Fantastic Mr Fox

[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remember hearing with deadening regularity that stop-motion animation was dead, that the ease and efficiency of CGI had superceded it and rendered it obsolete.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.

Fantastic Mr Fox

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:

13 thoughts on “Fantastic?

  1. I trust that Fantastic Mr. Fox will turn out excellent. With all of the talk of the actors and the voices, I wonder about the images themselves. Anderson tends to go for long shots and elaborate, slightly static shot composition. I wonder how his visual style will translate to animation, which can require more movement to make up for the static quality of the models. Critics have blasted the trailer for lacking something, but it is also really hard to see what’s going on on a small YouTube screen.

  2. After George Miller did an animated film with “Happy Feet” and now Wes Anderson did this, I wonder if any other directors with a knack for, as you say, Indie-spirited films will try their luck. I could imagine someone like Kevin Smith, who is an Animation fan, doing an animated feature (since he is not much of a technical director anyway). On the other hand, you’ve got Brad Bird directing his first live action film. I guess it’s just another sign of how the line between the forms becomes ever blurrier.

  3. Tim, I cannot at this moment answer your badger question. But rest assured that, in the long tradition of American movies’ diligent attention to preserving the exact nuances of regional and international dialects, there’ll be a perfectly explicated narrative purpose for the accent in question. Either that, or they really, really wanted to cast Bill Murray as some kind of rodent and didn’t think it through much further.

  4. Filmdr & Alex – if you want to see a higher resolution version of the trailer, the HD one at the official site is pretty good:

    The real “indie” stop-motion movie of the moment must be $9.99:

    I hadn’t heard critics’ comments on the trailer. I personally love the texture of stop-motion most of the time, so I don’t have a problem with the slightly jerky look of the thing, though I hope it’s not just being used as a short hand for rebellious, unorthodox indie cool. It’s actually something of a geek’s art, requiring so much focused diligence – the exact opposite of that rough, couldn’t-care-less “hipness” that the mumblecore mob so often seem to be aiming for.

    i suppose I’m happy to let the film be its own thing, without measuring it against other precedents. But if lots of non-specialist film-makers start moving into animation, the results could be variable – people like Jiri Trnka and Svankmajer and even Harryhausen are artists who are really concerned with the nature of the form and how it affects the films’ conception of bodies and identity. For those people, it’s not just a fun to thing to have a go at, but a fully-formed aesthetic practice.

    Having said that, the Henry Selick sequences that Anderson worked into The Life Aquatic were really magical, so he must have some feeling for the form.

  5. Oh, and George Miller had some form with animation (of a sort), or at least with talking animals, from his work on the Babe films.

    I have my fingers crossed that Bela Tarr has a puppet film in him somewhere. But I feel that way about all of my favourite film-makers…

  6. Hey Dan,

    Just wondering what you thought about the CGI fur of Sully in Monster’s Inc? Which I find rather hallucinatory and wonderful to watch all on it’s own (but hey that’s me!).

    Also – I just ran across a review for Shane Acker’s feature version of 9, based on his original short and figured you might want to peruse. Said review reminded me of the original which, though CGI, is (literally) about the darkest looking piece of digital animation I’ve seen in a while. The nice thing about it is its grim and rather grimy aesthetics and style, which seems to hark back to the stop-motion world of Svankmajer.

    Anyway – here’s the link to the original short

    and here’s the feature film’s trailer



    • Thanks, Paul. Sorry for the delayed response – I’m reserving judgement on Acker’s film: it certainly looks more interesting than the average CG feature, though I’m a little down on the Tim Burton aesthetic these days. The griminess is all present and correct, but I always find that there’s something “clean” about the process of computer animation – it almost never conveys the tactility of coarse surfaces (except in those “oooh, that almost looks like you could touch it” moments, which are not quite a suspension of disbelief), while Svankmajer’s films carry the scars of a hands-on process using objects that retain their deadness even as they seem to move about the screen.

      Pixar are in a class of their own, and Sully’s fur was more than just a technical showcase: even as it helps to create a cuddly character (physicalised in stark contrast to his companion, Mike), techies in the know must have spotted that it was a real coup for the animators, just like other developments like CG fire, water, dust and skin make spectacular capital out of things that are most familiar to viewers.

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