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Stop! Motion time

Montreal’s Stop Motion Film Festival

Stop motion is arguably the most labour intensive form of film making. This past weekend, from October 18 to 20, Montreal got a taste of the genre with its own Stop Motion Film Festival, now in its fifth edition. Most films shown at the festival were only a few minutes long, giving festival-goers a feel for the genre by exposing them to different filmmakers’ styles and storytelling at each 90 minute screening.

Erik Goulet, director of the festival and animation professor at Concordia, explains that shooting stop motion is a physically demanding and meticulous job. He describes it as “the decathlon of animation,” due to the demands on both the body and the mind. If the filmmaker is not satisfied with the end product, they have to start over because, unlike traditional animation, stop motion must use every shot back-to-back. It requires mastering skills in sculpture, filming, understanding materials, as well as tremendous determination and attention to detail.  Shel and Justin Rasch’s film Dogonaust: Enemy Lines, a 12 minute film critiquing the arbitrariness of war using alien species, took four years to create according to Goulet.

This year’s edition of the festival kicked off with a screening of The Nightmare Before Christmas. Its director, Henry Selick, a member of the jury for the festival, was present, as was animator Anthony Scott. The screening sold out almost a week in advance, demonstrating the film’s continued popularity two decades after its initial release. Selick and Scott were not the only big names. Joe and Joan Clokey, son and daughter-in-law of the creator of children’s television show Gumby, served as jury members in the competitions as well. The Clokeys have carried on the family business and on Saturday evening they gave a retrospective of Gumby and lead a discussion on this tremendously popular show that aired for three decades. These influential works have been important in popularizing stop motion and broadening its audience. Goulet emphasizes the importance of The Nightmare Before Christmas’ release in 1993 as the catalyst in bringing about a resurgence in stop motion’s popularity. A cascade of feature-length stop motion films followed, including James and the Giant Peach, Chicken Run, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and the soon-to-be-released The Little Prince, which Goulet himself is working on. Goulet explains that it was partly in response to this renewed demand for stop motion that he founded the festival in 2009.

Films are submitted to the Stop Motion Film Festival competition from all over the world. One of the great things about stop motion is that it is a genre which generally uses minimal dialogue, if any. This makes films accessible to people from all linguistic backgrounds and serves to focus the viewer’s attention on the visual. It universalizes human communication and enables cultural exchange without any language barriers. Goulet says the festival got about 250 submissions this year  Goulet must select carefully based on both technique and storyline with the intention of being able to present films that, he says,  “are gems […] that you’ve got to see.” Although he is happy to have increased the number of screenings to 70 films this year, Goulet always regrets not having enough time to screen more.

The festival consisted of competitions in three categories of films: independent, academic, and professional. Independent filmmakers pay out of their own pocket to create these films, creating them entirely on their own with full artistic control. Academic films are created in a school environment, usually at the graduate or post-graduate level. Goulet, perhaps biased by his own academic status, has a soft spot for this category, calling its filmmakers “artists of the future [with] brilliant ideas” that haven’t been altered by a commissioner’s wishes. Finally, the professional category includes those films that have been commissioned. This title may be misleading since many of these filmmakers make these films as side projects in venues as unexpected as a garage.

The high cost and time-consuming nature of stop motion makes it a difficult field to get involved in, especially if one is from a low-income background and has less expendable money and time. Grants and commissions that fund the ‘professional’ category are thus important to aspiring artists, but they still privilege those who have initially had the time, money, or university education to have gotten involved in the first place. However, perhaps festivals like this are a way to expose more viewers from diverse backgrounds to stop motion and inspire those to demand resources for their otherwise unattainable creative goals.

Culminating in an award ceremony on Sunday night, the festival awarded prizes to Peter Vacz for the academic submission Rabbit and Deer, Špela Čadež for the independent film Boles, Augusto Zanovello for the professional Lettres de femmes, and again to Peter Vacz as the public’s choice for best film. The most rewarding part of the festival for Goulet was being able to bring stop motion to his city and to his students whom he has inspired over the years and who form the better part of the volunteer crew that made this past weekend possible. This annual festival is a unique opportunity to see films that otherwise do not get much viewership or publicity, providing a stimulating sample of an art form that is over a century old.