Arts, Culture & Media

'Fantastic Mr. Fox' and stop motion animation



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Story by Marco Werman, PRI's "The World"

Stop motion animation has been around a long time, but it goes in and out of fashion. The latest movie to use the technique -- where a frame of film is shot individually for each motion of a puppet or model -- is "Fantastic Mr. Fox," in theaters on Thanksgiving day.

"Fantastic Mr. Fox" is one example of stop motion today: Big budget, with George Clooney and other stars doing voices, and Wes Anderson directing.

But go back to some of the earliest days of this animation technique, and you'll discover how a Hungarian émigré came to be a trailblazer for the likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. 

It begins with the story of George Pal. Pal was born in Hungary, but in the late 1920s and early 1930s, he ran the animation department at a movie studio in Berlin.

"Around 1933, he found himself being investigated by the Nazis because he was a Hungarian," says Arnold Leibovit, George Pal's biographer.

"The Nazis considered all foreigners suspicious and so one day, a group of these young -- I guess you'd call thugs or white shirts -- came into his studio and pinpointed one of the animators working with him and dragged him outside. I guess they started beating him up and doing some terrible things. And it was that same day that George and his wife Zsoka decided to leave Germany for Paris; and because he didn't like what he was seeing, eventually went to Holland."

In Holland, George Pal produced work for advertising companies, and he developed a particular concept of animation, something he called Puppetoons. It was more or less how it sounds, beautiful wooden puppets or figurines were filmed frame by meticulous frame in glorious Technicolor, and in some cases, the work was unbelievably painstaking.

"Where every frame of film was a separate puppet, kind of thing you just don't find today, you couldn't possibly do," said Leibovit.

A different puppet carved out of wood for each frame -- in George Pal's hands, they came alive.

The Hungarian animator left Europe in 1939 for New York. He found work with Paramount Pictures, but his gaze sometimes turned to the war-torn continent he left behind.

In one of Pal's Puppetoons from 1942 called "Tulips Shall Grow," a Dutch boy and girl live in peace, but then metal contraptions called The Screwballs arrive and start marching. Tanks parachute in, hanging underneath black umbrellas. Pretty windmills are bombed to oblivion. The land is destroyed.

It's a serious bit of film-making, and Arnold Leibovit says that George Pal's influence on the movie industry measures up against anyone's.

"His influence was as great as Cecil B. DeMille, D.W. Griffith, and some of the great innovators of the movie business, because the kind of things that Pal was doing have become the staple and the most successful movies of our age."

Leibovit isn't just talking about purely animated movies there. After the Puppetoons, George Pal worked on countless live action movies. And he invented some of the first special effects for fantasy films, making the Hungarian émigré a trailblazer for the likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. 

And there's a kind of special effect at the end of that Nazi parable, "Tulips Shall Grow."  Rain falls on Holland. The metal Screwballs rust and fall apart. And as the darkened skies of war clear, Pal animates fluffy white clouds. They form a 'V'  for victory.

View trailer for "Fantastic Mr. Fox":

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