Laika and the Two Worlds: Deconstructing the Illusion of Stop-motion Animation
André Bazin’s “Ontology of the Photographic Image” states that “the photograph as such and the object in itself share a common being, after the fashion of the fingerprint” (2005: 15). For Bazin, the fingerprint is symbolic of an imprint of the material object; the finger. Yet I cannot help but think of this symbol of filmmaking when I watch stop-motion animation – a process by which an animated world is created; often out of clay but also other materials, and brought to life by a series of photographs documenting miniscule movements to imitate life. The outline of a fingerprint on a stop-motion character’s body becomes an indication that hands like mine held this figure, which now lives in an animated world of fantasy separate to me. For if we consider that “an indexical sign indicates or attests to the existence of something” (Rosen, 2003: 48), an actual fingerprint can suggest much more, about a world beyond what the camera captures. However, this relationship between the fantasy of animated movement and the reality of the animator’s world is an uneasy one, in a shifting symbiosis of inertia and movement between the animated and the animator, and I want to consider how stop-motion films; particularly the fantasy films of stop-motion animation studio Laika, challenge this symbiosis while keeping the fantasy of the animated world intact. In Laika’s case their small corpus of films has allowed them to cultivate a playful awareness of the effortful creation of their fantasy worlds.
Developments in the cinema medium (including animation technologies) often attempt to obscure to human presence. The fingerprint is swiped away, along with the signs of the world beyond the film. You only have to compare The Wrong Trousers (Nick Park, 1993) with Early Man (Nick Park, 2018) to see how mainstream stop-motion has smoothed things out, quite literally (Fig. 1). Vivian Sobchack notes in the creation of animated character’s bodies in movement that “the plasmatic’s seductive spontaneity, freedom and agency to become what it will not only effaces but also alienates the extraordinarily intensive labour … necessary to its very human and effortful creation” (2009: 384). Thus the more stop-motion animation’s movement streamlines itself and removes of signs of the animator’s input, the more the animator is alienated from what they helped to create. Rather than being effortless as such ‘seductive spontaneity’ would suggest, the creation of these fantasy stop-motion worlds is effortful on the animator’s part, as in the case of Early Man where “the longest shot took eight weeks to shoot [and] it lasts 40 seconds on screen” (Collins, 2018).
The erasure of labour is then part of the fantasy – or as Sobchack terms it “magical thinking” (2009) – of stop-motion animation; a world that is at once made of the materials of our world but also existing separately from it, a world the audience must accept functions independently while being aware of its artificiality. It is also a fantasy Laika expand upon in more than just the fantastical content of their stories. All of Laika’s films engage with this fingerprint of another world as I have described above. By deconstructing their own animated worlds in often playful ways – only to reconstruct them thus confirming the fantasy of independent movement in their characters – Laika draws attention to how the audience is a willing part of the creation of the illusion when they partake in ‘magical thinking’.
The post-credits scene in The Boxtrolls (Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, 2014) starts with Mr Trout (Nick Frost) and Mr Pickles (Richard Ayoade) in their fantastical Victorian setting. Then Mr Pickles asks “You ever think of the universe, Mr Trout?” As Mr Pickles and Mr Trout talk, a ghostly shape begins to appear in rapid movement and the camera pulls out to reveal their world as a small set. A deliberate break in the immersion of ‘magical thinking’, this scene also questions the validity of another assertion put forward by Sobchack, that “we [the audience] have become increasingly powerless and, however frenzied, increasingly inert” (2009: 375). The humans on screen are moving, at a rate much faster than their creations. For Sobchack increasing inertia on the animator’s part is directly in relation to animation’s increasing movement, suggesting a symbiosis between the pair (2009). A symbiosis we can also see in The Boxtrolls with Mr Pickles theorising; “[and every time we move-]” “it’s actually them [‘giants’] moving us … like that just there, me blinking, that would have taken them a day”. As well as a comical refocus on the human labour involved, there is an awareness that as much as the characters require these “giants” to move, the narrative can’t happen without the existence of the characters. Movement then becomes central as “bodily sensations of movement … engage spectator fantasy” (Gunning, 2007: 45). A fantasy that is reinstated when the ghostly figure of the animator disappears leaving the characters preforming movement that is free of human intervention once again (Fig. 2).
The back and forth of human intervention and character freedom reappears in the post credits scene of Kubo and the Two Strings (Travis Knight, 2016). First appears the smallest of Laika’s puppets; an origami samurai, then to their largest; a towering skeleton. These moments of deconstruction make the post-credits scenes foremost a spectacle of the kind of “impossible bodies that throng the works of animation” (Gunning, 2007: 46). Yet impossible “need not remain totally divorced … [from] our lived world” (ibid.), as the scene goes on to show in the building of the skeleton. This figure is made of materials from our world, while the animators constructing him – the same as with The Boxtrolls post-credits scene – remain ghostly traces, fingerprints of themselves. The ‘magical thought’ – that brought to life the feudal Japan the skeleton resided in – is focused on again to question which world these figures occupy. As the ghostly animators depart, one remains, standing still in a way reminiscent of Sobchack’s vision of audience inertia contrasted with the animated motion that the skeleton embodies. The skeleton moves in freedom and turns as if to attack the unsuspecting animator before the curtains fall. The worlds of animation and real life clashing together in an interaction more direct than The Boxtrolls. Again we can go back to Sobchack’s idea of animated “beings that seem to generate spontaneously” (2009: 384) out of control of their creators. The symbiosis of inertia and movement tips in favour of the animated, so much so they are beginning to occupy a moving place in our world. It then becomes significant this is from Laika’s most current film. The balance set in motion by the aimless, floating paper mice of Laika’s first feature; Coraline (Henry Selick, 2009), have developed into a dominating figure of animation in the form of the skeleton. Much like Laika has dominated the field of stop-motion animation.
This containment of the outside world to a post-credits scene can be seen as just another removal of the human from the core of the animation itself, but Laika’s refocus on human labour also touches on something nostalgic; a childhood desire to peek behind the curtains. It is also a reminder that audiences do not want a complete removal of the human from their animation, a behind the scenes of Kubo and the Two Stings video on Youtube currently has 1.5 million views (FilmIsNow, 2016) and the Focus Features video of the post-credits scene itself is aptly called “Watch the Magic Come to Life” (see left). As long as stop-motion figures keep moving, the humans controlling them need to move just as fast, their fingerprint within the motion itself.
Bazin, André. “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” in What is Cinema? (Trans. & Ed. Hugh Gray, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 9-16.
Collins, Andrew. “Behind the scenes of Early Man with Nick Park, 33 animators and 37 sets,” Radio Times (2018), available at: https://www.radiotimes.com/news/tv/2018-01-26/behind-the-scenes-of-early-man-with-nick-park-33-animators-and-37-sets/.
FilmIsNow. “Go Behind the Scenes of Kubo and the Two Strings | stop-motion and voice production,” (2016), available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zHyTYL1Z1aM.
Gunning, Tom. “Moving away from the index: Cinema and the impression of reality.” Differences 18, no.1 (2007), 29-52.
Rosen, Philip. “History as Image, Image as History: Subject and Ontology in Bazin,” in Rites of Realism: Essays on Corporeal Cinema, ed. Ivone Margulies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 42-79.
Sobchack, Vivian. “Animation and automation or, the incredible effortfulness of being,” Screen 50, no. 4 (December 2009): 375-391.
Issy is currently completing a MA in Film Studies at King's College London, with a view to write her dissertation on working class British motherhood. In undergrad, Issy wrote for Mapping Contemporary Cinema at http://www.mcc.sllf.qmul.ac.uk, including an editorial on Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014). She also recently started a blog with some other like-minded individuals on all things pop culture at http://wormpress.co.uk. You can follow her on twitter at @robotissy.