My childhood is strewn with memories of animal movies: Kes, Watership Down, Plague Dogs, Storm Boy, Ring of Bright Water, Tarka the Otter etc. Invariably, these served as starter-wheels of grief, early encounters with death and loss. Things rarely ended well for these critters. Don’t worry, though: Steven Spielberg is not in the business of scarring children. His entry into the genre is Saving Private Horsey, which is ostensibly told from the point of view of a horse as it changes hands from one carer to another. Continue reading
[See also the follow-up post here.]
The self-conscious whimsy of Wes Anderson‘s films was starting to seem a little forced, as if he just wanted to put pretty pictures to a collection of his favourite songs. So it’s good to know that he’s probably refreshing himself by trying something new. Fantastic Mr Fox will premiere at the London Film Festival in October (Americans will have to wait another month to see it, I’m afraid) and, as you’ll notice when you watch the trailer, is entirely composed off stop-motion puppets. Very old-school:
I seemed to remember hearing with deadening regularity that stop-motion animation was dead, that the ease and efficiency of CGI had superceded it and rendered it obsolete. This couldn’t be less true. Actually, this decade has seen more stop-motion feature films made than in any other. Ever. And by a long distance. In the 20th century, there were around 71 stop-mo features. I only say “around” because I don’t trust my own counting, but I think it’s accurate. Since the year 2000, there have been 27 released, with a further 19 in production. It’s certainly true that digital tech makes it easier to capture and edit stop-motion footage, but there’s no getting around the longform, hands-on, painstaking process of moving the models incrementally and photographing them one frame at a time. It feels like rather an artisanal activity to be overseen by a major studio and dropped into the multiplexes: CGI seems far more suited to the slick packaging of contemporary Hollywood.
Look at the movement of of the animals in the trailer. The fur ruffles, the movement is a little jerky, and faces are not crazily expressive like they tend to be in CG animation.
These side effects of the stop-motion process might be seen as deficiencies, revealing the touch of backstage personnel whose traces are supposed to be wholly effaced. I won’t indulge in any more of my pre-judgements by predicting that Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland will have none of the creepy tactility of Jan Švankmajer’s version, but I bet it turns out to be true. Animation is a folk art prone to industrialisation. Stop-motion may have become the mark of soulful indie filmmaking, a neo-Luddite (I don’t use that term in the pejorative sense it was intended to carry) response to the digitisation of cinema. It’ll be interesting to see how the technique meshes with Anderson’s louche dialogue, much of which has reportedly been recorded on location rather than in a controlled studio environment.
But where is Wes Anderson in all this? Originally signed on to oversee the animation, Henry Selick left the project to make Coraline (probably a good choice – innovating an art form rather than referring nostalgically back to its past), and Mark Gustafson took over as animation director. But, according to an inadvertently extraordinary (assuming they didn’t intend to make Anderson look like a clueless buffoon) interview with the animators in this month’s Empire, he’s keeping his distance from the set and directing via e-mail, sending in his favourite DVDs to give an impression of what he’d like to see. Cinematographer Tristan Oliver, asked about his working relationship with Anderson, replies:
I think Wes doesn’t understand what you can do, and he often wants us to do what you can’t do, and the length of time the process takes … I don’t think he quite comprehends that, and how difficult it is to change something once you’ve started. It takes a big amount of someone’s time to change a very small thing. I think he also doesn’t understand that an animator is a performer. An animator is an actor. And this is the secret to animation: you direct your animator, you do not direct the puppet, because the puppet is an inanimate object. You direct an animator as if you’re directing an actor, and they will give you a performance. So we’ll get a note back from Wes saying “that arm movement is wrong.” But that arm movement is part of a fluid performance. And that has been really quite difficult for the animators.
Even without an absent director, animators must already be wound pretty tight. Reminds me of this:
Having just read James Lever’s mock autobiography of Cheeta the chimpanzee (which is far funnier and more moving than the skinny concept might lead you to expect), I was sent scurrying back on my knuckles to the original Johnny Weissmuller films. As far as my memory banks are telling me, these were on BBC 2 at 6pm every single night for about five years, when I was a kid, but I might have exaggerated that in my head. I also remember Bagpuss lasting forever, instead of its actual 13 episodes, and that gaps in the TV schedule were to be filled only with Laurel & Hardy or Harold Lloyd I also can’t remember whether, as a (very) young lad I wanted to be Tarzan, or to be a member of his makeshift jungle family. I might even have seen myself in Cheeta. This pondering was perhaps prompted by a recent rediscovery of Hammer’s She, which made me want to revisit some of the films and TV that left a strong impression on my developing headspace as a child. films.
Coming from the “pre-code” period in Hollywood, a window of frisky abandon when the censorious Production Code had been drawn up but not yet rigorously enforced, the Tarzan films are a lot naughtier than I remember. In an early scene of Tarzan the Ape Man, Jane undresses and washes in front of her father, teasing him for being shocked: she is, after all, his little girl, and he’s seen her in states of undress before. Of course, she’s grown into a woman since he last saw her, and she seems oblivious to her adult sexuality. That’s a good excuse, at least, for her to lean into the camera, blithely delivering the kind of cleavage shot that would be snipped out of later films:
It’s nothing, though, compared to the brazenness of a swimming scene from Tarzan and his Mate, which was cut out of the film’s original release, and only restored once it hit the home video market 60 years later. By the time of the sequel, Tarzan and Jane have settled into a kind of domestic bliss. Over the course of many sequels they will build up a recreation of a family home on the jungle escarpment, but in this second film they’ll still in a honeymoon period. When Jane falls from a tree branch, she snags the dress she’s been given by an English suitor trying to tempt her back to civilisation with fine clothes, “accidentally” leaving her completely undressed for a bit of impromptu skinny-dipping:
Actually, though Johnny Weissmuller, a former Olympian is doing his own swimming, Maureen O’Sulllivan is doubled by Josephine McKim, another Olympic swimmer. The sequence succinctly points to Tarzan and Jane’s idyllic separation from the outside world, a brief look at their ease in their jungle home before some more white guys arrive to screw it all up, but whatever its artistic merits, it was deemed too strong for the censors.
Looking at these films again, it’s impossible to avoid the colonialist themes that are so prominently displayed within them. It would be easy to bash the films for their insensitive handling of African American actors (who are given roles no juicier than expendable dogsbody or pliant messenger) and their native African characters (who are killed off with indiscriminate ease and patronised as window-dressing to the films’ safari aesthetic). It’s certainly true that the films condemn the destructive hubris of white traders mishandling the local culture (the first two films in the series hinge upon a hunt for the elephants’ graveyard, a sacred place for Tarzan’s friends, but an ivory-rich treasure stash for the traders), but Africa is still portrayed as an irresolvably deadly place of unchecked savagery and unpredictable violence. But you don’t even need to analyse the plots of these films. The polite but arms-length skirting around issues of race can be observed in the formal constitution of an early scene in which new arrival Jane Parker (Maureen O’Sullivan) is given a tour of her father’s African outpost:
You can see that, what looks like an innocent, slightly patronising look at the locals actually indicates a vast ethnic divide thanks to the use of rear projection, delegating the authentic location duties to a second unit team, perhaps even using stock footage. I’m not sure whether this is better (the background plates seem to have actually been shot in Africa) or worse than the blackface in something like King Kong, which was released the following year. Whatever their narrative posturings about the need to respect the African wildlife (with no illusions about its eagerness to bite your face off), the Tarzan films are still really a drawn out discussion of the suitability of the jungle for habitation by white people, and as such, it falls back on an easy binary of civilised vs savage. But at least it does it with considerable energy, and a surprisingly striking visual style. It’s not surprising this stuff stuck in my mind. The films use a beautiful soft-focus vignetting effect for some shots, which may be to make the jungle seem denser than the woods around Los Angeles where it was actually shot, but it also adds a dreamy mist to the whole place, marking it out as a zone of fantasy:
If Tarzan’s jungle was an attractive place, it was always a dangerous one. More than anything, I remember the Tarzan jungles as a place of vertiginous cliffs and dangerous waters. Every visit to the escarpment was a tense negotiation of rocks that could throw you off at any second. I’m sure I had many dreams of falling as a result of watching this stuff:
Even as a kid, I remember Tarzan’s crocodile wrestling as a predictable, comically shoddy insert in which he rolls over on top of a plastic prop for a couple of minutes before finally stabbing it in the head. But, at least in this early version from Tarzan and his Mate, it’s a superbly realised sequence, with an unnaturally huge beast, superb puppetry and atmospheric underwater photography that mirrors the earlier swimming scene, a nightmarish flipside to the jungle dream: