Stop-Motion and Much, Much Bigger Than Life


Animator Mark Osborne's "More," which debuts today at the California Science Center in Exposition Park, is the first stop-motion film created in the Imax format. The 10-inch puppets he's spent the last nine months filming will appear several stories tall on the screen.

"Working in Imax requires a totally different language," Osborne said at his Eagle Rock workshop where he was putting the finishing touches on his six-minute, dark urban fantasy last week.

Because the projected image is always larger than the real puppets, stop-motion films exhibit tiny flaws and irregularities; projecting a film onto the enormous Imax screen only exacerbates the problem. But Osborne embraces the handmade quality those imperfections give his work, in contrast to the flawless but often sterile look of computer animation.

"I like the audience to see the artist's touch," he said. "I was curious to see how that look would translate to the giant screen when I saw a film Christine Panushka had done using rubber stamps on paper. It was beautiful to see all the little details and the organic quality they gave the imagery.

"That was when I stopped being so concerned about making everything perfect, and realized that I could still be expressive in the large format. There are fingerprints in the clay of the puppet's heads that are huge, but that's exciting to me, because I didn't want everything to be seamless and smooth."

"More" depicts a gritty, urban dystopia of identical skyscraper factories, where hordes of workers endlessly manufacture (and consume) a single product. The main character, whom Osborne refers to only as the Dude, invents a pair of binoculars that makes gray reality look like a brilliantly colored Neverland; the audience actually sees a 30-second sequence of drawn animation by independent animator Lorelei Pepi.

Soon, all the puppets are making binoculars and the Dude has become the Boss; the binoculars produce an illusion of beauty, but the real world remains as dreary as ever.

Osborne studied fine art at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn but transferred to CalArts when he became interested in animation. He spent his senior year making "Greener," a film that combined stop-motion and drawn animation. After graduation, he worked on a variety of animation projects, ranging from "Weird Al" Yankovic's spoof of "Jurassic Park" to the Emmy-winning opening for ABC's "Insomniac Theater."

But when he returned to CalArts to teach a class in stop-motion, the creative environment reminded him that what he liked about animation "wasn't just the images, it was telling a story."

Although he was determined to make another personal film, Osborne found his subject for "More" unexpectedly. On his way home from CalArts one evening, he played the New Order song "Elegia" on his car stereo. "As I listened to the song, the whole film came to me," he recalled. "I ended up adding a lot to it, but the structure really unfolded in the five minutes I spent listening to the song."

As he developed the idea, he was approached by Swell Productions' Debra Callabresi and Kelly Moren, representing the Animation & Experimental Film Task Force of the Large Format Cinema Assn., who were looking for 35mm animated films to blow up to 70mm. They persuaded Osborne to make "More" in the larger format and arranged for various suppliers to donate the necessary equipment and services.

Because Imax film stock is so large, it requires special cameras. Osborne was dismayed to discover the donated camera had no viewing system: The only way he could line up a shot was to partially dismantle the camera, look through the lens (which reversed the image), then reassemble it and hope he hadn't disturbed its position in the process.

Artists who do two-dimensional, drawn animation can watch a sequence on a computer monitor and rework their drawings to refine the motions and adjust the timing. But stop-motion animation involves the manipulation of small puppets in almost microscopic increments between frames to create an illusion of movement on the screen. Osborne and his crew of five had to work "straight ahead"--there was no way for them to go back and refine a movement or correct a mistake.

At Osborne's studio, a cluttered room filled with puppets suggests the factory environment. Animating that many figures at one time is an artist's nightmare, so Osborne and his crew filmed one row of eight puppets, then rearranged them and filmed them again until they had 10 rows of animated workers. The rows of puppets were edited together digitally to produce the illusion of a workroom crowded with moving figures.

The obviously weary Osborne said he remains excited by the possibilities of large-format animation. "All I've been thinking about for the past year has been this project. I haven't thought about what's next.

"I'd love to do more in this format--I'd love to try doing a 3-D Imax film. Theater owners want shorts and audiences want shorts, so I hope this film will help people in the large-format industry realize that short films can be an exciting way to promote the medium."

* "More" screens before "Everest" at the California Science Center Imax Theater, Exposition Park, today-Wednesday, (213) 744-2014.

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