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Getting Real With Stop Motion

Interest grows in the School of Animation & Visual Effects’ program that has use of one of the largest university stop motion labs in the country

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The imaginative vision of stop motion students of the Academy of Art University can’t just be drawn with paper and pencil or digitally designed, it must be physically created. World after world, down to the tiny hairs on a character’s head to the cracks on a sidewalk must be created from scratch. 

“Stop motion is something real. It’s not just drawn, you can touch it,” said recent stop motion graduate Tada Kongjonrak. “We are building small worlds. It’s so cool.”

The art of stop motion is the technique of moving objects in small increments between individually photographed frames to give the illusion of movement. It is one of the oldest, most intricate and detail-oriented forms of animation that first came to prominence in 1902 with George Méliès French silent film, A Trip to the Moon. Today, stop motion has grown into a robust industry with studios like Laika producing box office hits such as Coraline and The Boxtrolls.

Stop motion artists can dedicate months of work to produce just one minute of film. And for Academy students, that process starts on the seventh floor of the 180 New Montgomery building in the stop motion lab, one of the largest of its kind of any university in the country. 

David Rocco Facchini, lead technician of the lab since April and stop motion artist for many years, walked around the lab talking passionately about why more and more students are becoming interested in the small, but growing program of the School of Animation & Visual Effects.

“Stop motion includes aspects of every art form from working with your hands, painting, sculpting, lighting, shooting, writing and fabricating,” he said. 

Inside the lab feels like a workshop for mini movies. Students sit with their heads down at the crafting table perfecting details on their characters’ faces, while others sew buttons on costumes at the fabrication station. Old sets of students’ works are scattered throughout the lab while a looping reel of students’ Spring Show portfolio work plays in the background on a TV.

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A closer look at the work in the Stop Motion Lab. Photo by Bob Toy.

One student’s set sits just outside the lab in a glass case. Looking in, one sees an entire forest complete with brush, pinecones and the stars of the film—two deer holding hands. This is My Deer, a stop motion film by Kongjonrak. The story follows the love of a family of deer that tragically ends at the hands of a hunter. 

“I wanted to show that animals have a life and family just like humans,” said Kongjonrak, originally from Thailand. He continued to talk about the power stop motion storytelling has because of its visceral feel. 

“It’s a powerful way to communicate your message to an audience. Stop motion gives the feeling of real life,” he said.  

As an artist Kongjonrak started in sculpting before he discovered the stop motion program and realized he can make his sculptures come to life. Kongjonrak was the winner of the Academy’s 2017 Spring Show for his stop motion feature, Ted, a story of time and family. 

Another recent stop motion graduate, Qing Wang used her talent in stop motion to address the homeless issues in San Francisco. Her 40-second portfolio film, titled Hobo, follows a homeless man wandering the streets before looking in on a family having dinner, reminding him of a time when life was better to him. 

“San Francisco has a lot of homeless people,” said Wang. “People of the homeless community have good in them. Their life has just taken a different path.”

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Students work on their projects in the Stop Motion Lab at 180 New Montgomery. Photo by Bob Toy.

Both students talked about the many hours, months in fact, that went into their short stop motion films, but said the power and realism of stop motion storytelling is well worth it. Each student also emphasized the Academy’s concentration on preparing students for the industry world and providing every resource imaginable to them.

Both students are interviewing with various studios and are on the cusp of landing jobs. 

Beth Sousa, the undergraduate director of 2-D animation for the School of Animation & Visual Effects, told stories of past students who are now working for major stop motion studios like Laika, Starburns Industries and Tippett Studio.

“The program teaches students to understand all aspects of film: From understanding the material, how components function together and what the industry demands,” Sousa said. 

“This is one of the only schools with a true concerted effort toward industry standards.”

The program of just under 100 students is expected to grow this fall. The word is beginning to spread of the exciting and effective learning environment of the lab, the incredible work being produced by students and the success of Academy stop motion students in the industry today.

Facchini said the key to students finding success in stop motion comes from the heart. 

“The biggest thing to be successful is having a good attitude, motivation and passion.”