Though stop motion animation has an early history and now competes with today's incredible CGI, it is still a very relevant form of expression and filmmaking. And while stop motion is still a very grueling process, the rewards are beautiful, and the experimental possibilities are endless. Stop motion is still ever present...and still very exciting.
One person who has made a long, illustrious career out of this art form, is Anthony Scott. Initially enthralled with the idea of bringing his own characters to life through stop motion as a child, Anthony moved on to work on incredible commercial spots, title designs and feature films, including The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline, James and the Giant Peach, and The Little Prince. He is currently Lead Animator on Henry Selick’s upcoming Wendell and Wild for Netflix.
I recently had the great opportunity to speak with Anthony about his work and find out a bit more behind the scenes of stop motion animation.
What initially sparked your interest in animation, and specifically stop motion?
I liked cartoons when I was a kid, so that got me into drawing. I had all these characters designed by the time I was 7 yrs old. I wrote stories and made comic books about them. Eventually I wanted to figure out how to make them move, so I found an animation book in the library. Make Your Own Animated Movies: Yellow Ball Workshop Film Techniques by Yvonne Andersen. The book showed kids my age making their own animated cut out and stop motion films. That is what initially got me fired up. By the time I was 11, I had a simple Kodak Super 8 camera to shoot with and started animating cutouts, clay, and my action figures.
I'm constantly amazed at the amount of time, work and detail that goes into stop motion. What is it that you love most about this type of work, and what is perhaps your least favorite part?
It does take a long time to animate anything of quality, it's true. I still get some kind of charge from bringing a character to life. Stop Motion is always testing me. It's not desirable to go back and reshoot my animation, so I really need to know where I am going before I start a shot. That is why it's always good to shoot a simple test or two. Least favorite part? Probably managing the pressure of creating a quality performance versus the reality of budget and time limitations.
Nightmare Before Christmas Anthony Scott with Jack Skellington. Photo by Rich Zim
As the first feature film you worked on was The Nightmare Before Christmas, what were you feeling at this time getting involved this project, and how was it working with Henry Selick and Tim Burton?
I knew Henry already from working with him on past short projects (MTV, Pillsbury Doughboy and other ads) and was excited to work on my first feature. Up until that time, it was something I never dreamed would happen. I knew Tim Burton's work and style so I was thrilled with everything I saw at the studio once I got there. I worked on Nightmare for almost 2 years, every day with Henry. Tim visited the studio a couple of times, but he was mostly busy with his other projects, shooting Batman Returns and Ed Wood at the time.
The work you did animating Jack Skellington is incredible. What is your favorite scene that you animated for this film?
Thanks, my favorite scene that I animated was Jack's performance in 'Poor Jack'. When I read the script initially, it was the one sequence I was drawn to so I asked to do it. By that time, I had been on the film for several months so I was ready to take it on and Henry agreed to let me animate it. This sequence is Jack's turning point. He stops trying to be someone else, Sandy Claws, and he realizes who he really is, The Pumpkin King.
Nightmare Before Christmas 'Poor Jack'. Photo by Anthony Scott
As this film is a cult classic, are there any amusing stories behind the scenes of this film?
We shot a title sequence completely made of Candy Corn against black velvet, but it was cut out of the final film. We shot this near the end of Production. I have some camcorder footage and stills of the animators working on it. Animators called it 'Corn Duty' if they were assigned to it.
Nightmare Before Christmas Candy Corn Title cards. Photo by Anthony Scott
The film Coraline is another of my favorites. As you were a supervising animator on this feature, can you tell us about the work you did on this?
Coraline was my longest stop motion project: 2.5 years. I was involved early on while puppets were being built. I tested early versions of the cat and Coraline's armature, prototype puppets, trained new animators, worked with Production on scheduling shots. I was in every edit session with Henry and the animators, led animation meetings, and I even found some time to animate real shots, but that wasn't my top priority. When you have over 20 animators and 50 stages running, it's difficult to find time to animate, let alone get into the correct headspace for it. Super proud of our Animation team on this film, they did some incredible work.
Coraline and Overscale Cat. Photo by LAIKA
In your career, as you have been animator, lead animator, and animation supervisor, could you tell us a bit about these roles? I imagine there is crossover in jobs?
Most definitely. I enjoy all these roles. Supervising allows me to interact with other department heads in deciding how the shots will be accomplished (i.e. special puppet or scale considerations, animator access, animator casting). Lead animator usually means I am one of the first animators to start on a show, helping to develop the style and personality of the main characters, as I am doing now on Wendell and Wild.
As in anything, I'm sure there are times when things go completely wrong, or just don't work out as planned. Do you have any experiences where this has happened? Any hard lessons learned?
Yes. In stop motion, the only way to fix a shot is either reshoot the whole thing, or cutback to a specific frame and animate from that point on. That could mean just going back one frame or 20 frames. The biggest cutback I've ever done was at the end of a 2 week shot on James and the Giant Peach. I think it was 32 frames. The spider just finished tucking in James for the night. She does a backwards walk on the web and jumps up into her sleeping place for the night, which happens to be a pipe sticking out of the wall. She makes the jump just fine, but she landed in the wrong place and I couldn't gracefully get her legs to fold up into a sleeping position. It was looking bad and it was all my fault for not planning it out correctly. Fortunately on Peach, we had a video grabbing system (a forerunner to Dragonframe) and I was able to go back to a frame where I knew I could match the spider's action (during the jump) and reshoot the animation from there. I heard later that Production was very nervous about this, but I never felt this way. I knew it was the only way to save the shot.
James and the Giant Peach Spider Set. Photo by Anthony Scott
I just recently watched The Little Prince that you worked on. This film is incredible, and I love the cut outs and paper look to the puppets. How was it working on this film?
This project is very special to me. First off, I was already familiar with the book, especially the illustrations, since I was very young. I was mystified by the drawings of this child, alone, and living on his own planet. When Jamie Caliri asked me if I was interested, I didn't even have to think about it. Automatic Yes. I had already worked with Jamie and Alex Juhasz on some of their paper animated short projects, including the Main Titles for United States of Tara and The Rifle's Spiral music video for The Shins. We all moved to Montréal and began working with Director Mark Osborne. We found a space to set up our Studio near Jean Talon Market, working with a small, ambitious and talented crew. We spent about a year working on our 16 mins of stop motion for the film.
The Little Prince. Photo by Anthony Scott
With your experience animating with different materials over the years, what is perhaps your favorite to work with...and the most difficult?
I have been enjoying working with paper on several projects the past few years. There are limitations, but I love the textures, the way light works with it, the hand made, painted look to it. I started working with paper cutouts when I was a kid, maybe that's why I like it. Most difficult? I think clay is a tricky one, especially if you have a complicated puppet. It needs constant maintenance, resculpting, fixing up, but that is a strength as well, if you're a good sculptor.
Do you do any personal projects, or is there perhaps a dream project you would like to take on?
I'd be interested in directing a music video or short project utilizing an experimental stop motion style, if it had an adequate budget.
In all your years in stop motion, what have you seen as great advances in the field?
All the stop motion feature films from Aardman, Henry Selick, Tim Burton, LAIKA, Wes Andersen and now Netflix. Never imagined there would be so many stop motion features, so much work for the stop motion community. I've been fortunate to have worked on some of these films. These films have advanced the craft of stop motion tremendously. Some examples: rapid prototype replacement faces, digital capture, frame capture software like Dragonframe.
The Little Prince with Aviator. Photo by Anthony Scott
What would you tell someone interested in getting started in stop motion? What would you say is most important to learn, or a best reference?
Spend some time figuring out what you want to specialize in. You'll start to figure that out if you make your own film. Maybe you'll be drawn to puppet making or building armatures or model building. If your focus is animation, practice various actions, walks, physical stuff. Try shooting on 1s, 2s, and mixing them up. Build up a good, short reel, 3-5 minutes with only your best work.
I just started looking at Dragonframe software, and it is incredible for stop motion work. From your experience, are there any must-have tools for stop-motion? Anything you wished you had, or knew when you started out?
Dragonframe has been a game changer. So, definitely all animators would benefit from working with it. Wished I had DF when I started out, but I didn't even have video capture on my first job. On Gumby I used a surface gauge, just like Ray Harryhausen used to animate with. In fact, I still use a surface gauge. Helps me keep track of where the puppets are in real space. Especially useful when walking a puppet or when animating tiny increments.
Nightmare Before Christmas Poor Jack Setup. Photo by Anthony Scott
What stands out as your favorite work so far?
Difficult one. Nightmare because it was my first film and turned out to be something bigger than just the film. Very proud to be part of it. The Little Prince was special for different reasons and is probably my favorite experience overall. I knew and loved the book since I was a kid, we made the movie in Montreal, it had a unique look: paper sets and puppets. We were a small crew, working closely together. We only produced about 16 minutes of stop motion so we could keep the size of the crew small.
As you are currently working on the upcoming Henry Selick directed film, Wendell and Wild, is there anything you are able to tell us about working on this film?
Not much just yet, just this is from Netflix's site:
"Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele star in this stop-motion animation adventure about two demon brothers who escape the Underworld."
You created a wonderful site for folks interested in stop motion (stopmotionanimation.com). I just started looking around on it, and it's really great to see people sharing and actively creating. What was your reason for starting this site, and any future plans for it?
I remember what it is like growing up in a place where no one knows much about stop motion animation, let alone the film business. I started the site as a meeting place for animators to exchange ideas and methods, talk about their projects and make animation-related posts. I wanted it to be a place for animators at every level of experience to feel comfortable joining the site; sharing, asking questions and getting support and positive feedback.
Gumby.com Spot Tornado Rig. Photo by Anthony Scott
As a stop motion animator, I assume you are forced to come up with creative solutions very often. What was the most complex problem, or the most ingenious creative solution on a set in your experience?
I've animated many tricky shots but the most complex by far, was a 30 second I shot I animated for a Gumby.com Spot. I storyboarded it, built the set, props, rigs, camera movers, lit the set, shot all the tests, animated and did all the post work rig removal. It took me 3 months just to shoot the animation which involved clay sculpting, a spinning clay tornado and flying blocks.
What is a day on the set really like? I imagine with the amount of tedious work that goes in, there must be some levity at times.
Animators collaborate on set with the camera team, but most of the time they are alone, all day, animating for multiple days or weeks. So, a lot of isolation. We usually have some kind of end of the week Friday party, but because of Covid, they aren't happening at this time. We do meet up on Zoom for Department meetings every couple of weeks and that provides a good sense of comradery.
You recently announced the start of Stopmo Jam 3, through stopmotionanimation.com and your associated YouTube channel. I'm particularly excited about this as it gives me a deadline to actually get into the work. Can you tell us what StopMo Jam is and how it came about?
Stopmo Jam is a collaborative stop motion project which features animators from all over the world. It contains several short 10-15 second bits that are all cut together creating one film. Each Jam has a theme and guidelines, but the animator has a lot of freedom to create almost whatever they can imagine. So you end up with a variety of ideas, techniques, and experience level. I created the Jam projects a couple of years ago to bring the stop motion community together, to collaborate and learn from each other, and to create something entertaining. Stopmo Jam 3 was recently announced and the theme this time is Halloween.
Outside of work, what do you enjoy?
Hiking, the Ocean, Standup Paddleboarding, taking my dog on adventures.
Thank you, Anthony, for your time in this interview! For anyone out there looking to get into stop motion animation, I strongly suggest checking out Anthony's wonderful stopmotionanimation.com website, where you can really dig in and learn alongside others passionate about stop motion.
Nick C Sorbin (Nick Charles) is a former Managing Editor of 9 years for Renderosity's CG Industry News. By day, a mild-mannered Certified Pharmacy Technician working in both home infusion and a hospital ER, contrasting creative outlets as a digital artist, sculptor, musician, singer/songwriter, and Staff Writer for Renderosity Magazine. Read his articles