Stop-frame animation extends its reach

The clay creatures, puppets and articulated models of stop-frame animation, while long welcomed in the U.K. and Eastern Europe, have often been turned away from North America's door by a public weaned on Disney's cel animation. Differences between time slot lengths...
May 1, 1999

The clay creatures, puppets and articulated models of stop-frame animation, while long welcomed in the U.K. and Eastern Europe, have often been turned away from North America’s door by a public weaned on Disney’s cel animation. Differences between time slot lengths in North America and Europe have further contributed to stop-frame’s confinement to preschool slots and the European continent, where the 10-minute format, suitable for the common length of stop-frame episodes produced in the U.K., is a more accepted mode of programming. Now, producers are starting to see these barriers come down and are stepping up activity as they aim this genre at older audiences and the feature film market.

‘Finally, North America is waking up a little to [stop-frame animation], because it’s different,’ says David Ferguson, VP of Cinar Europe and managing director of FilmFair, the London animation studio acquired by Montreal-based Cinar. ‘But it has to be a pretty special show if you’re going to get

financing from the U.S. [The show] would have to be very U.S.-specific. What we usually do is finance it from Europe, then try to sell it into North America.’

A flexible format is the key to selling to the world market. FilmFair’s latest project The Wombles, a co-production with London-based media conglomerate United Media (which owns U.K. broadcaster ITV), is relaunching characters originally created for British television in 1972. Aimed at the three to seven set, the puppets based on characters from books by Elisabeth Beresford resemble ‘a cross

between a mouse and a cuddly abominable snowman,’ says Ferguson. The 52-part series, costing approximately US$115,000 per 10-minute episode, began airing on ITV last year. Cinar plans to repackage the series for other markets, particularly for North America, where a 10-minute time slot is rare. ‘We also produce [78 x one-minute] interstitials, so there will be 26 half-hours for distribution. This gives the broadcaster more choice,’ he says.

While stop-frame animation has traditionally been aimed at preschoolers, producers are creating series to extend this genre to older viewers. More action is one way to play to an older crowd. With Cosgrove Hall Films’ 26 x 10-minute series Rocky and the Dodos, ‘we tried to be more experimental and break some boundaries,’ says Oliver Ellis, head of children’s and entertainment at London’s ITEL, the parent company of Manchester-based Cosgrove Hall. ‘Because it’s for the four- to eight-year-old crowd, the idea was to give a model-animation show the taste, the speed and the feel of a 2-D, drawn animation show. So you get sequences where Rocky inadvertently walks off a ledge into thin air and his legs speed-run underneath him in the way that drawn animation does.’ ITV began airing the first 13 episodes last year, and will launch the next 13 in the spring or summer.

Cosgrove Hall is also producing Porter & Daughter, a 26 x 10-minute, model-animation series for ITV, based on the original story

of a girl named Rusty who works as a mechanic at her father’s garage. The preschool

show, now in development, is scheduled for completion in the winter of 2001, and is a proprietary production of Cosgrove Hall.

Last MIPCOM, at an open studio-style presentation, a Cosgrove Hall source said the company would like to increase its proprietary production volume, but still balance its service work. Cosgrove Hall typically produces six to 10 series a year as service work. In 1999, it would like to increase the level of its proprietary production to 50% and, in the next couple years, up to 75% or 80%.

London-based Eva Entertainment is pushing the audience demographic further upwards with Rex the Runt, aimed at ages 16 to 24. The 13 x 10-minute, clay-animation series, directed by Richard Goleszowski at Bristol-based Aardman Animations, features a gang of four plasticine dogs who share bizarre adventures. Another 13 episodes are in development following the broadcast of the first 13 on BBC 2 over last Christmas. Co-producers Egmont Imagination in Copenhagen, Eva and BBC Bristol financed the £1.3-million (US$2.1-million) project, with all animation work done at Aardman.

The 26 x 10-minute series Hilltop Hospital, Eva’s co-production with Folimage in Valence, France, and Siriol Productions in Cardiff, Wales, is an example of how to divide and conquer. Drawing a line between pre-production and production may be the only way to divvy up stop-frame work, says Patrick Eveno, director of production at Folimage. ‘Siriol did the script, the dialogue, the storyboards, and after, Folimage worked on the characters, the shooting and the editing,’ he says. The series, an ER for three- to seven-year-olds, portrays the melodrama of a hospital through animated puppets, based on a book by Nicholas Allan. Produced for a total budget of US$4.1 million, the 26 x 10-minute series marks Folimage’s move back into model animation after five years of 2-D animation.

Old tales with new tricks is Grabbit the Rabbit’s claim to fame. The 13 x eight-minute, clay-animation series for six- to 10-year-olds, based on the French La Fontaine fables for kids, is directed and co-produced by the Los Angeles/Tel Aviv-based Rony Oren and co-producer IBA (Israel Broadcasting Authority) in Tel Aviv for approximately US$10,000 per minute. The updated tales use the voices of American actors to ‘give the stories a more modern feel,’ explains Genevieve Dexter, head of sales and acquisitions for London-based Link Entertainment, the international sales agent for the series.

Stop-frame animation joins the popcorn ranks, with Aardman Animations at work on the feature-length, clay-animation Chicken Run. The film is co-produced with co-financing by L.A.-based DreamWorks SKG, which holds distribution rights to the U.S. and most international territories outside Europe, and London-based Pathe Distribution, which will distribute the film in Europe. The family- and adult-targeted comedy, about a group of barnyard chickens that makes a break for freedom, is scheduled for completion in the summer of 2000. The film has a budget of approximately US$25 million to US$42 million.

Another project that threatens to expand our attention span is The Miracle Maker, the feature-length story of the life of Jesus. Clocking in at 90 minutes, the co-production is financed by S4C in Cardiff and the BBC, with a subsidy from London-based government granting body British Screen. With the voice of Jesus provided by Ralph Fiennes, this US$10-million family feature combines puppet animation from S4C’s longtime partner Christmas Films of Moscow for the main story, cel animation from Cartwn Cymru of Cardiff for flashback sequences, and computer animation by MPC in London to render the water of Galilee. The four-year project, overseen by Right Angle in Tenby, Wales, is scheduled for release this fall. Mel Gibson’s Icon Entertainment International in London is handling international sales.

Also in Cardiff, Aaargh! Animation, creator of the gassy, prehistoric clay animation family the Gogs, is moving to higher ground with its contribution to S4C’s 26 x 12.5-minute co-production Animated Tales of the World (see item below). Aaargh!’s clay-animation short Aunt Tiger is based on a Taiwanese folktale.

Stop-frame animation is also capturing the interest of U.S. studios. Cubic Enterprises, the L.A.-based company with an animation studio in Korea, hopes to expand into the stop-frame series market with Koko The Pink Rabbit, a 30 x three-minute, clay-animation series produced at US$10,000 per episode. Narrie Kim, manager of acquisitions at Cubic, explains: ‘By using our sister studio in Korea, we can do just as well as Aardman [Animations in terms of production quality], but we can do it at a smaller cost. For example, we can do a 30-minute show at 24 [frames per second] for US$250,000.’ The company is in production on True Heart, a feature-length, clay-animation, family adventure film about an underwater king. A three-minute trailer will be shown at MIPCOM in October.

Will Vinton Studios, the Portland, Oregon-based studio that coined the term ‘claymation’ in 1975, has recently launched its first TV series, The PJs. Best known for its California Raisins commercials, the studio is powering up for 22 more episodes of the Fox series from its initial run of 13. Eddie Murphy, one of the series’ executive producers, narrates the voice of superintendent Thurgood Stubbs in this teenage- and adult-aimed comedy about the trials and tribulations of Stubbs and his extended family in the inner-city Projects. Launched in January this year, the half-hour series employs the technique of ‘foamation,’ a refined version of clay animation using foam latex to render more facial details. A small amount of computer graphic imaging creates the background. The use of foamation allows the producers to tackle social issues with humor. President and CEO of Will Vinton Studios Tom Turpin explains the advantage of using 3-D animation over live action: ‘We knew, with the writing, that we wanted to push in the direction of being real. And when you go into an environment like the Projects, where everything isn’t happy all the time, it’s nice to have the visual aspect of the show to remind everybody that, `hey, this is meant to be good-spirited, and you should have fun with it,’ and I don’t think you could accomplish it with 2-D animation. The problem is that it would start to feel so cartoony.’ The PJs is produced by Will Vinton Studios, Eddie Murphy Productions and Imagine Television in association with Touchstone Television, at a cost of approximately US$1 million per episode.

Will Vinton Studios just announced plans for eight half-hour episodes of the new claymation and CG series Gary and Mike. Created by Adam Small and Fax Bahr (who, along with Vinton and Turpin, will serve as executive producers), the late teen- and adult-targeted comedy follows the road trip adventures of two twenty-somethings in search of America. A co-production between Will Vinton Studios and Big Ticket Television, the series will be broadcast on Fox beginning in October.

Older audiences, new techniques, prime-time TV and feature-length films-could we be witnessing the renaissance of stop-frame?

Will Vinton, award-winning animator and chairman of Will Vinton Studios, comments tongue-in-cheek: ‘It’s funny, I can remember in my [more than 20-year] career hearing, about three or four times, that stop-motion animation has finally died. And it’s been resurrected about that many times as well.’

He credits the latest stop-frame phoenix act to an overall resurgence of animation in general. ‘I would really say it’s been since The Simpsons, since projects like that have caught on, that animation has found acceptance again [in prime-time television].’ Vinton adds that the use of computers to simplify not only background imaging and camera movements, but also to organize the animation studio, has allowed stop-frame producers to work with greater efficiency and keep costs at a minimum, making the genre that much more attractive to buyers. ‘Most impressive for us has been the enormous breakthrough in production management,’ says Vinton. ‘I myself have had the bias that too much organization gets in the way of creativity, but if the organization is really well run and allows the animators and directors to be free of the details and problems that creep up in terms of production, and to really focus on what they care most about, which is the performance of the [animated] characters, then it ends up being an absolute plus as far as the artist is concerned. In fact, where we end up is not only being able to do television for the first time with really high-quality stop motion, but being able to do it on budget and on schedule.’

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