The Brothers Quay are pretty strange, even for identical twins who finish each other’s sentences. They’re Philly-bred, London-based, and rooted deep in old and avant-garde Eastern European creative influences. They make dark, stunning stop-motion shorts, features, and music videos from doll parts, screws, and mechanical animals, among other things. With a MoMA retrospective opening this Sunday and running through January 7th, we felt inspired to round up a collection of varied and beautiful stop-motion films, the field that the brothers have had such tremendous influence over through the past 30 years. Enjoy, and try not to think about the meticulous production methods involved with said stop-motion. It will make your head spin and your fingers ache. We just want to hurt your heart.
The critical success of Brothers Quay’s 1986 35mm short Street of Crocodiles jump started their stop-motion practice. Inspired by the short novel by Polish author and artist Bruno Schulz, and dubbed one of the ten best animated films of all time by Terry Gilliam, the film stars a despondent man puppet exploring an abandoned workshop, his own isolation, and a myriad of “mechanical realities and manufactured pleasures,” as the directors explain.
Prague’s Jan Švankmajer greatly influenced the Brothers Quay and the very genre of stop-motion. His 1982 masterpiece Dimensions Of Dialogue features swarming vegetables, rabid meat, and inanimate kitchen objects possessed, acting out archetypal scenes of human conflict. See Part 2 here. Devastate yourself with clay-on-morphing-clay violence in Part 3. Then, play with your food forever.
Here’s one from a relative n00b, present company considered. Kevin Parry is an apprentice of legendary stop-motion director Henry Sellick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) and his animation short The Artic Circle (2010) is an epic swift tale of loneliness, greed, and… shape-shifting.
If you haven’t seen the award-winning short from 2001 called The Cat With Hands, I feel terrible for introducing it to you. Really, I hope you’ve seen it. No? I’m sorry. It’s about a cat. With hands. Its horror knows no mercy. You shall never see those domestic beasts the same way again.
This classic children’s Soviet stop-motion cartoon series stars Gena the crocodile (who works at the zoo… as a crocodile) and a mutant monkey bear accidentally shipped to Moscow in an orange crate, dubbed Cheburashka. They are best friends. Seriously. Cue mind-bending cuteness, heavy Soviet kitsch, and just a light touch of creepy.
Before the ads, before the TV series, there was the original short stop-motion film Creature Comforts (1989) from Nick Park and Aardman Animations of Wallace and Gromitt fame. These are real people interviewed about animals’ lives in the zoo, animated with clay animals. It’s delightful and happy. Savor it. You’re going to need it.
Told you that you were going to need it! Visual artist Monica Cook’s 2010 video art piece Deuce is slobbery, sinewy, surreal tale of sex, seduction, and babies. You will not unsee that birth money shot. Ever. Her imagery only grew more ornate, more diseased and primal, over time. Check it. You were warned.
Let’s go old school. Polish director Walerian Borowczyk’s early experiments with stop-motion animation began when he realized he couldn’t film a documentary about battling stag beetles, as they went to sleep whenever near stage lighting. He replaced their legs with wire to make “insect puppets” and acted out what he wanted he wanted to film. Here’s something a little less Frankenstein. Fetiche on Honeymoon (1936). Humanoid on a cruise ship, superbly done.
Time for a definitive classic: Vincent, a 1982 stop-motion short written, designed, and directed by Tim Burton and Rick Heinrichs, needs no introduction. Where my dark souls at?
In this blogger’s humble opinion, Hedgehog in the Fog, the 1975 Soviet/Russian animated film directed by Yuriy Norshteyn, is the best stop-motion animation film of all time. It’s a tale of cute animal friends, juniper twigs, samovars, forest dangers, and the deep existential nihilism that creeps within your soul as you float on your back down a stream into utter darkness.