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MORE: A Little Film on a Big, Big Screen

The Making of a Stop-Motion Masterpiece, Part One

By Steve Biodrowski     November 28, 1999

What would the annual Academy Awards be without at least one egregious omission? Well, we certainly didn't find out this year, when MORE, the nominated six-minute mini-masterpiece, was passed over in the category for Best Animated Short Subject. This evocative, moody little stop-motion film is at once short and simple in its story while at the same time profoundly moving in its impact--in effect, a visual poem whose greatness stems not from narrative complexity but from the emotional impact of its condensed, lyrical style. The first stop-motion film ever made in the giant screen format, MORE had its Oscar-qualifying debut in November 1998 at the California Science Center's IMAX theatre. Earlier this year, it played again at the theatre, as a short subject before the IMAX film EVEREST. A 35mm reduction was also prepared, for wider distribution, which would have benefited from the boost of an Oscar victory. (Meanwhile, the previous year's winner, the amusing but inconsequential GERI'S GAME, got more than its share of exposure, tacked onto the beginning of A BUG'S LIFE. There is no God.)

MORE is the work of writer-director Mark Osborne, a teacher and stop-motion animator whose previous credits include commercials for MOVIE LOUNGE and INSOMNIAC THEATER and a station I.D. for E! Channel. He also produced and/or directed six episodes of the Nickelodeon series ACTION LEAGUE NOW! and co-directed (with Scott Nordlund) the video for WEIRD AL'S JURASSIC PARK. MORE's most immediate antecedent, however, was GREENER, Osborne's thesis film, which he started at the California Institute of the Arts in the early 1990s.

'That was my first short film,' said Osborne of initiating his own project, as opposed to working as a director-for-hire. 'It has the same species of characters; it mixes stop-motion and drawn animation and some live-action also. I finished that about a year and a half after I left, just for money reasons and time. That was my first huge project. I shot it on 16mm, but it got way out of hand as a student film.

'In the middle of completing that, I co-directed the Weird Al Yankovic JURASSIC PARK video,' he continued. 'That was nominated for a Grammy, so that was fun. The cool thing about that was the other director and I met with Al and conceptualized a lot of the gags and sort of had free reign with that. He had ideas for a lot of the shots, but we probably came up with about half the ideas in collaboration. The video ended up kind of flopping because it was after-the-fact; the song wasn't a real big hit on MTV. I like to look at it as a flop because of the song, not the video, because it wasn't MTV material. On the other hand, it was the number one video in Canada for six months! I'm surprised at how many people have seen it.' Despite the minimal exposure on US. television, the video toured with both Spike and Mike's Festival of Animation and Spike and Mike's Festival of Sick and Twisted Animation, and it is available as part of video anthology, WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: THE VIDEOS.

GREENER went on to win a several awards on the festival circuit, and it screened at the Museum of Modern Art as part of the 1995 New Films/New Directors series. An interesting effort, the film shows much of the potential that later came to fruition in MORE. The simple story involves two characters locked in a humdrum existence inside a cabin. The younger one wants to explore what's outside, but his older friend warns him against it; suspecting that the warnings are actually lies to keep him where he is, the younger one eventually opens the door on the outside world--and finds that the cabin is apparently at the bottom of the ocean! Floating to the surface, he is last seen as an insignificant speck on a sea of blue. The conclusion is sad, perhaps even poignant, but also obscure. What's the point, if any?

'GREENER sort of balanced between two extremely different worlds,' said Osborne. 'I've had people cry and people laugh hysterically. I always like that it could be different to different people.'

This vagueness would sharpen into crystal clarity with MORE. 'Ever since I did GREENER, and toured the festivals for a year, I knew that I would do another short eventually. After the Weird Al video, a family friend basically offered to fund a short if I wanted to do another, so in the back of my mind I knew I had this resource possibly. I kept working, doing a lot of commercials, but in the back of my head I really had to do another film. When I got called to come back and teach at Cal Arts, I knew it would take time away, but it seemed like a really good opportunity to teach stop-motion. It ended up really inspiring me to be back in that environment, so I put on my agenda that the next thing to do was another short. I would have access to the equipment in the summer as a faculty member, so I knew I would have to utilize that to get all the fringe benefits out of teaching.'

Another motivating factor was the birth of his first child. 'When my baby came, I couldn't' believe what my wife had created, and I felt like 'I've got to create something!' People always told me, 'When you have a kid it really kicks your ass and makes you get your act together.' So it was the thing I needed to realize the film I'd been trying to come up with for a long time.'

The ideas for the new film came out of the disparity between the factory-like environment of making commercials and the creative promise of the college. 'I didn't really realize where the images were coming from until later on...but I was jealous of these kids who didn't have a care in the world and were basically there doing whatever they wanted to do, and I was trying to tell them to really take advantage of it, because I knew too many people in school when I was there who were just worried about getting a job, and when they left, they pined for not being able to do their own work. I realized that I was trying to remind myself of that at the same time. So looking back I realized that's where all the childhood imagery comes from. At the same time, it was based on my recent past, working day in and day out for the Man. Even though I was still doing something creative, there was a lot of pressure to be always dealing with clients. And I had a certain amount of reaction to looking at my life and thinking, 'Am I going to continue doing these commercials, or am I going to try to do something bigger?''

These thematic realizations came to Osborne only after the fact. The initial inspiration came from 'Elegia,' an instrumental piece of music by the rock group New Order. 'When I first started coming up with ideas, I just put on that song in my car, and I would listen to it when I was driving home. I've done this in the past: I just sort of free-form ideas and come up with visuals in my head while I listen to music, almost as a brainstorming exercise. So I got all of these images, without really knowing what they meant: the merry go round and this monotonous cityscape and a factory. The basic structure unfolded as I listened to the song. I listened to it a couple more times, and it seemed to fit. It didn't seem too crazy; it seemed like I was starting to piece something together. When I realized how it truly fit in with some of these themes, it felt like I was on the right track. I felt at that point I was ready to approach the family friend and see if he was still interested in funding, now that it was years later.'

Unlike GREENER, MORE has no real dialogue. (A grumpy factory foreman growls at his workers, but the words are mere garbled, inarticulate sounds.) Therefore, the images had to carry the meaning, which made a mere written script not the best medium for conveying Osborne's intent. 'I'm really visual, so I do storyboards. It's truly hard for me to draw, but when I get into it I can do it well enough to serve my purpose. Even if there just scribbles, I try to get across some of the ideas in my head. I had these heavy, vague images in my head that I could just play back. I think that's why my stuff has little dialogue--because I just think more of the visual. I knew there were pieces missing, so when I started to draw, I added things to flush it out and make it more complete, so it wasn't just eye candy. It makes more sense for me to work that way.'

Osborne structured his imagery according to the flow of the New Order music. 'I took the song, and the very first edit I did, I just did full screen color panels with the different locations. I knew it would start in an apartment, and then go to a city and a factory. I came up with these color panels that were descriptive of the mood. I hadn't completely worked out a lot of stuff, but I did this animatic that was just locations of mood, and that helped me figure out if my structure was working.'

With his script in hand, Osborne was making preparations to start filming, when the project took a fortuitous turn, thanks to the intervention of Large Format Cinema Association, in the form of Debra Calebresi and Kelly Moran, who would go on to become co-producers on the film. 'Originally, the school had a 35mm camera that I was going to use, and I just figured that was my only possible medium,' recalled Osborne. 'It's not like a designed it for 70mm. But when Debra Calebresi and Kelly Moran called me up from the Large Format Cinema Association, asking me to consider switching formats if they could get me donations, I actually had to think about it because I didn't know if it was appropriate for the medium. When I started to look into it, I realized that with just elaborating on some scenes and expanding it a little bit, it was actually appropriate. I also felt like it would be an experiment to some degree to see how stop-motion would look in this format. I went and saw a bunch of IMAX films. I was really scared, because to go through with it in that medium and have it fail would be really hard.'

The film was shot in the 70mm, 15-perf format, in which 65mm film is run through the camera horizontally: each frame is two inches tall and 15-perforations wide (about two and three-quarter inches); the final print is made on 70mm film, allowing an extra 5mm for stereo soundtrack information. (By way of comparison, in the 35mm 4-perf format, which runs vertically through the projector, a frame is about seven-eights of an inch wide and 4-perforations tall [i.e., five-eighths of an inch].) The resulting image can be projected on the giant-sized IMAX screen with startling visual clarity, but the aspect ratio (i.e., screen height versus screen width) is somewhat taller (1:1.375) than the standard wide screen presentation (1:1.85) seen in most theatres. The size and shape of the screen necessitates a slight rethinking of the standard cinematic language.

'They told me all the rules,' said Osborne. 'They explained that the horizon is at a third up from the bottom. The focal point is lower centered. There's a whole different dynamic: you can't cut and expect the viewer to look from the left side to the right side [like a tennis match]. So I went through my boards, and I really was only breaking the rules in a few instances, and I felt like that was okay.' Fortunately, stop-motion usually does not rely on elaborate montage anyway; there is little cutting back and forth between over-the-shoulder shots and reverse angles, making the transition to IMAX less painful. 'It was just something to think about. It was just weird to think about how the film flows; it's this added level of worry. But for the most part it didn't even end up being too problematic.'

However, the aspect ratio does affect the composition of shots. 'That's why, in EVEREST and their other films, there's a lot of sky: the top third is usually just continuing the image; it's like excess,' said Osborne, who found he had to add more on top of the frame for his film. 'Actually, for the 1:85 version in 35mm and on video, we just crop off the top third for most shots, because you focus is not centered; it's lower. I drew my boards in 1:85, and I knew I was eventually going to have a 1:85 version, so I thought in terms of both formats. I just added outside some of my drawings and said 'There's going to be more here.''

Osborne went through his drawings to figure out how to expand the factory and the city scenes so that they would adequately fill the giant screen. 'I tried to utilize the screen in an intelligent way, instead of just filling the screen. It seemed appropriate to make this factory just seem endless and this city really seem endless,' he said. 'With the apartment, we didn't want to change the scale; we knew it had to be a cramped little apartment cluttered with stuff,' he continued. 'But we did have to elaborate and build a lot more detail than we would have otherwise. We toyed with the idea of upping the scale on everything, but we decided against that, because it would have made shooting just too difficult. So all the puppets were ten inches high, and we just decided to up the detail on everything. There's this level of detail that comes with this format, and I was like 'Do I want to be so completely clean and perfect so that it will be flawless on this giant screen.' My first thought was that it was probably impossible, on such a small scale, to get it flawless. So what I then thought was it went along with my style, which is very organic, doing stop-motion for the sake of stop-motion. THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS and JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH are amazing to me, but they sort of border on CG--they're just so smooth and clean. My main interest is I like stop-motion. What I realized was that all this level of detail isn't going to show the flaws but is going to allow the flaws to become an element and is going to allow this human touch--that is unique to stop-motion and really isn't there in CG--to come to this other level and be this interactive element in the art. That's when I felt okay, because in order to pull it off, we were going to have to stop obsessing on everything clean and perfect.'

With details magnified to gigantic size, even minor flaws might become apparent--like the biggest bugaboo of stop-motion: strobing. 'I knew the strobing was a big issue; even in live-action IMAX stuff it's an issue,' said Osborne, referring to that fact that, even with the motion blur of live-action, sometimes fast-panning and movement show signs of strobing. 'So that was a technical thing that I needed to consider. That's why I used the Video Lunch Box, which is like a frame-grabber. It's one made the size of a lunch box, so I can have it right on the set and look back and forth at all the frames. So I was really careful about trying to make the animation look smooth.'

Besides strobing, there was also the problem of working clay. 'Whenever I used clay in the past, it was difficult to keep it clean, to keep all the tool markings and fingerprints off. If there are flaws in the set that look like a mistake, that's just bad, but what I realized was when you can see fingerprints or the stoke of a paintbrush on the models, it's not necessarily, 'Oh that's obviously a tiny little model.' It ended up taking on a whole new character. Once you blow that up to forty feet, a fingerprint, when it's the size of a house, doesn't necessarily betray you, as it would on a smaller scale. Not that I wasn't trying to achieve something that looked nice, but I realized my story is a little bit edgier. I wondered if my style would work on this screen, and I realized it would. There has been CG in this format, and how could I set myself apart from that? So I said, 'Let's return to actual hand-made art.''

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