I met Nick Park, creator of Wallace & Gromit on Monday morning for a brief chat at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston.
Here is the story I wrote that appears today in the Boston Herald…
What do Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Gumby have in common with King Kong?
They all made their screen debuts through the intricate art of stop-motion animation.
Most of today’s animated projects rely on computer graphics, so to see not one but two new films based on stop-motion marks a happy coincidence for those who still practice the old-school, handmade techniques.
Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, directed by Burton and Mike Johnson, opened yesterday. Nick Park and Steve Box bring Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, to theaters Oct. 7.
"It’s a small club,” said Joey Kolbe, who teaches animation at the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University and at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. "It really is. It’s a whole different breed of animator. Sort of a hermit, to be exact, whereas the computer animator is more of a politician, if you will.”
Park, who created Wallace and Gromit as part of a student film project more than 20 years ago, acts like a proud parent while discussing his plasticine characters.
"The strength of Wallace and Gromit is that they are clay,” Park said during a visit to Boston earlier this week. "Everybody’s played with clay. They know how it’s made. They admire it now because they could see how it’s done. They can see the fingerprints.”
But making a movie through stop-animation requires patience.
Park took on a co-director to help oversee 30 simultaneous sets for his latest Wallace & Gromit film. "Each animator was getting through three seconds a day, so if were doing well, we would get about two minutes,” he said.
Kolbe and Alex Hart, who teaches computer animation at the Art Institute of Boston, said technology has driven the medium more toward CGI and programs such as Flash or Maya. Disney recently announced it would drop its traditional 2-D cel animation division to focus on CGI, too.
That makes stop-motion "such a niche medium,” Hart said. "You need all sorts of specialized drawing skills that are a little more scarce than are the computer skills or the drawing skills.”
When Hart worked with Kolbe at Olive Jar Productions, a Boston-based animation house that shut down about five years ago, he remembered one guy who worked only on ball-and-socket armatures. "He sat back in the shop on his lathe, making tiny little metal parts,” Hart said.
Kolbe said the fact that "everything is tangible” keeps stop-motion animators from defecting to more modern technologies. "Honestly, you can’t do that with computer animation,” he said. "You’re limited to a pen, a board and a keyboard, or a mouse, if you work that way.”
Kolbe’s clay and puppetry classes are popular, with waiting lists of 10 or more students per class. "These are courses I’ve never had any dropouts in,” he said.
But he acknowledged that many more young animators turn to computers rather than clay, puppets and other forms of stop-motion.
"To breed a pureblood for the stop-motion animator, it’d be really difficult,” he said. "I’ve seen it in a few of my students over the years, but they’ve been exceptional cases.”
Those who want to learn outside of class can turn to local outfits such as Handcranked Films in Waltham or the Gabriel Polonsky Studio in Belmont.
Anthony Scott, animation supervisor on Corpse Bride, runs the stopmotionanimation.com Web site, with dozens of links to other studios and practitioners of the art form and a message board with almost 4,000 registered members.
The Ottawa International Animation Festival, which ends tomorrow, also keeps the spirit of stop-motion alive.
Most stop-motion animators cite childhood inspirations for getting them so deeply involved in the process.
Willis H. O’Brien, who created King Kong in 1933, served as a mentor for Ray Harryhausen.
Harryhausen’s work on several movies, most notably Jason and the Argonauts (1963), inspired both Park and Burton. And the Rankin/Bass holiday specials of the 1960s and 1970s – from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to The Year Without a Santa Claus – continue to delight TV audiences each winter, despite the dated technology.
Park couldn’t dream of handing Wallace and Gromit over to a computer.
"There’s something wonderful about getting a blob of clay and seeing what you can get out of it,” he said.