Fantastic Mr. Fox: Wes Anderson Stop Animation

“Fantastic Mr. Fox,” written/directed by Wes Anderson and starring George Clooney, is the stop motion feature film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book. 20th Century Fox is releasing the film in limited on November 13 and wide on November 25.

First seen in Albert E. Smith and J. Stuart Blackton’s 1898 film THE HUMPTY DUMPTY CIRCUS, stop-motion animation is one of the oldest forms of special effects, and the meticulous, labor-intensive process hasn’t changed much since its introduction more than a century ago. The technique involves the frame-by-frame manipulation of a three-dimensional object — a puppet, a model or even an actor — to bring it to life and make it appear to move. Typically there are 24 frames of film per second of screen time, and so the object’s body, head, arms, legs, hands, fingers, eyes, ears, and mouth must be moved in infinitesimally small increments between frames, which, when the film is projected, creates the illusion of movement.

“I’ve always loved stop-motion,” says Anderson, who had previously included several stop-motion sequences in his 2004 feature THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, sequences that were directed by stop-motion superstar Henry Selick (CORALINE). “But the thing I’ve always loved with stop-motion, more than anything else, is puppets that have fur.”

“One of the things Wes likes about stop-motion is that there’s a magic to it,” says producer Jeremy Dawson. “He likes that it’s handmade, and there’s a craft to it. He’s not a big fan of computer imagery, per se, because he likes process. The aesthetic of stop-motion lets you use lots of textures and crafted little things, and all his movies are so designed and executed and every detail is thought out. So it’s sort of a perfect medium in that case.”

From the original KING KONG in 1933 to George Lucas’ STAR WARS, this painstaking art has been responsible for many of cinema’s classic moments, thanks in no small part to the work of early exponents such as Willis O’Brien (KING KONG, MIGHTY JOE YOUNG) and his young protégé Ray Harryhausen (JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD) whose name became synonymous with the medium.

Although stop-motion or stop-frame animation was still used as a visual effects technique in Hollywood up until the early ‘90s, the advent of computer-generated imagery had effectively reduced its use to television shows, commercials, short films and music videos. Then, in 1993, TIM BURTON’S THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS paved the way for audiences, and for Hollywood, to see stop-motion animation in a new light, resulting in movies such as Selick’s own Roald Dahl adaptation JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH, Nick Park’s CHICKEN RUN and WALLACE & GROMIT IN THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT, Burton’s CORPSE BRIDE and Selick’s recent CORALINE.

While the fundamentals of stop-motion have remained the same for more than a hundred years, improvements in puppet technology, the use of digital still cameras instead of film, as well as the introduction of computers, video assists, and the ability to remove rigs that hold puppets in place for previously impossible shots in post-production, have all helped make animation slicker than ever before. By contrast, for FANTASTIC MR. FOX, Anderson was interested in returning to a form of stop-motion that was less polished, less refined, less like CGI, and which felt more old-fashioned and more handmade.

“I love the way King Kong, the old King Kong, looked, with his fur. The animators call it ‘boiling’. And for some reason the whole magical aspect of stop-motion was one of those things where you can see the trick. The Cocteau movies, the visual effects in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (LA BELLE ET LA BÊTE), for instance, are things where you can really see that a person is behind this wall sticking their arm through, holding a torch, and the film is running backwards, and so that is how this light is coming on. Those kinds of effects where you can see what it is, have always been the most fascinating and mesmerizing to me. And with stop-motion, the whole film is that sort of thing in a way, to my mind,” says Anderson.

Anderson’s biggest inspiration was Russian stop-motion pioneer Ladislas Starevich’s 1941 feature LE ROMAN DE RENARD (THE TALE OF THE FOX), which used puppets made from real animal skins, and which had the handmade quality he was after, as well as a crude, “herky-jerky” style of animation. “Wes was definitely not looking for a super-polished thing,” notes animation director Mark Gustafson. “He wants you to feel the materials and understand how it was done. It’s not slick by a long shot. No one will mistake this for CGI.”