Thursday, October 13, 2005

An Animated Childhood


Elsewhere here at thegazz.com, you'll find articles about Wallace and Gromit I wrote with my partner in animation crime, Melanie Larch. You may be wondering how we know so much about the process of creating clay and stop-motion animation. The answer is simple... for most of my life, I've been an eyewitness to it.

I had the unique experience of growing up in a house with an animator. My older brother, Frank, started making his own animated films as a young teen in the late 1960s. Being five years younger meant that, not only was I likely to hang around watching him do this, but I was also pressed into service as something else to be animated. Yes, I was a child animation model.

It was better than getting beat up for not doing it.

Now, back in those days, Frank had to use Super 8 film to create his masterpieces. He experimented with all forms of animation. I was used to mimic the popular gas station commercials of the day that had pixilated humans scooting around like they were driving, only without cars. I ruined many a pairs of pants doing that. This technique is still being used for commercials today. In addition to little brother animation, Frank also tried his hand at using typing paper, Terry Gilliam-style cut-out animation, notebook paper, and clay.

It was tedious and expensive work. Film cost nearly $20 for three minutes, when you figured in the processing costs. This was before home video had revolutionized the home movie market. Back then, it was so rare for anyone to shoot home movies that people would actually watch them, as opposed to today, where more than half of the home movies shot on video are never seen by human eyes again.

Frank would work for weeks on some of his clay-animated films. He'd move the models, shoot one frame, move everything else again, and so on. It might take several minutes to move each model for each frame of film, and it takes 24 frames of film to add up to one second. So, there were many days where I would have to be quiet and still for hours. Loud noises or sudden movements could upset the models, which were often precariously balanced.

Frank managed to do some pretty impressive things with the limited resources he had available to him. There were cute alien cartoons, dinosaur fights, and the bloody ultra-violent finale to his "Mugger" series. I remember after the final shot was completed for that one, the set with the dismembered Mugger was left on display in the basement for weeks. Every time Mom did the laundry, she'd have to walk past the table with the little clay guy with his entrails strewn about. I think she eventually made Frank clean it up.

Aside from clay, Frank also made movies starring action figures. The epic adventures of "Captain X" spanned several films, and featured special effects ranging from scratches on the individual frames of film to the later years, when real pyrotechnics came into play. I still have film of my GI Joe Space Capsule getting destroyed. Somewhere in the basement, we still have a Latex-covered animation model of a monster for a film he did in college. Thirty years on, the latex smells just as bad as it did the day it was brewed up.

Anyway, these days Frank is using a new medium
for his animation. He's pretty much mastered computer animation. He has done commercials, educational films and television shows, and is currently working on a movie, which stars IWA East Coast wrestler Mad Man Pondo. While he used live-action actors, all the backgrounds, most of the aliens, and all the vehicles and special effects are computer-generated. You can read more about REPERKUSSIONZ over at Frank's production blog, here. Frank shot the live-action earlier this year, and expects to be working towards finishing it sometime next year.

Making the story complete, I also show up in the film for two brief appearances. I play a giant spider-legged creature. That's me up at the top of this post. I don't really have spider legs. It's just my amazing acting ability. I also play a few hundred tree-headed monsters. Nearly forty years after first being used in one of Frank's films, he's asking me to share my incredible screen presence. I couldn't turn him down.

It's still better than getting beat up.

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