“Imagination is the biggest gift humanity has received. Imagination makes people human, not work.” – Jan Švankmajer
One of my favorite things about filmmaking is that it can help you see the world in a different way. This is especially true of stop motion animation, which often repurposes materials in novel ways to build imaginary worlds.
Anything is possible with animation. In this mode of filmmaking, animals carry on conversations; the rules of physics may not apply; creatures morph into new beings; and ordinary objects come to life. Watching “things” live their own lives is one of the most captivating aspects of stop motion, tapping into longstanding human curiosity about the world surrounding us and the desire to find its enchantment.
Object animation (as you might guess) is stop motion with found objects. Filmmakers creating object animations use a wide range of materials, including natural objects like leaves and rocks or perhaps things lying around the house. Sometimes these films are abstract, as with Joanna Priestley’s Kali Yuga (2000), and sometimes they are narrative, as with Aardman Animations’ Stuff vs. Stuff: Walkman (2010).
The purpose of object animation is to transform how we see our everyday world. Stop motion animator Jan Švankmajer, who frequently works with found objects, tells us he wants “to render the audience’s utilitarian habits unstable.” By this, he means that he doesn’t want us to take for granted the objects that we interact with everyday, stuck in a cycle where we simply consume unthinkingly. Rather, Švankmajer wants us to constantly activate our imaginations, not just for the joy of it, but also to escape the unsustainable cycle of use-discard, use-discard, use-discard.
In object animation, a pen is not just a thing to sign checks with, it could be a balance beam for a candy-corn gymnast. A bowl of fruit functions not just to satiate hunger or to collect fruit flies in your house. The fruit could be the face of a man who is himself hungry, as in the first part of Švankmajer’s film, Dimensions of Dialogue (1982).
In our society, we’re surrounded by stuff, most of it junk we don’t need, most of it destined just to become trash. Why not use it to activate our creativity rather than dull it?
Moreover, object animation is a way to create a tactile relationship with the things around you. In his book Stop Motion: Passion, Process and Performance, animator Barry Purves poses the question to fellow animators: “What is it about stop motion that we love? Is it the technique itself, or the strange movement, or the design?” One animator, Tom Brierton, answered,
“For me, there is a sheer magical quality of shooting actual three-dimensional objects and manipulating them in space with our hands, heart and eyes. It’s tactile and fun. […] In my stop motion classes, students are always laughing, giggling, moving their bodies as they act through the movement, and generally having a heck of a good time making their puppets and sets. Conversely, in my CG classes, students remain at their monitor, stare at the screen, don’t talk or act out the movements with their bodies, and don’t talk to anyone unless they’re interrupted. Why is this? It’s because human beings enjoy touching and being touched.”
When creating a stop motion film, the animator touches the object about ever ten seconds for hours at a time. With this repeated touching, you learn an incredible amount about how something likes to move, it’s weight, details about its shape, and its malleability. You learn all the quirks of the surfaces the object moves across, as every bump and valley impacts the movement of the object. You also become more aware of your own body: the oil and dirt on your fingers, your fingerprints, your shadow cast over a set, the amount of pressure it takes to move something just so, the ends of your limbs or a shirtsleeve, which might knock into something and ruin the whole shot.
Reiterating the way that stop motion fosters physical connection, another animator, Federico Landen, responded to Purves’ question by saying, “Working with computers all the time is getting the memory out from our bodies. Every day a new part of human knowledge reduces its practice to just typing and clicking. You may be a doctor, lawyer, designer, accountant or an animator, everything is done through a keyboard and a mouse.” Stop motion is a way to reconnect with the texture of our world. Objects themselves, through their apparent wear and tear, will sometimes suggest stories of their past use. Rust on a screw might indicate neglect, while a threadbare surface of a stuffed animation might tell us that it was loved.
This brings us to one of the most prevalent themes in animation more generally: the secret lives of ordinary objects. We’ve seen this in films like Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995), which ask: What do our toys do when we’re not around? What kinds of hijinks do they get into when the humans aren’t looking? Alternately, in more experimental works like the Brothers Quay’s Street of Crocodiles (1986), animators might ask: In what sort of worlds can these objects be alive?
In the United States, we tend to think of animation as a format for kids, but adults need imagination, too. I invite you to explore the worlds created in stop motion animation, and rediscover the material objects around you.
Get started by attending Ana Lily Amirpour’s Shorts Program this evening (Thursday February 23), which will include A Little Suicide (2013), a stop motion/live action hybrid film told from the point of view of a depressed little bug.
Laura Ivins loves stop motion, home movies, imperfect films, nature hikes, and Stephen Crane’s poetry. She has a PhD from Indiana University and an MFA from Boston University. In addition to watching and writing about movies, sometimes she also makes them.