Joes Meet Pros at Stop-Mo Expo

Practitioners and fans of stop-motion animation gathered at Woodbury University in Burbank, Calif. on Saturday for ASIFA-Hollywood’s inaugural Stop Mo Expo. Spearheaded by educator, animator and animation historian Larry Loc, the event drew a good-sized crowd of enthusiasts that included students and such industry luminaries as Will Vinton, Corky Quackenbush, Jim Aupperle, Gene Warren Sr. and Stephen and Edward Chiodo. Randy Cook, who has moved on to CG and won Oscars for his vfx work on the Lord of the Rings trilogy, was scheduled to attend but was held up by a storyboarding deadline.

The day’long expo featured panel discussions and seminars including ‘Stop Motion in the Computer Age’ (moderated by Edward Chiodo), ‘Ask the Experts’ (Tennessee Reed Norton), ‘Stop Motion Education’ (Larry Loc), ‘Sets, Lighting, Camera’ (Jim Aupperle) and ‘Evolution of Stop Motion Animation’ (Stephen Chiodo). The professionals generously gave up their Saturdays to offer valuable insight and practical advice.

During the first session, director of photography Chris Warren, son of vfx guru Gene Warren Jr. (The Terminator, The Mothman Prophecies) and grandson of animator Gene Warren (Jack The Giant Killer, Land of the Lost), discussed the need for a digital camera with a true rotating shutter since most stop-motion is these days using digital still cameras. He explained that while digital offers a number of advantages over traditional film technology, none of the major camera manufacturers have expressed any interest in making a digital camera that operates like a film camera to service filmmakers working a one frame at a time.

During Norton’s ‘Ask the Experts’ panel, Christine Cegavske showed clips from her new feature film Blood Tea and Red String, a beautifully strange fantasy movie that was 13 years in the making. She also showed photos of her puppet-making process that depicted her characters in the various stages of construction, and even brought a few of the puppets along to show the audience. Blood Tea and Red String was picked up for distribution by Cinema Epoch and will be released soon. Animator Misha Klein then showed the first several minutes of his short film in progress titled The Hallway, in which a Clown contemplates a performance he doesn’t want to make.

The future of stop-motion looked bright after Loc’s discussion of animation in education. Greg Kindseth of Movies by Kids and Brad Koepenick of the L.A. United School System talked about how they used stop-mo as ‘the ultimate engagement tool for teaching kids.’ Koepenick, whose innovative program earned him a Teacher of the Year award, said he was excited because the government recently released $650 million for use in the arts at public schools. ‘My goal is to have stop-motion in every school, every day, in every subject,’ he noted. Kindseth, whose after-school program operates in 50 schools in the Los Angeles area, brought along two star students to participate with the pros in an animation jam. A little studio was set up off to the side and animators took turns working on short vignettes. The finished movie was later premiered during the festival.

Those participating in the animation jam didn’t have to contend with a lot of the complexities of professional stop-motion production, which were highlighted in the Sets, Lighting and Camera panel discussion. Aupperle, whose lighting credits include The Nightmare Before Christmas, stressed the importance of using a Variac, a variable transformer that shows you the exact voltage you’re operating at and allows you to ‘animate up.’ He explained that voltage naturally drops over the course of the day and the Variac gives one the ability to set the voltage to the previous day’s low and gradually bring it back up so that there aren’t any noticeable spikes in lighting intensity when the footage is viewed.

Also participating on the panel was director of photography Jim Matlosz, who was mentored by Pete Kozachik on Nightmare and recently shot the clay animation for an episode of NBC’s My Name is Earl. When not shooting a frame at a time, he does a lot of high-speed photography for commercials and said the thing he loves about animation is that you can control everything and make sure the hard work done by the animators looks good on screen. He revealed that his go-to light diffusion material is 1000H, a type of tracing paper that is available at art stores and is much cheaper than the industry standard solutions. Matlosz and filmmaker Mark Sawicki then voiced their frustration with computer-generated pre-viz, which doesn’t take into consideration the size of the actual camera and the fact that it throws a shadow when placed in front of the sun or another lighting source.

Gene Warren Jr. later offered his two cents on digital pre-viz, commenting, ‘I think it brings too many cooks into the kitchen. The more people you bring in to change a shot, the more you lose that visceral thing and water down the final product.’ He pointed out the economy and singularity of vision inherent in Alfred Hitchcock’s filmmaking because he storyboarded the entire movie and followed that blueprint to a tee. Warren brought along the only metal armature used for Dopey the dinosaur in the original Land of the Lost series and Aupperle brought one of the 36 gremlins that Pete Kleinow animated for a group shot in Joe Dante’s Gremlins.

During the closing session, Corky Quackenbush, who has been providing stop-mo for FOX’s Mad TV, expressed his delight in being on the same panel with Will Vinton and Stephen Chiodo, two people who have influenced his career more than anyone. ‘[Vinton's] Closed Mondays opened the doors and showed me that you can do anything in animation,’ he remarked. ‘Then I saw Large Marge [animated by Chiodo in Pee Wee's Big Adventure] and it put me over the top in deciding what I wanted to do with my life.’ Vinton then discussed his new company, FreeWill Ent., which he says has been liberating because he no longer has to focus on the business side of running a company and can funnel more of his energy into creating. ‘I’m more of a writer than a director or animator now,’ he said, referring to the different properties he’s developing. His latest creation is Jack Hightower, a secret agent graphic novel now available from Dark Horse Comics.

The panels were followed by later that night by a festival of 25 stop-motion films including The Great Cognito by Will Vinton, Africa Partings by Robyn Yannoukos, Blood and Sunflowers by Christiane Cegavske, Butter Dove by Jean Ngo, Raging Rudolph by Corky Quakenbush, Keep It Down by Max Maddox and Brady Serwitz, and Viscous Cycles and Sergeant Swell of the Mounties by Len Janson and Chuck Menville.

The 8 p.m.-10 p.m. block was reserved for screenings of rare 16mm stop-motion prints from the extensive collection of Mark Kausler. These included The Mascot from Ladyslaw Starewicz, Archangel Gabriel and Mother Goose from Jiri Trynka, 1930s Philips Radio Commercials and Rare Puppetoons from George Pal and Eastern European stop-mo from the ’30s. Information on upcoming ASIFA-Hollywood events can be found at www.asifa-hollywood.org.