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Live-action techniques bring life to stop-motion

Eye on the Oscars: Animation Preview

Cinema’s oldest animation style also became its most modern in 2012, thanks to the contributions of cinematographers tasked with applying complex live-action techniques to the hyper-controlled world of stop-motion. It was a banner year for the meticulous frame-by-frame technique, as no fewer than three U.S. studios released puppeteered films: Disney reanimated Tim Burton’s “Frankenweenie,” Focus had the Laika-made “ParaNorman” and Aardman’s “Pirates! A Band of Misfits” came out through Sony (which doesn’t even count Czech master Jiri Barta’s “Toys in the Attic”).

Though such pics feature small puppet stars, their underlying ambitions have grown enormous of late, with this year’s offerings boasting elaborate monster-stomping destruction, a breathtaking car chase and swashbuckling action on the high seas — all captured in stereoscopic 3D.

According to Aardman co-founder and “Pirates” director Peter Lord, “We wanted to open up the scale of a stop-motion film. The whole experience, from the digital cameras to the use of greenscreen to putting on layers of effects, added up to a sense of freedom.”

But filming puppets that stand a few inches high remains painstaking work. “Pirates” d.p. Frank Passingham captured scores of large stunt scenes one frame at a time using a Canon 5D still camera. Aardman’s stereoscopic rig was designed to shoot a frame of a scene for one eye and then slide the camera a precise distance to capture the view for the other eye. Lord says, “We made the interocular distance as small as our characters’ eyes: 4mm. Given that the distance was so small, it’s surprising that you get the full stereo effect onscreen.”

Though “ParaNorman” d.p. Tristan Oliver employed a similar stereo camera rig at Laika, motion-controlled Canon 5Ds enabled him to be more fluid with the camerawork, following characters closely and otherwise approximating dynamic techniques live-action pros take for granted. “The camera moves a lot in ‘ParaNorman,’ ” says Oliver, who enlivened the film with depth-of-field changes and gorgeous close-ups. “It was an opportunity to do things that I haven’t been able to do before, and I found it quite liberating.”

That’s saying something, since Oliver is a 20-year stop-motion veteran. He lensed Aardman’s “Chicken Run” and also its Oscar-winning toon “Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit.” Perhaps not surprisingly for this field, it’s a small world behind the camera as well as in front of it. “Pirates” d.p. Passingham previously worked as a lighting cameraman on Laika’s first stop-motion feature, “Coraline,” as did “Frankenweenie” d.p. Peter Sorg. In stop-motion, it remains challenging to light dollhouse-sized sets.

Sorg shot “Frankenweenie” in black and white, so contrast was crucial. (He used mono Canon 5Ds, and the stereo conversion happened in post.) The crew hid tiny lights strategically within the sets so that the puppets would cast the spooky shadows Tim Burton wanted. “It was very tweaky and fiddle-y because of the small scale, but we lit it like live-action,” Sorg says.

Indeed, both Sorg and Oliver prepared for their films by researching live-action movies. Oliver’s prep included looking at pics such as “Bullitt” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” while Sorg immersed himself in such black-and-white classics as “Frankenstein” and “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” Film buffs will detect glints of homage in both “ParaNorman” and “Frankenweenie.”

The enduring similarities between photographing real-time live-action pics and stop-motion animation doesn’t surprise Lord. “When your animators do a piece of performance, it has a sense of spontaneity in the moment that is like live-action, where there’s no going back.”

There probably won’t be any scaling back of ambitions among stop-motion filmmakers, especially as digital techniques continue to expand their toolkits. Lord uses a musical analogy to describe this evolution, saying, “In ‘Wallace & Gromit,’ Aardman could do ‘chamber music’ types of things but nothing orchestral. Now we don’t have to script for small-scale productions anymore.”

Eye on the Oscars: Animation Preview
Acad swoons for toon tunes | Cartoon contenders | Pixar pro hits with fast track | Live-action techniques bring life to stop-motion

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