Monday, 27 February 2012

Stop Motion: Passion, Process and Performance by Barry Purves

Barry Purves' 2008 book Stop Motion: Passion, Process and Performance is not exactly a beginner's how-to guide. Those looking for help with choosing a camera or building an armature should start with Aardman's Cracking Animation, or something similar.

If anything, the book is an autobiography, albeit one written for an audience of apprentices. Although not necessarily following chronological order Purves recounts his whole career - his childhood influences, his early days at Cosgrove-Hall, his string of famously lavish puppet shorts, his work in theatre, and his recent work on Rupert the Bear.

Anyone who has watched Purves' films will have noticed his interest in theatre: Shakespeare in Next, Japanese theatre in Screen Play, Greek tragedy in Achilles, classical opera in Rigoletto and comic opera in Gilbert and Sullivan: The Very Models. Throughout the book Purves draws on a wide knowledge of performance art, which informs his views on the craft of animation. His account of animation's history begins not with flipbooks and zoetropes, but with conjuring tricks and early stage effects such as Pepper's ghost, leading - naturally - into the work of magician-turned-filmmaker Georges Méliès. There is a tremendous amount of anecdotal material derived from Purves' work in stage drama, and this unique viewpoint - a focus on the common ground shared by animation and theatre - becomes a key theme of the book.

"I want to burst the bubble that separates animation from the other arts", writes Purves in a chapter entitled "Widening the Scope". "My eureka moment was the Royal Shakespeare Company's nine-hour Nicholas Nickleby in 1980. Seeing this, I became aware of great direction, great storytelling, and the unrivalled thrill of the relationship between audience and cast." He goes on to say:
Spectacle can become animated wallpaper, but with a single actor in front of you, you are rewardingly forced to join in and concentrate. By totally throwing the emphasis onto the puppets I've tried similarly to break down the barrier between performer and audience, even if I cannot help throwing in some telling visuals. I strive to make a moment that matches the sheer emotion of Smike's death [in Nicholas Nickleby], or the finale of Swan Lake.
Purves is not the only contributor. Question-and-answer sections are included at various points, featuring feedback from a roster of several dozen worldwide animators; David Sproxton and the late Mark Hall amongst them.

In an example of necessity acting as the mother of invention, one of the book's most charmingly idiosyncratic touches appears to have arisen due to copyright reasons: Purves includes few stills from other directors' films, and instead provides specially-made illustrations of various well-known puppets by a team of illustrators. Early on in the book, rendered in coloured pencil by Saemi Takahashi, there is a group shot depicting Jack Skellington, Gromit, Cheburashka, Domo-kun, Pingu, the Good Soldier Schweik and some characters with whom I'm not familiar.

Stop Motion: Passion, Process and Performance will be of interest not only to stop-motion animators and to anyone who admires Barry Purves' films. But perhaps its biggest contribution to animation discourse is the relocation of animation theory from the context of filmmaking to the world of performance art.

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