Unforgettable Stop-Motion Films

ParaNorman recaptures the magic of stop motion films this year.

Long before CG animation and effects had become the norm in mainstream Hollywood, stop-motion was the only technique available to filmmakers from the heyday to animate objects on the reel to appear as lifelike and breathing characters as their human counterparts. Some of you may remember seeing it in the Sinbad movies from the 1950s, "Clash of the Titans" (bless you if you know which one I'm talking about) and the original "Star Wars" trilogy.

Long before CG animation and effects had become the norm in mainstream Hollywood, stop-motion was the only technique available to filmmakers from the heyday to animate objects on the reel to appear as lifelike and breathing characters as their human counterparts. Some of you may remember seeing it in the Sinbad movies from the 1950s, "Clash of the Titans" (bless you if you know which one I'm talking about) and the original "Star Wars" trilogy.

Instead, stop-motion films have recently been enjoying a resurgence in the past few years, for instance with the release of "ParaNorman" and "Frakenweenie" this year alone, which shows that there is still life in this archaic method of filmmaking. Stop-motion animation is now reaching a breakthrough as it is being innovated by digital wizardry, instead of being replaced by it, culminating into a harmonious mix of primitive imagery with high-tech efficiency.

But for some of us, we still remember and respect the good old days when every blink and raised brow in every frame was the filmmakers' heart and dedication being poured into it. So here's five unforgettable stop-motion features that is not only a tribute to the craft but we believe to be also the finest stop-motion stories have to offer!

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Tim Burton's musical mesh of Halloween and Christmas still remains as a well-loved classic of anyone who enjoys stop-motion films of today. Originally adapted from a three page poem written by Burton when he was still an animator in Disney in the 1980s, Burton had intended for "The Nightmare Before Christmas" to be 30-minute short. When work began on the project, it gradually molded into a 76-minute feature-length film that was made up of 109,440 frames, under the direction of director of Henry Selick and the timeless songs composed by Danny Elfman.

The story tells of the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, Jack Skellington, who discovers a portal to Christmas Town after being bored with the routine life filled with werewolves, ghouls, ghosts and monsters. Fascinated by the cheers of Christmas, Skellington tries to embrace the concept but fails, and ultimately decides to hijack it altogether by bringing his interpretation of St. Nicholas' Day, complete with a sleigh pulled by skeletal reindeers.

Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas" was revolutionary for its time. It was not nominated for Best Animated Feature by the Academy in 1994, because there wasn't even such a category at the time, and it was too long for the Academy's Best Animated Short Film. So it only had to make do with a nomination for Best Visual Effects, which it unfairly lost to Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park". However, the commercial success of Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas" seals the place of stop-motion features in the hearts of audiences and that opened the door for future stop-motion films from the late 20th century.

Chicken Run (2000)

Aardman Animation had always been hailed as the Pixar of stop-motion studios, that already had a few Oscar-winning animated shorts on their belts. So when Aardman said that it had started developing their first feature-length film in 1996, anticipation was unsurprisingly hopeful that it would finally bring the studio's famed short film duo Wallace and Gromit to the big-screen. Instead, Aardman did a cop out and made "Chicken Run", but it still blew expectations nonetheless.

"Chicken Run" runs around a group of hens who are trying to escape from their prison-camp styled coop run by the Tweedys, who decided to change their business from selling eggs to making chicken pies, which involved the culling of chickens. Lead hen Ginger hatches all sorts of plot to sneak out the rest of the hens from impending death but to no avail, until a rooster named Rocky (voiced by Mel Gibson) crashes into their coop with the only avenue of escape: flight. The film earned critical acclaim, especially for its comedic satire on World War 2 prison camps, imaginative spectacle for a 'claynimation' and impressive voice-acting. Aardman prove that it did not lose its magical touch in the extended format.

Directed by Aardman veterans Peter Lord and Nick Parks, "Chicken Run" was a phenomenal success for the British studio when it generated more than US$224 million worldwide, out of its modest US$45 million budget. Although it was never nominated for an Oscar, it won numerous Best Animated Feature awards at film critics' festivals on both sides of the Atlantic.

Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)

Following the success of "Chicken Run", Aardman Animation finally decided to give what their fans wanted and made the first feature centering on their most recognized characters; the eccentric Wallace and silent Gromit in "Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit".

Described as the world's 'first vegetarian horror film' by directors Nick Park and Steve Box, inventor Wallace and pet dog Gromit are protecting the vegetables of Tottington Hall from rabbits during the run-up of the annual Giant Vegetable Competition. When Wallace runs into the trouble of being unable to contain the captured rabbits, he invents a machine to brainwash the rabbits to stay out of trouble, but the experiment expectantly runs awry and they create the first were-rabbit, whose only intention is anything but eating all the vegetables in town. Between their misadventures of trying to turn the were-rabbit back, Wallace and Gromit are also trying to save it from Lord Victor Quartermaine (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) who has a more permanent solution to the problem involving gunstock barrels.

"Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit" was largely considered to have successfully translated the charm of its original 30-minute shorts to the big-screen and won praises all around. Unlike Aardman's previous effort, "Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit" went on to win Best Animated Feature in the 2006 Academy Awards, edging past Tim Burton's stop-motion directional debut "Corpse Bride" and Hayao Mizaki's "Howl's Moving Castle" in that year.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

"Fantastic Mr. Fox" was director Wes Anderson's first attempt at making an animated feature, and he chose to do it because it was based on the book of the same name by his hero; famed author Roald Dahl. The production had a rocky start when Revolution Studios, who had bought the rights to the book, closed its doors in 2007, taking along with it co-director Henry Selick, who went on to make another stop-motion feature (more of that later in this article). The project would later find a new home with (coincendentally) 20th Century Fox and Anderson was able to continue it till the end.

"Fantastic Mr. Fox" is about a fox named Jack Fox, who earns the wrath of three mean farmers he has been stealing food from as they decide to destroy his family and home. Although Mr. Fox barely escapes with his life and family but without his tail, he skillfully plans payback on the farmers with the help of other burrowed animals whose homes had also been destroyed by them, and find a new place to live.

"Fantastic Mr. Fox" was noted for its excellent voice cast that helped deliver a cleverly hilarious script written by Anderson and screenwriter Noah Baumbach. George Clooney and Meryl Streep would give their best voice acting performance in the leading roles of Jack Fox and his wife Felicity Fox respectively. Other known talents to grace the cast are Bill Murray, Willem Defoe, Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson himself.

Despite its critical acclaim, "Fantastic Mr. Fox" failed to win "Best Animated Feature" in the 2010 Oscars that was a showdown between stop-motion and CG animation when it went up against Pixar's "Up".

Coraline (2009)

Stop-motion master Henry Selick, who had been working with the medium since "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas" was developing an adaptation of Roald Dahl's "Mr. Fantastic Fox" with Wes Anderson when the production studio collapsed. Instead of continuing to cooperate with Anderson to make "Mr. Fantastic Fox" for 20th Century Fox, Selick opted to make a stop-motion adaptation of a children's' horror novel for Laika, a stop-motion animation studio which he joined in 2002.

Based on author Neil Gaiman's 2002 novel, "Coraline" is about a jilted little girl who finds a doorway into the Other World, a dangerous parallel universe where she finds the attention she wanted from a button-eyed version of her mother, despite being warned by a talking black cat. After her parents are kidnapped and discovering the true nature of the button-eyed witch, Coraline sets off to save her family and the children whose souls had been sold to the witch in the Other World.

"Coraline" was the next step in stop-motion innovation when it applied digital technology and effects to create its characters and their expressions. Selick and his crew used 3D printing machines to print out computer-designed items from facial expressions to door knobs. The technology allowed all the characters to exhibit almost up to 208,000 expressions. The movie was also shot in a 14,000 feet warehouse, divided into 150 sets built into the lustrous backgrounds of the real world and the Other World.

For all its technical feats and the highly positive critical reception it gained for the medium in recent years, however, "Coraline" shared the same fate with "Mr. Fantastic Fox" when it was nominated for Best Animated Feature in the same year, but not without putting US$124 million in the bank at the end of its worldwide release and making Laika a new powerhouse for stop-motion pictures.

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