by Ben Andrews for CTVA 301 at California State University of Northridge.
Author's Note: I have optimized this media experience with embedded video and hyperlinks to additional content. Enjoy!
The concept of stop-motion animation is not new one. This medium for capturing and displaying motion predates the earliest forms of cinemas on film. Stop-motion although not new, is still incredibly relevant. It has endured as a part of cinema special effects history, been refined as a unique genre of cinema and enjoyed long lasting success in television. Now the advent of the Internet has created a new channel in which stop-animation takes form. YouTube has emerged as a powerful new channel of distribution for commercial, professional and amateur stop-motion work, and the artists has flourished and taken new forms in ways that the limits of television and cinema previously prohibited.
In examining stop-motions place within this new channel several layers of questions must be examined. The first layer that must be addressed is an understanding of the medium of stop-motion animation. How does it work? What makes it popular? How has it taken form in traditional media outlets? How has it been studied in an academic fashion? The second layer of discussion must illuminate the functionality, limits, promises and academic criticism of YouTube. How does this new channel function? Which works receive mass distribution? What defines the difference between amateur and profession content? The third and final layer is a qualitative and quantities examination of a cross-section of commercial, professional, and amateur videos on YouTube. How many views do they have? How long is there running time? What type of overall trends do they exhibit in regards to style and themes? What types of intertextuality can be found between other videos within YouTube, television and cinema? How has YouTube affected the careers of the artists?
In The Art of Puppetry in the Age of Media Production Steve Tillis offers a clear definition of the principles of stop-motion animation, a brief glimpse at their history and an explanation of the categorization as media figures and tangible puppets. Stop-motion animation achieved through the manipulating a material object into a pose, capturing the frame onto film (or in modern cases digitally), manipulating it again into a slightly different pose and repeating the process to create a sequence. When the still frames are played back at speed in sequence the illusion of the object in motion is portrayed to the viewer (Tillis, 191). Stop-motion puppets have had a long history in cinema appearing J. Stuart Blackton’s short film The Haunted Hotel in 1907 and in the 1933 classic King Kong. (Tillis, 190-191) Other modern examples of stop-motion puppetry in films include Wallace in Gromit: Curse of the WereRabbit (2005), The Corpse Bride (2005), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) and Coraline (2009). Stop-motion has clearly enjoyed success in cinema for over 100 years. In addition to a long running presence in film, stop-motion has prevalent in American television with the characters of Gumby and the Pillsbury Doughman (Tillis 191). Stop-motion puppets are defined as media figures as they are used to represent characters through signification rather than using a living a person to portray the character (Tilis, 185). While a live actor can easily portray a naturalistic character, media figures have the ability to create surreal characters that are only limited by the imagination of the artist who creates them (Tilis, 182-183). The long-running success of stop-motion can invariably be contributed to the creation of such surreal and imaginative films.
Marian Quigley discusses one such popular film Chick Run, directed by Nick Park, in Poultry in Stop-Motion: The Challenges of Technology of Chicken Run. The film generated $224 million in ticket sales worldwide and was the third highest grossing English film in the United States. The film’s success can be attributed not only to the strong storytelling but also because of Aardman Animations distinct style (Quigley 117). The style of Chicken Run is decidedly unpolished in comparison to CGI films such as Toy Story. While the process is much more arduous (a day’s shooting to create 10 seconds of footage), the traditional method gives the film a qualitatively different feel. The handcrafted elements, the physicality of the models, and lighting similar to that of live-action films creates a higher degree of naturalism (Quigley 117-119). Quigley goes beyond discussing the technical challenges and stylistic values of the film, and focuses the majority of her essay on the film itself as a media text. She discusses the plot elements, characters, pop culture references and the films intertexuailty to the world of cinema. This clearly indicates an acceptance of stop-motion as an intellectually valuable and viable form of cinema, not simply a special effect technique. Furthermore director Nick Park’s more recent stop-motion film Wallace in Gromit: Curse of the WereRabbit won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film in 2006. Another example of such academic and critical attention afforded to a stop-motion film is Adrienne Kertzer’s article Fidelity, Felicity, and Playing Around in Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. She discusses the adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s novel Fantastic Mr. Fox to a stop-animated feature length film. Kertzer considers the film’s fidelity to the source material and discusses in depth the concept of fidelity vs. artistic license in adaptation (Kertzer, 6). Kertzer compares author Roald Dahl and director Wes Anderson (Kertzer, 7). Kertzer also discusses the marketing of the film, Felicity Dahl’s involvement and the intertextuality of the film with the source text and Wes Anderson’s other films (Kertzer, 9).
Danny Birchall proves that YouTube can be a place for serious academic texts to flourish in his article The Avant-Garde Archive Online. Prior to broadband Internet, the technology that has made video sharing sites such as YouTube viable, avant-garde (or “art-films”) could really only find distribution through smaller circles of academia and the art scene. YouTube offers a worldwide, free distribution channel for these works and a much larger audience, thus expanding the availability of public access to these works. This new technology has shifted the distribution of avant-garde work from academic channels to commercial and personal channels. This makes avant-garde material easy to find on various sites (including YouTube). However there are still challenges as the material quality and context various across the web. Some videos are uploaded in low quality or in incomplete segments. UbuWeb and Luxonline have also emerged as online archives of avant-garde video. UbuWeb is one of the preferred sites for avant-garde material, however it does not have any of the features that YouTube boasts such as being user friendly and allowing users to upload their own content. Luxoline is focused only on British avant-garde films. Two main factors emerge as the driving force of putting avant-garde video material online through YouTube, enthusiasts and artists that want to share their content with the world and archives such as BFI and the National Film Board of Canada that partner with YouTube to put up full quality content to reach new audiences. While the archive will remain incomplete, and artists that do not move to make their work available online risk being forgotten and the trend towards using YouTube as distribution for artist work continues to be solidified.
Alexandra Juhasz’s article Learning the Five Lessons of YouTube: After Trying to Teach There, I Don’t Believe the Hype further discusses the nature of YouTube and its position within academia.Much of the hype in academia centers on YouTube as a DIY platform. The promise of web 2.0 is that it revolutionizes the possibilities for punk and amateur work to find a mass audience. Juhasz refutes this notion and offers five lessons about the nature of YouTube. The first lesson is that YoutTube is not democratic, but rather ruled by popularity and that fringe elements of expression are removed. Videos with better production quality that speaks to mainstream culture and are simply entertaining but not weird or thought-provoking rise to the top as the most viewed videos (Juhasz 146). This equates to a mob-rule that provides no provisions for minority views as they are made virtually impossible to find, or are flagged and banned (Juhasz 147). The second lesson examines the function of YouTube and the forms its content take. YouTube is essentially a postmodern television set that delivers mindless distraction in short form videos. The three elements that make a video popular or entertaining are humor, spectacle and self-referentiality. This constitutes a new signature form of video distinct to YouTube that focuses on easy to understand sensations rather than complex meanings (Juhasz 147). The third lesson regards the distinction between professional and amateur videos. Professional videos are marked by corporate values of high production value and usually come in the form of commercial, music videos or movie segments. Amateur videos are marked by a disregard to production quality and use low-end technology to capture mundane content about daily life in the form of vlogs or videos of extreme events caught on video (Juhasz, 148). Fourth lesson: YouTube does not offer community, and is messily organized. It is made for distraction rather than action. The point is not really do find something you are looking for based on some sort of community but rather to wander somewhat aimlessly supporting advertising dollars (Juasz, 149). The fifth lesson is that you can still use YouTube how you want to. There is still plenty of room for the niche content even if it never rises to the top of the site (Juhasz 149).
Nick Salvato also discusses YouTube hailed image of a channel that democratizes the circulation of videos in his article Out of Hand: YouTube Amateurs and Professionals. He discusses the criticisms against YouTube leveled by Andrew Keen in his book The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture. Andrew Keen’s criticisms are rallied against the very thing YouTube promises to do, give a voice to amateurs. Keen believes this erodes culture and truth and that common person contribute mediocre content, while corporations and big media produce professional creative content (Salvato, 68). Technology has long limited the common person to consuming media, as devices for consuming media (projectors and VCRs) were much cheaper than those for producing it (camcorders) (Salvato, 71). Digital video recorders and the advent of user friendly video editing and video sharing have turned us into content producers. This new technology has also opened up new form of exhibition of homemade content. Where as homemade content had little exposure other than humorous videos submitted to America’s Funniest Home Videos, YouTube offers a new channel for mass distribution of all forms of video content (Salvato, 72).
A young woman awakes to behold the impending doom of the world. She flees from the destruction that is gobbling up matter itself like a tornado. She runs across a micro-landscape over the top of a spinning pen, leaping from pinhead to pinhead, and riding a bumblebee. When she reaches the end of the line she turns to face the force of doom and wielding two needles dives into the whirlwind and is seemingly lost in the cloud of violence until she emerges victorious knitting the chaos into a blanket for herself and returning to her sleep. Camera pans to show a shot of the Nokia N8 rigged above the scene. The commercial Dot. The World’s smallest stop-motion animation character shot on a Nokia N8 blurs the lines of short story film and commercial. The project was created by Aardman and Sumo Science as a demonstration of the Nokia N8’s micro-lens smart phone camera that can photograph a character as small 9mm using CellScope technology. The video is longer than the typical television ad at 1:37 and was created specifically for the web. The unique approach of the ad has not gone unnoticed, since its original upload on August 31st 2010 it has received over 2,983,946 views on YouTube. In addition to audience appeal, it has also received critical and academic acclaim from the academic conference TED. It was selected as one of the 10 winners of TED’s Ads Worth Sharing Competition. The commercial also has a making of feature available online Dot. The making of. which details the labor-intensive process of stop-motion animation that was used to create the film. It has also spawned a sequel Gulp. The world's largest stop-motion animation set, shot on a Nokia N8 which similarly aims to use spectacle and demonstration as a form of product advertising.
The music video Her Morning Elegance/Oren Lavie depicts a dreamlike sequence of a woman (actress Shir Shomron manipulated like a puppet) sleepwalking through various worlds created out of pillows, sheets and clothing all shot from a single perspective directly above her above bed. This creative stop-motion directed by Oren Lavie, Yuval and Merav Nathan has received over 21,327,442 views on YouTube since its original upload January 19th, 2009. It also received a Grammy Nomination for best music video in 2010 and won numerous awards in Film Festivals such as the L.A. Film Festival, SXSW, Stuttgart Festival of Animated Film, Asif - Tel Aviv animation festival and others. There is also an accompanying making of video HER MORNING ELEGANCE behind the scenes on QuarterPastWonderful’s YouTube channel, which explains the process of planning, storyboarding and shooting the video. Because this is a music video its length is directly related to that of the song length of 3:37. Due to the incredible popularity of this video on YouTube there have been several videos that either parody, or borrow from its style creating a fascinating web of intertexuality and self-referentially on YouTube. Her Morning Elegance / Oren Lavie - Official Parody tells the story of a day in the life of an overweight transvestite prostitute and brilliantly mimics the sleepwalking in bed-sequences of the original albeit in a cruder execution. The student film/ stop-motion music video World in Front of Me - Kina Grannis Music Video cites Her Morning Elegance as the inspiration for the video in its description. There are also numerous fan made replicas of the original music video. While these videos give credit to the hypotext from which they are drawn other media that are clearly taken from this source do not. One such video is an Australian commercial by Target, Every Colour You Can Dream Of, depicts a women sleeping in bed, awaking and then flying through a landscape of colorful clothing products until she returns to her sleep, which is essentially the same plot as Her Morning Elegance and uses the same signature above the bed angle. The only real departure is that the landscape of interaction is expanded beyond the bed. Because this commercial actually exists online only through various unofficial channels, the most popular video of the upload being teajay74’s Target Dreaming Girl Commercial, there is no citation of the original material by the ad agency. The anonymous YouTube user enlilify pays tribute to the source material by titling an unofficially uploaded commercial her morning elegance FAKE. This commercial created by Lowe Adventa Russia for Russian mobile-phone provider Beeline so obviously mimics the style of Her Morning Elegance that it appears that reason alone is the only reason it has been uploaded to YouTube.
The trend of pushing the boundaries of stop-motion animation music videos on YouTube continued with Coldplay - Strawberry Swing and In Your Arms - Kina Grannis. The music video for Coldplay - Strawberry Swing tells the story of a man (portrayed by Coldplay front man Chris Martin) who awakes to discover a princess has been captured by an evil squirrel and leaps into action as a superhero, battling obstacles against a surreal chalk animated landscape to rescue her. The video is set to Coldplay’s song Strawberry Swing with a running time of 4:14. It was created by professional animation production company Shynola and since its original upload on emimusic’s official YouTube channel it has received over 5,090,788 views. The video also received nominations for Best Animation in a video at the 2009 UK Music Video Awards and Breakthrough Video at the 2010 MTV Music Video Awards. There is no making accompanying making of video, however an interview of the video’s creators Shynola which discusses the time-intensive process of combining a live person as a stop motion puppet and using chalk to create a mega-sized animated world is available on Coldplay’s website.
The music video for In Your Arms - Kina Grannis created by @radical.media directed by Greg Jardin similarly uses live-musician Kina Grannis as a stop-motion puppet animated against a fantastic surreal background. The animated sequence is achieved through creating mosaic images frame by frame out of jellybeans. The result is a one-of-a-kind colorful and imaginative spectacle, which adventures through fantastic scenes of forests, jungles, caves, mountaintops, oceans and outer space. The video The Making Of “In Your Arms” documents the process in detail following the 22-month project, which took a total of 1,357 hours to shoot with a team of 30 people. Some shots of the film required 5 minutes of set-up while others required hours. The entire sequence was preconceived and digitally animated so the animators would have a guide to follow in constructing each shot. In just over 2 months since its upload on November 2, 2011 the video has received over 3,688,886 views.
Profession stop-motion work however is not the only thing making waves through YouTube. Director Bang-Yao Liu’s Senior Project for Savannah College of Art & Design DEADLINE post-it stop-motion visualizes a student with a deadline battling with his project, procrastination and distractions personified by post-it-notes which form a pixel animation on the wall above his desk. This video has received over 5,282,776 views since its upload June 5, 2009 and run time comes in just under 2 minutes at 1:55. According the behind the scenes video DEADLINE the making of the project required 3 months of planning and 4 days of shooting. The hard work has certainly paid off as Bang-Yao-Liu was commissioned to create a sequel DEADLINE 2: Sticking Close to You a stop-motion project filmed in 11 cities around the world as an advertisement for the office supply company Stick’N.
Another prime example of amateur artists transitioning into the commercial through merit of their YouTube video is director Paul B. Cummings’ Tony vs. Paul. The creators describe it as a “a stop motion battle between two friends turned enemies.” The video took over 2 months to film and edit and uses over 4,000 still shots to create the 5:02 short film. Again live actors are used as puppets that are capable of extraordinary feats such as flight. Since its original upload Nov 16, 2006 the video has received over 6,288,265 views. Paul has since then directed several commercials for television (which he has also made available for viewing on his YouTube channel testricide) including promos for the Office, McDonald’s, Redvines, ButterFinger, New Balance and the Webby’s (an award show dedicated to online video).
While the professional music video Her Morning Elegance inspired many amateur copies and the amateur creators of DEADLINE and Tony vs. Paul have launched professional advertising careers, a fascinating example of amateur work inspiring professional advertisers has emerged. Taijin Takeuchi’s オオカミとブタ -Stop Motion with Wolf and Pig is cited as the source of inspiration for Olympus’ commercial The PEN Story. Takeuchi’s film also known as A wolf loves pork. tells the story of a boy dressed in a wolf suit chasing after a papier-mâché pig. The film exhibits a unique animation style as the stop-animation is photographed, printed and then photographed again interacting with the environment of Takeuchi’s bedroom. The film has received over 3, 421,193 views on YouTube since its upload on April 9, 2009. Runtime is 3:55.
The PEN Story mimics the technique and style of printed photography stop-motion of A wolf loves pork. and heavily foregrounds the hypotext in the opening shot of hands pulling a photograph out of envelope on a desk. The film tells the story of a man’s life and its many stages from childhood to old age and cleverly and creatively interacts with the man’s living room. The commercial was created by German company BIGFISH Filmproduktion through the ad agency DSG Dialog Solutions for Olympus. The video uploaded only 4 months after A wolf loves pork. on July 2, 2009 has received over 3,693,140 views on YouTube. There is also a corresponding video uploaded by DialogSolutions which documents the films production Making of the PEN story and a sequel PEN Giant which use photographs the size of billboards to depict the story. Similar to Nokia’s commercials Dot. The World’s smallest stop-motion animation character shot on a Nokia N8 and Gulp. The world's largest stop-motion animation set, shot on a Nokia N8 Olympus’ commercial act as demonstrations of what the product can create rather than making the ad primarily about displaying the product itself.
The concept of stop-motion continues to prove itself as engaging form of video expression. It has enjoyed long lasting commercial and critical success in the traditional outlets of television and cinema due to its inherently unique and imaginative style. The channel of YouTube has opened up new possibilities for a more democratic mass distribution of video content and although it is still imperfect in protection of the individual voice and organizational structure, which is highly influenced by corporate values and standards, it opens up a pathway to aspiring amateurs and artists to have their work recognized that did not previously exist in film and television. Finally an examination of several popular stop-motion YouTube videos reveals fascinating trends that contribute to this new form of stop-motion media on YouTube include short running time (between 1.5 to 5 minutes), a propensity for stories that deal with themes of sleep and dreams, the success of projects that produce impressive spectacles through time and labor intensive executions of pre-planned sequences, an affinity for whimsical, lighthearted, highly imaginative and creative characters and settings, and an introduction to the extensive use of human-actors as tangible stop-motion puppets. These trends, along with the intertextuality between professional and amateur work and the upward mobility of amateur artists to professionals, phenomena all unique to stop-motion artistry found on YouTube, will undoubtedly inspire continued interest in and academic criticism of stop-motion artistry that shatters the old boundaries of film and television within the powerful new channel of distribution YouTube.
Birchall, Danny. "The Avant-Garde Archive Online." Film Quarterly 63.1 (2009): 12-14. Print.
Bunliu. “DEADLINE post-it stop motion” YouYube.com
YouTube, 5 Jun. 2009. Web. 9 Dec. 2011
Dokugyunyu. “オオカミとブタ -Stop Motion with Wolf and Pig” YouYube.com
YouTube, 9 Apr. 2010. Web. 9 Dec. 2011
Emimusic. “Coldplay Strawberry swing” YouYube.com
YouTube, 23 July. 2010. Web. 9 Dec. 2011
Juhasz, Alexandra. "Learning the Five Lessons of YouTube: After Trying to Teach There, I Don't Believe the Hype." Cinema Journal 48.2 (2008): 145-50. Print.
Kertzer, Adrienne. "Fidelity, Felicity, and Playing Around in Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox." Children’s Literature Association Quarterly (2011): 4-24. Print.
Kina Grannis. “In Your Arms - Kina Granis” YouYube.com
YouTube, 2 Nov. 2011. Web. 9 Dec. 2011
Nokia. “Dot. The world's smallest stop-motion animation character shot on a Nokia N8” YouYube.com
YouTube, 31 Aug. 2010. Web. 9 Dec. 2011
PENstory. “The PEN Story” YouYube.com
YouTube, 2 July. 2010. Web. 9 Dec. 2011
Quarter Past Wonderful. “Her Morning Elegance / Oren Lavie” YouYube.com
YouTube, 19 Jan. 2009. Web. 9 Dec. 2011
Quigley, Marian. "Poultry in Stop-Motion: The Challenge of Technology in Chicken Run." Screen Education 48 (2007): 117-23. Print.
Salvato, Nick. "Out of Hand: YouTube Amateurs and Professionals." TDR/The Drama Review 53.3 (2009): 67-83. Print.
Testricide. “Tony vs. Paul” YouYube.com
YouTube, 16 Nov. 2006. Web. 9 Dec. 2011
Tillis, Steve. "The Art of Puppetry in the Age of Media Production." TDR/The Drama Review 43.3 (1999): 182-95. Print.