"Stop-motion has come and gone in waves," muses Henry Selick, who should be considered an expert on the subject considering he's dedicated his career to the art of stop-motion animation. When Selick was tapped by Tim Burton to helm The Nightmare Before Christmas, it was by far the most ambitious production of its kind to that point.
"When I directed The Nightmare Before Christmas, it was still definitely one foot in ancient technology," he recalls. In spite of that, the movie received an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects, a first for an animated film. "Between then and Coraline, most of the changes happened."
By the time Selick was directing 2009's Coraline, he says, "It might have started to look a little too perfect and clean." (Coraline earned him an Oscar nominated for Best Animated Feature Film.) With his newest project, Wendell & Wild, he wanted to recapture some of the imperfections that made stop-motion feel so magical in the first place.
"I felt like, well, stop-motion's gotten ever more perfect. You can't even tell the difference from CG. So, why bother? Really, it's not what the medium is about. It is about an animator touching and reposing a puppet up to 24 times for a second of film," he explains. "I wanted to show off some of those warts and flaws. In a way, showing off this old technology is kind of a new thing and people have to sit up a little and pay attention."
Selick may be strict about the craft of stop-motion animation, but as for what he can do with it? The only limit is his imagination. Below, Selick shares with A.frame the five films that ignited his passion for animation and have served as influences throughout his career.
Directed by: Nathan Juran | Written by: Ken Kolb
It was the first film I saw in the theater. I was five years old and my mother, Melanie, took me. She liked spooky stuff. I grew up in New Jersey, but she was from the South. And we had a lot of really good ghost storytellers in the family. So, she liked scary stuff and she kind of knew what would be good for me. She took me to that film. And I totally believed in Ray Harryhausen's monsters, especially this cyclops. I had this sense watching the film that these monsters actually existed.
I remember I had a recurring nightmare about the cyclops being small and growing ever larger in this big fish tank we had at our house. The dream was it was getting bigger and bigger, and was going to break out and come and get me. But over time, I started looking forward to meeting it. I developed this affection for the cyclops. I think it's that way for a lot of kids. It was not something that scarred me in any way. It scared me bad, and then, in time, I grew to love it. But it was those stop-motion monsters in particular in that film that spoke to me and have stayed with me.
Directed by: Charles Laughton | Written by: James Agee
Everything about that film impacted me. There was a local New York station that had a show called The Million Dollar Movie, and they would pick one film and show it twice a day for a whole week. I was eight or nine or 10 when they showed that. And I watched it probably eight times in one week. That one really seeped in deeply. At its heart, it was a very dark, modern fairy tale, but it looked so cool. It was the only film Charles Laughton ever directed. It wasn't a success, but there's so many memorable shots.
The basic story is there are these two young kids and the father in prison. I guess he's getting a death penalty, but he speaks in his sleep about money that he'd robbed hidden in a doll that his daughter has. So, his cellmate [played by Robert Mitchum] gets out, pretends he's this preacher, and goes after the family, trying to find out where that money's hidden. I mean, there are images: He murders the wife — it's Shelley Winters — and there's a shot of her underwater with her hair rippling in an old Model T. It's astonishing and terrifying. There's an image of the preacher riding a horse, silhouette on a hill in the distance. It's like he's the Grim Reaper just moving out there waiting to find these kids. And there's 10 other moments like that. I still would like to make a film as pure in design as that, where you strip everything away and it's one step beyond great stagecraft and theater and into movie world.
Where to Watch: The Criterion Channel
Written and directed by: Lotte Reiniger
I never saw The Adventures of Prince Achmed as a whole movie till many years later. This kiddy cartoon show, Claude Kirchner's Terrytoon Circus, because they didn't have much budget, they showed a lot of foreign cartoons, including this incredible feature — the first animated feature ever made by Lotte Reiniger in Germany. It's hand animated silhouettes, and they just chopped up the film and showed a piece here and there.
I was so fascinated by the look, and the design of the character was very whimsical. She animated everything and it was beautiful animation, but the main thing is that it's all silhouette. You had to use your imagination to see the details that didn't exist. It was something very primal that I loved. It felt so much like a fairytale come to life, but it was a mystery also. It wasn't all laid out in full color with all these details; it was almost like a shadow play. Years later, I saw the whole feature. It was wonderful. But it's mainly her design sense and the fact there was no detail, that you had to fill in the blanks, that it had such an impact on me.
Directed by: Ching Siu-tung | Written by: Tin-suen Chan, Elsa Tang and Tsui Hark
Everything about it is great. I mean writing, directing, design, the performances from Jet Li and Brigitte Lin. It was the first Hong Kong action-fantasy film I ever saw, and it still remains the best. It was wildly imaginative. It had things that have since been used in lots of other films — this tradition of the Beijing opera style of combat — but it's a great story. It's about a warrior who drinks wine all day on his horse. He's a great swordsman. Him and his buddies, they've had enough of the world. They're going to leave it behind, but he wants to visit some friends along the way.
And, my Lord, the wire work. The imagination of the villainess, who's a great sorceress and she slings needles attached to strings at her victims, and then, she can puppeteer them and control them. There's an evil sorceress in prison who manages to get ahold of one of the prison guards and just sucks the life and youth out of him, leaving a husk behind. It's all practical effects, and it just blew my mind.
I probably watched that one more than any other film on the list. It was like going to another planet with a whole nother style of telling stories, but stories you could follow completely. You cared about the characters, flying snakes, and people, and string needles and amazing swords. The hero's galloping away and somebody's magic sword comes up out of the ground and slices his horse right in half down the middle, and it falls apart. And it's, like, f—k! Anyway, I get excited about that.
Directed by: Terry Gilliam | Written by: Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown
I'm a big fan of Terry Gilliam's work going back to the very simple animation he used to do with Monty Python. Time Bandits was a remarkable film, but it's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen that I love best. What I like the most is this idea of, what do you believe? And is the belief in a lie that can turn the lie into truth? There's a town under bombardment — they're being attacked — and, to distract people, there's a play being put on, really badly. It's the story of this character, Baron Munchausen, this fabulous liar, and these adventures he claims to have had.
Then, this old man comes striding in and says, "That's not how it goes at all," and he starts to tell his story. You go into his tale as this character collects all of his servants, which are members of the Monty Python troupe, because they're going to go and defeat the invading Turkish army. It's wildly fantastic. He goes inside a volcano and faces Vulcan, played by Oliver Reed. They journey on a balloon to the moon, and the King of the Moon is played by Robin Williams. He's telling this story and finally, at the end, it turns out he is the Baron Munchausen, and he and his troupe have shown up, and they are going to defeat the army.
So, it's a story in a story, and then, it's one more story in a story. I thought that it was just beautifully layered. To be able to step outside three or four times and have that work and be marvelously performed and, above all, with practical special effects. It might be puppetry, miniatures, whatever, but no CG. That's the stuff I love.