Animation Features Live Action Movies


Director – Robert Morgan – 2023 – UK – Cert. 18 – 93m


The bereaved daughter of a stop-frame animator attempts to complete her late mother’s last film – out on Shudder UK, Ireland, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand from Friday, May 31st

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first: this is not what it says on the tin. Anyone expecting another Mad God (Phil Tippett, 1987-2021, and a long-standing Shudder favourite) or Junk Head (Takahide Hori, 2021) is going to be disappointed. This is not a stop-motion film; it’s a stop-motion / live action combination film, with the physical stop-motion component of the production forming maybe a tenth of the whole.

Unless, of course, you’re looking only at story or script. In which case, this film is all about stop-motion animation and obsession. But executed in live action. Because, after all, who would want to spend all their time moving a puppet a bit, then shooting a frame, then moving it a bit more, and taking another frame, and so on when you can shoot live action and capture a shot of whatever length on film? (The answer is, anyone who loves animation generally and stop-motion animation in particular.)

Ella Blake (Aisling Franciosi) is the stop-motion animator on the latest stop-motion film of her filmmaker mother Suzanne (Stella Gonet) in which the cyclops woman has a premonition of her own death in which she discovers her own corpse. (The cyclops evokes Ray Harryhausen, the stop-frame cyclops in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1957) being arguably the favourite character from his films among his fans. Another iconic Harryhausen stop-motion character, the Medusa, is name-checked as appearing in another Suzanne Blake film elsewhere in Stopmotion’s narrative.)

Ella is filming the tabletop epic with a camera rig and stop-frame software on her laptop. Her mother regards her as a crew member rather than a creative – and perhaps this is to some extent justified because when she asks her daughter for ideas as to how Ella might make the film, Ella becomes tongue-tied. Perhaps she lacks ideas, perhaps she lacks the ability to express them, it’s never clear.

Her romantic life is under the strict eye of her mother too – or, it would be if Ella was more open about it. As things stand, she spends time with boyfriend Tom (Tom York) only by stealing over to see him at night then returning to bed before her mum wakes her up in the morning for the next day’s shoot.

When her mum is hospitalised following a stroke, Tom conveniently lets Ella use one of the rooms (Room 801) in the empty building to which he has the keys. Her attempts to complete her mother’s cyclops woman film are interrupted when she meets a little girl (Caoilinn Springall) who comes to look at her animation setup, immediately makes wrong moves (like picking up the puppet off the animation set on which Ella is shooting it) and pushes her to take the film in different directions.

The little girl pushes Ella towards using different materials for her puppets – first, mortician’s wax for a new girl protagonist lost in the woods, then a piece of meat for the mysterious Ash Man stalking the girl. (There are echoes in this idea of Czech surrealist Jan Švankmajer who, in his short Meat Love, 1989, animated two slices of beef falling in love with one another.) She also suggests a whole new story for these two characters, which emerges as the narrative proceeds.

Intermittently on hand is Tom’s sister Polly (Therica Wilson-Read) who works at an ad agency and wants to use Ella’s ideas and expertise in a commercial.

The little bits of stop-motion are fine as far as they go, which isn’t that far. Towards the end, one of the most arresting scenes has a small stop-motion puppet enter Ella’s bedroom then climb onto her bed; but this is a film equally likely to delver a man-sized version of its stop-motion villain by enacting that bane of stop-motion animators and enthusiasts, putting a man in a suit to play the role. The nods at the uneasy relationship between advertising and animation will strike a chord with anyone who has ever been involved in animation (“it’s only for reference”, says Polly when Ella discovers the latter ripping off her film).

The film of which it most reminded this writer is Censor (Prano Bailey-Bond, 2021), with which it shares a love of manipulating 1970s horror tropes. The two films would make an excellent double bill, although Censor is the more believable, because it’s a live action horror film about live action horror films rather than a live action horror film about stop-motion animation, Censor doesn’t irritate its target audience in the same way as Stopmotion, nor does it have script gaffes (her boyfriend can give her a room to shoot tabletop films in). Maybe if you approach Stopmotion as a horror film about animation, rather than the animated film I expected and, indeed, wanted it to be, it’ll prove more effective.

It has echoes of other films too – flesh wounds recalling those in Videodrome and Crash (David Cronenberg. 1983 and 1996), camera tripod repurposed as weaponry in Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960) and even using the cutting toward a face via ever closer static shots in The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963), though it pales by comparison with any of those.

If only it had had the courage of its own convictions and used more Stop-motion and less live action. To a stop-motion geek such as myself, it’s consequently a great disappointment.

Stopmotion is out on Shudder UK, Ireland, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand from Friday, May 31st.


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