This past Saturday night, I spent a few hours doing something I never would have dreamed I could enjoy. After some grumbling and compromise, I sat down with a friend to watch the 2010 Spike Video Game Awards. Despite my apprehensions of morphing into a geek/social pariah simply from taking part in this one experience, I actually came out of it with a newfound appreciation for the art of game design. But with all the visual innovation I was taking in, I also found myself longing for something simpler – Pacman perhaps.
The realism in Guillermo Del Toro’s upcoming “Insane” (the director who brought us “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Hellboy”) and the post-apocalyptic “Resistance 3” was undoubtedly incredible – I could scarcely distinguish the characters from my friend sitting next to me – but it made me realize that the more advanced graphics in games, TV and movies become, the more austere and distanced I feel from them. Maybe that’s why I’ve always preferred real bowling to the Wii’s version.
For this Arts Corner, I hope to draw from this experience, to what might be called a philosophical insight. I would like to discuss the slow but steady decline into ruin that has become of animation today. Yes, technology has gotten better and more realistic every year since I’ve been paying attention to it. But there are certain things that deserve to be remembered; are just as important as achieving that pinnacle of technology we are ever-striving toward. To embody this concept, I will focus on the warmest, fuzziest and primitive of modern techniques – Clay animation.
First seen in about 1908, with production of “The Sculptor’s Welsh Rarebit Dream” by Thomas Edison’s manufacturing company, the method of animating Plasticine-molded objects using stop motion filming has progressed into varying degrees of sophistication from its original form. The ones most Americans are familiar with around this time of year, when holiday-themed Claymation is in its full-fledged nostalgic prime, include the TV specials “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Year Without a Santa Claus” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Then you’ve got foreign gems like the several Wallace and Gromit films and 2009’s Sundance film noir Claymation release “Mary and Max.” I was never into Gumby or Bob the Builder, but those shows used the original methods as well.
Since then, however, today’s animation producers have gotten precariously forgetful of the charming, slightly disjointed magic behind the technique. “Chicken Run” all the way back in 2000 and 2006’s “Flushed Away” used a Digital Intermediate process to polish things up, which is basically acceptable, but in a way served as the gateway drug to more recent mutants as Tom Hanks’ “The Polar Express” and Disney’s “A Christmas Carol” that utilized a computer performance capture technique.
This motion capture technique is as far from clay animation as you can currently get before using live action, but it still unfairly reaps the rewards of Claymation with its faux-cartoonish appearance. It’s similar to the reason why people were so drawn to Beanie Babies – they were purposely not filled completely, with beans instead of stuffing, to give them a more imperfect, floppy, cuddly appearance. I believe that our entertainment media desperately needs to retain the integrity of its clay animation niche, rather than give in to suave visual enhancements seen in every other genre.
One ray of hopeful light is to be found on primetime TV these days; not on 25 Days of Christmas, which featured shockingly un-seasonal movies like “Grease” and “Finding Nemo.” In fact, NBC’s “Community” hosted an inspired, all clay-animated special a few days ago, which they started work on back in July.
The Wall Street Journal reported the “filmmakers kept digital effects and CGI work to a minimum, instead electing to shoot their scenes old school – such as using flour for snow during a mountain collapse scene and individually cutting out 24 unique snowflakes out of Styrofoam before duplicating them for a scene.” So is this a signal that the animation style of old isn’t dead, desecrated in lieu of brighter, clearer technologies? I genuinely hope so.
Sarah Witman is a sophomore intending to major in journalism. Also feeling nostalgic about “Year Without a Santa Claus”? E-mail your favorite claymation quotes to firstname.lastname@example.org.