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March 19, 2008

What makes a great stopmo film?

by sven at 7:00 am

[I wrote this on 2/22 in response to this thread at SMA. Seemed worth cross-posting.]

What makes a great stopmo film?

I think there are (at least) two competing meanings for the word "great" here. On the one hand, "great" might mean "excellently made" -- good puppets, smooth animation, a delicious color palette and intriguing forms... On the other hand, "great" might mean "serious art" -- the sort of stories that get published in collections of "the world's greatest animation," etc.

I want to try to say something about stopmo that aspires to being "serious art."


I did a quick survey of my stopmo DVD shelf, asking "what elements do these films have in common?" What I found was that the vast majority use stopmo to accomplish a fairly limited number of effects. These include:

When I go down this list, what I see is that most of these elements force a story into a genre: science fiction / fantasy, children's, or comedy.

What is a "genre" film? One that has certain guaranteed elements that the target market expects when they purchase your product. A western, for instance, has to have cowboys, horses, six-shooters, and hats. A murder mystery has to have a murder that gets solved. A romantic comedy winds up with the protagonists essentially getting married.

Frustratingly, genre stories are almost never considered serious art. There are a few interesting exceptions, where genre stories transcend -- but more about that later.


I recently watched the new "Animation Show of Shows" DVD sets. The DVDs have some pure comedy pieces mixed in -- but there's also a high proportion of "serious art" shorts. When I consider them as a group, what I see is that "serious art" is essentially a genre itself -- you just have to recognize what the "marketable" elements are in this case:

If your animation project deals with one of these themes, you're pretty much automatically in the realm of "serious art." It almost seems unfair, realizing that there's a formula...


Now, returning to films that transcend genre... I think King Kong (1933), Star Wars, and Suzie Templeton's Peter & the Wolf are more than just a Giant Monster movie, a Space Opera, and a Children's Fable.

Why? Well, the original Kong is a psyche story, where Kong is the stand-in for masculine libido. (Peter Jackson, really screwed up this aspect of the story, which imho is part of why his film didn't work nearly as well as the original.) Star Wars has amazing spectacle -- but it's really the spiritual element of Zen vs. Technology that gives us a compelling world view. Suzie Templeton -- well, everything that she's done is just dripping with Freudian psychology.


So, what makes a great stopmo film? Here's my answer: Yes, pay attention to the technical and artistic details of good filmmaking... But if you want a shot at being considered "serious art," then take care when choosing your theme. Pick one that makes a broad statement about human nature / the human condition.

That is, if the "serious art" market is who you're really moved to speak to.

posted by sven | March 19, 2008 7:00 AM | categories: stopmo