Films like 'Corpse Bride' keep puppet animation alive

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

If Victor Van Dort, the hero of "Tim Burton's Corpse Bride," doesn't impress with his boyishly handsome face, form-fitting Victorian jacket and stylish cravat, consider his height: a towering 16 inches.

By puppet animation standards, that makes him a big star.

"That's pretty large compared to other stop-motion puppets," says Mike Johnson, Burton's co-director in this equally macabre - if long-delayed - follow-up to Burton's 1993 cult classic "The Nightmare Before Christmas."

The mannequins of "Corpse Bride," Johnson explains, were upsized so that their faces could register the subtle changes of expression these next-generation puppets are built to deliver.

"This is kind of a breakthrough," Johnson says. "We've tried to push the limits of the quality of animation."

This whimsically macabre story about a callow Victorian youth (voiced by Johnny Depp) who finds himself accidentally betrothed to a very fetching and insistent corpse (Helena Bonham Carter) is designed to showcase not only the ghoulish humor of Burton and the flashy songwriting chops of composer Danny Elfman, but the enormous technical ingenuity of Burton, Johnson and the team of Ian MacKinnon and Peter Saunders, who created the puppets.

"My goal was to create something that could stand side-by-side with 'Nightmare,' but also show how the technology has advanced in the last 10 years," Johnson says.

What's amazing is not that puppet animation is getting better, but that it hasn't died out completely.

In an age of CG images, when even Disney has gone digital, you'd think that puppet animation would be as extinct as those stop-motion dinosaurs from "King Kong."

Not quite. A new generation of animators, weaned on Ray Harryhausen monster movies and George Pal "Puppetoons," is bringing 21st century technology to an old art form.

"There has been a resurgence," Johnson says. "This is a style that can't be replicated with computer stuff."

This fall, "Tim Burton's Corpse Bride," which opened Friday, is competing with "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" (opening Oct. 7), the feature-film debut of Nick Park's popular series of British clay-animation shorts about a wacky inventor and his canine buddy.

"I think there's something to be said for something that's handmade and crafted," says Park, who also created the clay-animation feature film "Chicken Run" in 2000. "There's something charming about it."

Also due out soon: "Gumby Dharma," a biography of animation maverick Art Clokey ("Gumby," "Davey and Goliath") that uses both live action and stop-motion animation to tell its story.

"What people like about stop-motion animation is that it's real," says Joe Clokey, Art's son, also in the family business. "It's like a magic trick, taking real things, real sets, and making them come to life with movement."

Stop-motion animation has been around since at least 1925, when "The Lost World," animator Willis O'Brien's precursor to his own "King Kong" (1933), brought a whole menagerie of prehistoric monsters to life with a technique still basic to the form: a small model is made, filmed, moved slightly, filmed again, moved slightly again, and so on, bit by painstaking bit.

When projected on a movie screen, the model appears to be moving - jerkily, in those early films - under its own steam.

"Any time you take something that is not alive and imbue it with life, that's puppetry," says Bobby Box, associate producer at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta. "In my book, clay animation is a form of puppetry."

In Europe, especially in Eastern bloc countries where puppet craft has long been a serious art, puppet cartoons have a distinguished pedigree.

The dancing skeletons, living vegetables and walking wineglasses of 1930s Polish animator Ladislaw Starewicz ("The Mascot") clearly influenced both "Nightmare" and "Corpse Bride." The school of Czech animators led by Jiri Trnka and Jan Svankmajer had an enormous influence on the American avant-garde, as seen in the work of animators Stephen and Timothy Quay.

In Hollywood, puppet animation has had a much spottier career.

Mostly, it's been a tool of the F/X department, a way to put a 50-foot gorilla in the same frame as a five-foot woman - as was done in the greatest example of the genre, 1933's "King Kong."

That movie inspired dozens of careers, including those of Harryhausen, who went on to refine O'Brien's techniques in films like "Jason and the Argonauts" and "Clash of the Titans," and "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson, who began his career with puppet animation and will be coming full circle with his coming "King Kong" remake.

"I just loved 'King Kong' when I was little," Park says. "I also had a thing about dinosaurs, and when I read how Harryhausen did those movies, I tried to make my own puppet dinosaurs. They weren't very good."

"Kong" inspired other filmmakers too, including Clokey, whose "Gumby" series brought clay animation to TV, and Hungarian refugee Pal, who employed stop-motion in both his '50s "Puppetoons" and in sci-fi films like "The Time Machine."

Pal streamlined the stop-motion technique into an assembly-line process - creating dozens of nearly identical mannequins that could be quickly substituted for each other, rather than a single figure that needed constant repositioning. This is the technique used in both "Nightmare" and "Corpse Bride."

"It made the animation process go that much more quickly," Johnson says. "Once the figures were built, the animator could just swap them out."

In some ways "The Nightmare Before Christmas" was stop-motion's second coming.

In addition to inspiring a line of Goth fashions and action figures, "Nightmare" inspired filmmakers. One of its innovations was video feedback, a technique in which digital cameras capture each phase of a puppet's movement as it's being posed, thus allowing animators to correct themselves as they go along. The result: nearly flawless movement, as opposed to the herky-jerky animation of "King Kong."

"It's gotten much smoother, now that the animators can see what they're doing," Clokey says.

"Corpse Bride" takes the technical innovation even further - to the puppets themselves. The heads, in particular, have facial movements that work with literal Swiss watch precision.

"If you were to peel back the skin on one of these puppets, it would look like the back of a watch," Johnson says. "They're fully geared, so the animator can put a little screwdriver in the ear hole and crank a gear that allows one side of the mouth to come up."

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