Dr. Joe Sheehan recently completed his practice-based PhD at AUB. His thesis explores moments of stillness, atmosphere and passing time in stop-frame animation. He explains more below.
“Animation is hard to define. There are so many different variations, ranging from computer-generated imagery to painting on glass, which complicates a simple classification. There are different historical developments and production means, different subject matter and aesthetic preferences.
Stop-frame animation (also known as stop motion) usually refers to the frame-by-frame animation of an inanimate, three–dimensional object or puppet. It is a method synonymous with puppets and the creation of movement. My PhD examines the necessity of the puppet figure, whether stop-frame can be used instead to animate time and atmosphere rather than overt movement. Stop-frame gives you an interval between frames that you don’t get in live action filming. It’s space to experiment with.
I started making stop-frame animation during the Second Year of a BA course in Contemporary Fine Art in Hull. I built myself a dark room, sets and a basic lighting system. Working in Fine Art allowed me to experiment with the animation process and it was during this course that I first thought about removing the puppet figure.
The work I made involved puppet figures that occasionally engaged in extended moments of reflective stillness. Initially, I tried just duplicating a single frame (essentially a freeze-frame), but this looked jarringly still in the context of the rest of the movement in the sequence.
I attempted various solutions to this problem: hand movements, camera movements and three-frame cycles of slightly different poses might be used to animate the stillness. I found the results were too exaggerated and lacking the subtle sense of contemplation I needed. As I worked through the problem, I tried simply capturing separate frames of the still puppet and found that these sequences did in fact create a subtle sense of change on-screen.
Even if nothing overtly moves, these sequences are not completely still. Each successive frame has very slight variations that mark it out from the last, and when projected it is possible to see the flickering, uncanny and slightly discontinuous passing of time. In the seconds between each frame, subtle elements such as light, dust and air can alter.
During my MA in Animation at AUB, I explored this idea further. I made a film called the ten mark, which was about 10 Rillington Place in London, an address made infamous in the 1940s and 1950s by the murderer John Christie. It wasn’t so much Christie that interested me, but his home and the sense of atmosphere it had. I came across a book about it when I was younger, I remember it showing his house — a horrible, drab Victorian building that has since been knocked down. I researched the case in the National Archives and found a lot of material about the exterior and interior rooms.
At this stage I was still using a puppet figure in some scenes but ended up completely removing it from a number of sequences in order to focus solely on the atmosphere of the place itself. My aim was to recreate the house and try and animate moments of time and shifting light within it, using the flickering, slightly discontinuous temporality of stop-frame to do so. This was the beginning of my PhD research.
The subject matter for this research was a business space, named Unit 119, on the second floor of an office block in Wincolmlee, an industrial area in Kingston upon Hull. The corridors are predominantly painted magnolia, as are the rooms, which contain basic office furniture, ordinary doors, double-glazed windows and fluorescent strip lights. You can see the adjustments made by various occupants over the years, such as ill-fitting partition walls, wiring alterations, disused heating vents and fading signage.
Unit 119 is at the top of the stairs, at the end of a corridor and includes a small entrance chamber, a large main room divided into two studio spaces and a smaller room that I’m based in. It’s an empty, undisturbed place, which is mainly silent other than the background noise of the adjoining streets and offices.
Most animated films involve capturing overt movement. In this work, I completely removed the puppet figure and animated moments of stillness, based on direct observations of light and form inside the studio space. These stilled sequences maintain the faint flickering sense of stop-frame animation. Subsequently, it is my argument that puppets and overt movement are not actually essential elements of stop-frame sequences.
I propose that with the necessity of the puppet or object eliminated, stop-frame animation can widen its focus to examine everyday moments of aesthetic observation, periods of stillness and even passing time.”
Joe currently lecturers at the Hull School of Art and Design.