Figure 1 - King Kong Silhouette
Figure 1 – King Kong Silhouette

I hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving in the US; and aren’t spending all your money on Black Friday sales. Save a few bucks for something I’m going to tell you about, okay?

Since I was old enough to understand what it was, I’ve loved the use of stop-motion in SF/F movies, probably beginning with my first viewing of King Kong (Figure 1, one of Willis O’Brien’s animators working on Kong’s climb up the Empire State Building). (Forry Ackerman claimed in Famous Monsters of Filmland that one of the Rays, either Ray Bradbury or Ray Harryhausen, saw Kong over 100 times in the theatre!) When I was younger I never missed a chance to see a movie with Harryhausen stop-motion in it, either on TV or in the theatre, or a George Pal “Puppetoon.” There were camera tricks in SF/F movies (now called “in-camera effects”), there were traveling mattes (blue screen and/or rotoscoping), there were effects done with traditional animation, but there was no CGI as we know it today—all truly great video sequences in my opinion were done with stop-motion. (If you’ve been living in a cave, for example, and don’t know what I’m talking about, let me explain: stop-motion animation is taking a static object, often one built on an “armature,” and giving it the illusion of motion by moving it by hand, one tiny, painstaking bit at a time, between frames of a movie. But you probably already knew all that.) I think the technique was pioneered, in part, by Georges Méliès, but it was brought to a high art in SF/F film by Willis O’Brien in the 1925 movie The Lost World, based loosely on the book by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Figure 2 - 1925 The Lost World Brontosaurus
Figure 2 – 1925 The Lost World Brontosaurus

Of course, I’m way too young to have seen that one in the theatre; by today’s standards it’s almost laughable—but to audiences of the day, it must have seemed like magic: giant dinosaurs (more or less scientifically accurate by 1925 standards) brought to life onscreen. (A funny side note: when Jurassic Park came out on VHS, I took a copy with me when my wife and I visited my mother, but she refused to waste her time watching it. “No thank you, dear,” she explained to me, “I’ve seen dinosaurs in movies; I saw The Lost World.”)

From 1925 to Jurassic Park covers a lot of ground, movie-wise, in dinosaur imagery—including the O’Brien/Marcel Delgado classic King Kong (Figure 1), Harryhausen’s Valley of Gwangi, and the near-dinosaur images of the Ymir in 20 Million Miles to Earth, the dragon in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and everything in between. Plus tons of non-dragon animation. I think what attracted me to stop-motion was that these were miniature objects made as realistically as their full-sized counterparts, and they moved. (When I was a teen, I thought the rippling of Kong’s fur in that movie was intended to be wind moving the fur—but later, I realized that of course, the movement of the fur was because of the hands repositioning the fur-covered armature.)

Figure 3 - Steampunk Snail Still
Figure 3 – Steampunk Snail Still (puff of smoke added in post-production)

I’ve always—for whatever reason—been attracted to miniatures, the more realistic the better; I’ve made plastic and wooden model ships, planes, cars, whatever, and collected miniatures as well. Don’t get me wrong: I love properly-done CGI, but although it originates with humans, a computer does the hard work in the end. In stop-motion, however, it’s hand-made and hand-done from beginning to end (although here, with 3D printing, those lines, too, are beginning to blur a bit). For me, traditional hand-drawn animation doesn’t quite affect me the way stop-motion does, because whatever you see in a stop-motion movie (or short) has to be hand-built; you can draw anything or have a computer draw anything, real or not; but stop-motion has to be real objects! (I hope I’ve explained that well enough.) Of course, even though CGI can make anything one can imagine appear realistic on the screen, it is a great comfort to me that people are still taking the time (and spending the money) to do well-made stop-motion, from full-length features like last year’s The Box Trolls. Actually, in the ‘60s I got a cheap 8mm camera from a thrift store and had intended to do some stop-motion of my own, but for various reasons it never happened. Until last year when I took some of my wife’s ‘bot sculptures and animated them—so I guess I’m a very minor stop-motion author myself. (See Figure 3—a still from my very first-ever stop-motion.) And that brings us to the subject of this column, the talented Alba Garcia-Rivas.

Figure 4 - The Happy Prince (still)
Figure 4 – The Happy Prince (still)

Alba’s first published stop-motion short, The Happy Prince, was a claymation film based on Oscar Wilde’s short story of the same name. It was made in 2000 while she was a student at New York’s School of Visual Arts, and was extremely low-budget. In spite of that, it won The Dusty Film Festival Award, The Bronx Council on the Arts Award, and the BRIO Award.

The untimely death of one of her animation students, one of a pair of twins—Emely Gomez, inspired Alba to make another film, to help her and the twin’s sister Katherine Gomez, heal. An unsuccessful Kickstarter campaign for money to fund the film also inspired Alba to learn promotion and crowdfunding; a second campaign, on Indiegogo, was more successful. Although she didn’t get enough money to fund the entire film, she made enough money to have the faces 3D printed, using the same model printer as made the characters for Paranorman. The movie was made with the help of other artists and animators who donated their efforts to help the movie succeed. (I came to know Alba myself through her Indiegogo campaign and, in fact, donated a very small amount of money to help fund the film.)

Figure 5 - Time-Space Opening sequence multi-plane still
Figure 5 – Time-Space Opening sequence multi-plane still

Instead of claymation, this time Alba chose a more expensive, yet much more flexible ball-and-socket armature method to create her characters. Everything is more expensive than in the claymation, as the costumes/wigs/props and all must be made/crafted out of traditional materials, as opposed to molded out of modeling clay. As you can see from the photos (especially Figure 6), much more realistic expression is possible with these faces but it was expensive at that time to print about 260 of them.

Figure 6 - Twin sisters Mia and Maya
Figure 6 – Twin sisters Mia and Maya

There are also a number of “working” props: a centrifuge, several screens—most added in postproduction—and so on; everything built to scale (compare the twins in Figure 6 with the two in Figure 7 for an example of scale). This, of course, also meant more time in actually moving the models, as the faces had to be taken off and the eyeballs moved a fraction of an inch at a time, then the faces put back on and photographed. In her first movie, Alba did most of the animation; in this one, she was the director, as many talented animators helped with this film. Stop Motion Magazine did an article on the film last year while it was in progress, and asked Alba what it was about. She said that Time/Space Reflections is “a Sci-fi/Fantasy story about an inventor in the future who loses her twin sister tragically. To cope with her grief she creates a Time/Space Portal that can go to other dimensions. Meanwhile, there is another twin in a parallel universe, a fantastical renaissance world, creating a portal…. The difference is that she is using alchemy to create the portal. The portal opens, they see each other for the first time, there is happiness and jubilation. But soon they discover that crossing the portal means death.”

Figure 7 - Alba with twin sisters
Figure 7 – Alba with twin sisters

The trailer’s available for viewing at her website. The film is available for sale on DVD or for download, and (in my opinion) is reasonably priced. The DVD is $12 US, or the download $8. You can get either (or both—or you can donate money to help fund Alba’s next picture!) at her website, I’ve seen the finished film, and it is—although short—extremely well written and well done. I have no hesitation in recommending it to anyone interested in stop-motion and/or short SF/F films!

If you have anything to say about this column—compliments or brickbats, either one—please post your comment here—it’s easy, and you can even sign up to get automatic notifications of new columns! (I do publish corrections when you send me information, and even apologies if I got something egregiously wrong.) Or you could comment on Facebook; I post links every Friday when a new column comes out. (I’m more likely to see the Facebook comments than the ones posted here, however… I tend to check that more often.) My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other bloggers. See you next week!

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