Thursday, September 27, 2012

Going 'Between Frames' at the Walt Disney Family Museum

The Pumpkin King exposed.
Jack Skellington from
The Nightmare Before Christmas.
That Between Frames, the Walt Disney Family Museum's new exhibit on stop motion animation, left me wanting more is not necessarily a bad thing. With my appetite merely whetted by the museum's modest but fascinating collection of models, armatures, storyboards and concept art, it made me go back to the finished products, the classic films that brought these fanciful creations to life.

And that's when the fun really started.

I spent the better part of yesterday afternoon pouring over YouTube in search of George Pal's Puppetoons from the 1930s and 40s. I pulled out my Disney Rarities DVD set to take another look at Walt's rare forays into stop motion animation, Noah's Ark (1959) and A Symposium On Popular Songs (1962). I made the distressing discovery that I have neither the original King Kong nor Ray Harryhausen's sublime mythic fantasy Jason and the Argonauts on Blu-ray (Amazon was able to rectify that). I set aside The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach for viewing this weekend.

King Kong armature replica
If you're going to truly appreciate an art form, you might as well go all in.

Stop motion animation is a painstaking process of manipulating characters and props, usually no more than a foot or two high, to create something very life-size and real on the big screen. It lends itself to conventional hand drawn animation insofar as it requires 24 individual images or frames to make a single second of footage. Between frames is when the magic happens. That's when the model is moved ever so slightly to ultimately become a skeleton wielding a sword or a giant ape climbing the Empire State Building.

AT-AT Imperial Walker model
Starting today, the Walt Disney Family Museum gives you a taste of the kind of work and precision that, for more than a hundred years, has gone into the craft of stop motion animation. On display in the Museum's Theater Gallery are armature replicas from the original versions of King Kong and Mighty Joe Young. There is an exact reproduction model of an AT-AT Imperial Walker from The Empire Strikes Back. This particular model is noteworthy for belonging to director and visual effects supervisor Phil Tippett, who did the stop motion animation for the original AT-ATs in Empire as well as the beastly tauntauns that helped patrol the ice planet of Hoth.

Jurassic Park velociraptor
Another item Tippett had a hand in designing is a Digital Input Device (DID) for Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park. It's an articulated model of a velociraptor that, instead of being used as a stop motion figure, provided input to a computer that animated the dinosaur in CG. It's one of exhibit curator Anel Muller's favorite items in the collection. She says, "It marks the transition from stop motion animation to computers in special effects. It's an important piece of history." It was also the device that caused the stop motion master Tippett to exclaim, "I think I'm extinct!" That line was later cheekily added to Jurassic Park.

Tippett's art was far from extinct, however, as character models on display from later films like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline emphatically prove. Stop motion animation is a time-tested art form that, even in the age of CG everything, still has audience appeal and is still done in the same exacting manner as it always has: a skilled animator carefully manipulates a detailed model, one frame at a time. Tim Burton's Frankenweenie opens next week, and you can draw a straight line from it to a group of toy teddy bears that "danced" before a camera in 1907.

There is much history to celebrate in Between Frames and the exhibit pays justifiable tribute to film pioneers like Georges Melies and Willis O'Brien, not to mention the grand master of stop motion animation, Ray Harryhausen. Art Clokey's classic character Gumby gets a place in the spotlight as well (something I gushed about last month). The inspired work of all these gifted artists reminds us that, like Walt Disney himself pointed out, there's nothing you can't create with a bit of imagination. It's a sentiment Muller hopes visitors to her exhibit will take with them. "(I hope) they feel a surge of inspiration, that they will find creativity in their own lives and be reassured that believing in your dreams is not an antiquated idea, but the key to success."

Of course, like me, you may just be inspired to revisit some great feature-length movies and short films. Or write a story about them. You never know.

Between Frames: The Magic Behind Stop Motion Animation runs through April 28, 2013. For more information, visit

More Between Frames photos are on our Facebook page.

No comments:

Post a Comment