Stop-Motion Gains Speed

A businessman tucks his boy into bed before taking off on a business trip. As the son drifts to sleep, the father’s flight takes on Arthurian proportions in his dream. He flies off on a giant bird, and as his associates—knights at a round table, in a forest setting—discuss their affairs, a fire-breathing dragon attacks. The father draws his sword and slays the dragon in a dramatic climax. He flies back triumphant, and when he returns home, again in his suit and tie, he carries a toy dragon.

The eye-catching and emotional epic, which broke during the Super Bowl, is the latest in United’s Emmy Award-winning animated “It’s Time to Fly” campaign. While previous ads such as “Interview” and “Rose” have been created using 2-D, hand-drawn-style animation, “Dragon” is a departure for the two-year-old campaign and the creative team at Fallon in Minneapolis. The spot was created using stop-motion animation. And rather than employing the most well-known stop-motion technique, clay, it uses paper cutouts instead.

Let’s be honest. When you think of cutting-edge animation, you don’t think stop-motion. If anything, stop-motion has been considered a charming but dated technique with Gumby and Pokey and Davey and Goliath as its poster children. But stop-motion, which first appeared in the mid-1920s, is making a serious comeback.

This renewed interest in stop-motion is largely due to a backlash against the extensive use of computer-generated imagery in recent years, say sources in the film, TV and ad industries. Ron Diamond, executive producer of Hollywood’s Acme Filmworks, points out: “CGI has gotten to the point where they can make anything look real. Now, what we need to do is go back and use our imagination a little bit—give people a chance to fill in the blanks instead of spelling it out for them frame by frame.”

Take a look at the recent Academy Awards: Two of the three movies nominated for best animated feature film were the stop-motion extravaganzas Corpse Bride, directed by Tim Burton, and Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit. The latter film, which won the Oscar, was produced by famed Bristol, England, shop Aardman Animations, known for other stop-motion fare, including commercials for Serta (featuring those fluffy sheep that help people drift to sleep) and Hubba Bubba (with creatures ranging from polar bears to penguins chomping on bubble gum).

Just a few clicks of the TV remote also reveal not one, but two stop-motion series on air: Robot Chicken, a satire that employs dolls in sketches lampooning pop culture, and Morel Orel, a series about a God-fearing boy—both of which air on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block. According to Alex Bulkley, producer of both shows, the network has plans for at least five or six more stop-motion shows currently in development. Aardman Animations also agreed to produce a Creature Comforts series based on its Academy Award-winning 1989 short film of the same name for the U.S. market, which will air on CBS next year.

“There’s something the audience can relate to more in an organic feel of stop-motion, compared to cel animation,” says Bulkley on the renewed interest in the old-school technique. “You’re able to dive into a world more easily in stop-motion. I think it gives people a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.”

The United spot, directed by Jamie Caliri of Duck Studios, Los Angeles, took four months on-set with crew to complete. The look for the spot, says Stuart D’Rozario, group creative director at Fallon, was inspired by the graphically designed, paper cutout-style end titles Caliri created for the feature Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. “We’d seen Jamie’s work for the Lemony Snicket movie, and we thought that would be very interesting,” says D’Rozario. “The style [of “Dragon”] is in the same family, but it’s done differently. When you look at it, it’s similar. The technique is much more time-consuming, and it’s also more epic.”

Fallon isn’t the only agency that recently felt stop-motion was worth the effort. Over the past few months, plenty of agencies and their clients have chosen stop-motion to bring their concepts to life. Sedgwick Rd. in Seattle recently employed the animation technique to produce two eerie and edgy antismoking PSAs for the Washington State Department of Health. The ads “Rec Room” and “Park,” directed by Chel White of Bent Image Lab in Portland, Ore., feature childlike dolls who are on the verge of kissing when one of them winds up with something gross (bug, cat phlegm) in its mouth, illustrating the filthiness of smoking.

Interestingly, the Washington State Department of Health PSAs benefited from the exposure of Corpse Bride while it was in development. “Tim Burton hadn’t done a stop-motion feature for 10 years, and the PR for Corpse Bride happened as we were halfway through production,” relates Scott Stripling, associate creative director/copywriter at Sedgwick Rd. “The client was excited that the spots were breaking the same time as the feature.”

For ESPN’s “Believe” spot, Wieden + Kennedy in New York commissioned director Mark Gustafson of Laika/house in Portland, Ore., to depict a family of Buffalo Bills going through the ups and downs of the seemingly cursed franchise during a football game. And Foote Cone & Belding in New York continued its long-running stop-motion Chips Ahoy! campaign, with the latest spot, “Punky,” a song-and-dance number directed by Loose Moose’s Ken Lidster, featuring a chocolate chip cookie and boys singing about being “punky” instead of “chunky.”

The cost of a stop-motion ad, however, can be prohibitive, depending on the look and feel of the project. Sources estimate ESPN’s “Believe” to have cost approximately $300,000, while United’s elaborate “Dragon” spot cost closer to $750,000. “The thing that you can do with stop-motion, which you cannot achieve in 3-D computer graphics because it’s very costly, is create worlds that the viewer normally wouldn’t accept in a live-action universe,” says Acme’s Diamond.

Scheduling is also a major consideration and is sometimes a bigger concern than budget. “You can fix a lot of stuff with people and money,” says Diamond. “It gets so exponentially expensive that it becomes incredibly prohibitive to rush a spot through. In 2-D and CG, you can throw people at it and make it happen quicker. Stop-motion is a lot harder.”

Stop-motion also has a cinematic and nostalgic look to it, which often packs more of an emotional wallop than the use of computer-generated imagery. The viewer can more readily immerse himself into a world where the characters seem to be more real and feel like they’ve been touched by the filmmakers. “I think we’ve seen a lot of CG for awhile now, and we’ve gotten very used to the look of it,” says Bent Image Lab’s White. “There’s something about stop-motion that just has a real handmade feel to it that is sometimes subtle and sometimes isn’t subtle.”

Aardman Animations executive producer/head of commercials Heather Wright adds, “There’s a different sensibility about stop-motion, which people generally love. I think it’s because you feel like you can reach out and pick up a stop-motion puppet, which you just don’t get with a CGI puppet.”

Aardman Animations has seen an increase in stop-motion-themed commercials boards since Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit was released. “I know the movie made an impact because there is a massive increase in the number of boards coming through from both the U.S. and U.K. markets,” reports Wright, “and I’m still expecting there to be more.” Last year, Aardman worked on 16 commercials that used stop-motion animation, versus 36 that used CG.

Aardman is also currently wrapping up two new stop-motion commercials for Hubba Bubba via Energy BBDO in Chicago, as well as collaborating with DreamWorks Animation on Flushed Away, Aardman’s first completely computer-generated feature film.

What may be most attractive to advertisers is stop-motion’s distinctive look, which catches viewers’ attention. Says D’Rozario, “I don’t think agencies think in such specific terms about the use of stop-motion, or any other specific technique, for that matter. That said, one reason we ended up with animation in general for United was the cut through the clutter.”

Perhaps the strongest reason to use stop-motion is the emotional effect it has on viewers—a powerful incentive for advertisers hoping to connect with consumers. Says Caliri, “Somehow, the fact that you subconsciously can feel that someone has touched the puppets … I think it gives warmth that’s hard to put your finger on.”