

Back during the 1930s, the animators at Disney discovered and articulated core principles of animation: squash and stretch, secondary motion, follow-through, etc. In the world of of animation -- hand-drawn, flash, CG, stopmo -- no one surpasses the understanding of motion mechanics that the pencil-pushers have attained. We would be wise to learn from them.

Puppetry, on the other hand, has life and vitality to it that is difficult to feel in oneself one frame at a time. Live puppeteers strive to be actors -- but unlike live action actors, the performance has to be channeled through an inert figure made of wood, foam, wire, and cloth. Because puppeteers don't have to also simultaneously struggle with animating, they've made strides in the art of expressiveness that stopmoes generally take longer to discover. Once again, we would be wise to learn from this other realm.

There are arenas where setting hard lines between art forms is necessary. For instance, the question of whether or not motion-capture constitutes animation has bearing on who's allowed to compete for a "best animation" Oscar this year...

But in the realm of creativity, exploring the borderlands between neighboring artistic nations should be encouraged. Digging around in the gray areas between black and white will surely lead to unusual discoveries -- which have the potential to re-enrich our native traditions.

On the grandest scale, this is part of what I think pop-thru animation has the potential to do.


I want to take what has been a mere exercise, and expand it to become a full-fledged style of animation...

Pop-thru animation may look rough, it may look stuttery -- but I think it can open up a freedom for me to explore sculptural forms and story ideas that I would not otherwise risk investing in.

I'm thinking this out loud, because I want to open this exploration up as a possibility for other animators as well. What I see in pop-thrus that could benefit me -- maybe it could be useful to you too.

Let's call it legit and find out.


posted by sven | March 18, 2008 7:00 AM | categories: stopmo