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Still Life, Still Death: Where Stop Motion Animation Models Go to Rest

By Wesley Fenlon

Chicken Run: Ashes. The Fantastic Mr. Fox: Scattered to the Winds. Medusa: Still in great shape.

Where is the Fantastic Mr. Fox? The answer will depend on who you ask, since there's not just one Mr. Fox. Those who've read Roald Dahl's children's book will say he's living peacefully in the British countryside with his four children. Those who've watched Wes Anderson's stop-motion film adaptation will say he's living out his days with his quirky son Ash and nephew Kristofferson.

Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox

The truth is, even in Wes Anderson's interpretation of the character, there's not exactly one single Mr. Fox. There are dozens. For The Fantastic Mr. Fox, film's animation studio created 16 incredibly detailed puppets of the titular character and a contingent of simpler, smaller puppets used for long shots. When actors finish making movies, they move on to the next project. But what happens to puppets like Mr. Fox, which require hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to create for single projects? What happens to Wallace & Gromit after Nick Park dedicates a year and a half to the production of a film like Curse of the Were-Rabbit?

Life after production isn't always kind to the puppets and models of stop motion animation. I set out on a "where are they now" quest to find out where characters like Mr. Fox end up after withdrawing from the Hollywood spotlight.

"I fear that there may be some in storage somewhere," wrote Andy Biddle, who I tracked down online while on the hunt for the Fox family. Biddle worked as a character animator on The Fantastic Mr. Fox in 2008 and 2009. "The ones I cannot account for, I prefer to think they escaped and now live 'the good life' away from the prying eyes of humans."

Storage? Not exactly a glamorous retirement...but things could be worse.

Stop Motion Relics of 60s Winter Wonderlands and Greek Mythology

Aside from the 20-year-old Wallace & Gromit, most of stop motion's most memorable characters have been around for decades. Willis O'Brien's work on The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933) were major landmarks in the history of animation, and O'Brien's protege Ray Harryhausen went on to develop a groundbreaking technique, coined Dynamation, that simplified the process of combining models and live action filming. Kong and the skeletons Harryhausen created for Jason and the Argonauts (1963) wowed and inspired generations of kids and wannabe filmmakers.

A year after Jason and the Argonauts, a production company called Rankin/Bass created the definitive characterization of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in a stop motion TV special. It's since been seen by over a billion people, according to founder Arthur Rankin himself. Rudolph and the characters immortalized in later Rankin/Bass specials, like Frosty the Snowman, are undoubtedly some of the most iconic figures in the history of animation (and every Rankin/Bass fan should check out NBC sitcom Community's stop motion Christmas special homage). And almost none of them still exist today.

Rankin/Bass puppets in production. Image credit: Rick Goldschmidt.

"Most of the Rankin/Bass Animagic figures did not survive the years sadly," Rick Goldsmith, author of two books on the history of Rankin/Bass, told me. One of his books, on the creation of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, dedicates a chapter to Rankin/Bass' "Animagic" stop-motion process.

Though the Rankin/Bass specials were famous for bringing to life American Christmas icons like Rudolph and Frosty, all the company's animation was done in Japan. It took 18 months to create Rudolph using a mixture of contemporary animation techniques. Some puppet parts would be replaced between shots to create movements or facial expressions, while others had hinged parts. Jointed puppets weren't as flexible, but were far more reliable than the copper wires used in cheaper puppets that would break after multiple poses.

The puppets used in Rudolph--which cost $5000 apiece to create--were coated with a non-reflective spray before filming to counteract bright stage lighting. The first spray the animators used was acidic and caused the puppets to deteriorate. In the decades since production, the polyurethane used inside the figures has also turned into dust. According to Arthur Ranking, the figures "would last about 16 months, tops."

Animation technology has grown more sophisticated since the 1960s, but it's hardly gotten cheaper. "The puppets in Mr. Fox cost around £12,000 (~$18,570)," Andy Biddle told me. "You may wonder how it can cost that much but when you start to factor in all the skills sets and man hours that goes into the armature, the sculpt, the costume etc. you start to understand where that money has to go."

Only a few of the original Animagic models still exist today--Rankin/Bass gave some of their performers figures after completing a production, meaning the rare survivors mostly exist in private collections. Many of Ray Harryhausen's creations, on the other hand, are remarkably preserved.

Original models of Medusa and a skeleton warrior. Image Credit: RayHarryhausen.com.

"All of Ray's vast collection of original models, artwork, moulds, miniatures, tests etc are in one place and are looked after by The Ray & Diana Harryhausen Foundation," wrote Tony Dalton, the curator of Harryhausen's collection. The foundation owns more than 50,000 pieces of animation history, and someday plans to display them in partnership with the UK National Media Museum.

"Silicon and glue do deteriorate over time," explained Biddle. "However I believe it does take awhile for this to happen. A couple of years ago I went to a Ray Harryhausen talk and he had the Medusa puppet used in Clash of the titans. So that was almost 30 years old at the time he showed us. That puppet had deteriorated and would probably seriously fall apart if you tried to make it do what it did 30 years ago but it was fine for 'show and tell.' Fabric will also fade over time, especially by light damage, so it would be wise for those who have puppets to keep them away from the light."

Harryhausen will celebrate his 92nd birthday on June 29, 2012, and models like Medusa from Clash of the Titans and cyclops from 7th Voyage of Sinbad pop up on the news section of his website every few months.

The Modern Survivors

A Wallace and Gromit exhibit. Photo Image Credit: Flickr User Melanie M.

A decade ago, a "where are they now" of modern stop motion stars would mostly lead to one place: Aardman Animations, the studio behind Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run. But in 2005, a fire consumed Aardman's storage warehouse, destroying 30 years worth of models and sets. Thankfully everything from the just-released Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were Rabbit survived, as did Chicken Run's Stalag Coop 17.

Aardman obviously took pains to save and preserve their models and sets--they regularly took them out of the warehouse for exhibits around the world--but bad luck ruined their years of care. Some characters have been luckier. Will Vinton, whose animation studio created the California Raisins, Eddie Murphy's sitcom The PJs and Domino's The Noid, has personally preserved a collection of animation art that is displayed at art galleries and museums.

Laika, which was born out of Will Vinton Studios in 2005, has kept its models alive as well. Coraline pops up in various exhibits along with other characters from the 2009 film. That's to be expected, at this point: the puppets are only a few years old and no one's spraying them with acidic materials like in the early days of Rankin/Bass. They also belong to a studio that focuses almost exclusively on stop motion.

Where does that leave the fantastic Mr. Fox, who was crafted in a reborn Fox Animation Studios that has to date made one--and only one--stop motion film?

"I believe Wes Anderson has a full set of all the puppets used on the film which I am guessing he might have on display," Biddle wrote. "Felicity Dahl was given a Mr. and a Mrs. Fox which she donated to the Roald Dahl museum in Great Missenden and they should be still currently on display there. I also know that Allison Abbate (the producer) has a selection of the puppets in a display case in her office as does Andy Gent (the puppet supervisor) in his home in East London. The others I believe were given out as gifts to benefactors of the film."

Mr. Fox at the Roald Dahl Museum. Image Credit: Andy Biddle.

In total, 530 puppets were created for The Fantastic Mr. Fox, including "micro puppets" that were "considerably less expensive...due to their size, less detailed design, their limited expression and a far simpler armature," Biddle wrote. "Wes specifically wanted this scale of puppet to add a certain 'charm' to various sections of the film for aesthetic reasons."

Mr. Fox and his companions are split up between private collections and (most likely) storage, without a diligent overseer like Aardman or Laika watching over them. Some sets and models were displayed in late 2009 at San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum, but there's no telling where the bulk of those 530 puppets are now. On the bright side, what's been made once can be made again. Rankin/Bass recreated puppets like Rudolph for nearly every TV special; Wallace & Gromit are reborn from clay as they star in new shorts. For every puppet that's escaped to live in the wild away from human eyes, there's an up-and-comer getting a chance to shine in a new exhibit.