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The Ghoulish Times | 02/26/22
The Birth of Stop Motion Animation
Hello and welcome to the latest issue of The Ghoulish Times. My name is Max Booth III. I’m a writer, publisher, editor, and podcaster. In this week’s newsletter, I’m going to be talking about stop motion animation. But first…
TRANSGENDER EDUCATION NETWORK OF TEXAS
You might have noticed some super fucked up news lately concerning Texas and transgender kids. Things have been…bleak, to say the least. So, I thought I’d try to encourage some donations to charities directly benefiting trans kids in Texas, such as the Transgender Education Network of Texas (TENT).
As extra incentive to donate, if you email me proof you’ve donated to TENT (any amount), I’ll send you a digital file of my new novel, Maggots Screaming!, which doesn’t even officially come out until mid-April. You can read a brand-new book over a month earlier than anyone else. All you have to do is donate to a good cause. This offer lasts forever.
GHOULISH: THE PODCAST
Here’s what you may have missed the past week on the podcast…
Disability in Apocalyptic Art with Gretchen Felker-Martin!
Gretchen Felker-Martin (author of MANHUNT) joined me on the latest episode of GHOULISH to discuss disability in apocalyptic art, fun facts about testicles, the immortality of maple syrup, and our mutual love for the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Listen HERE or anywhere else you download podcasts.
Spooky Mountains with Thomas Olde Heuvelt!
Thomas Olde Heuvelt is the author of HEX and ECHO. On today’s episode of GHOULISH, he joined me to discuss mountaineering, possession novels, gothic horror, almost getting hit by lightning, using paperbacks for toilet paper, and “classic mountain fights”.
Listen HERE or anywhere else you download podcasts.
GHOULISH BOOK FESTIVAL UPDATES
We are pleased to finally announce our second guest of honor for the inaugural Ghoulish Book Festival, which will take place on the weekend of April 30th and May 1st in downtown San Antonio, TX. As we revealed several months ago, Cynthia Pelayo is our first guest of honor. And now, joining her, will be…
Laurel Hightower grew up in Kentucky, attending college in California and Tennessee before returning home to horse country, where she lives with her husband, son, and a rescue Pit bull. She works as a paralegal in a mid-size firm, wrangling litigators by day and writing at night. A bourbon and beer girl, she’s a fan of horror movies and true life ghost stories.
She is the author of Whispers in the Dark and Crossroads, and co-edited the charity anthology We Are Wolves as well as The Dead Inside, an identity horror anthology. Her short fiction has appeared in several publications. Below is her third book.
Her novella, Below, will be published on March 29th through Ghoulish Books.
We will have plenty of copies in stock at the festival. Alternatively, you can pre-order the book HERE.
And you can secure your badge for the Ghoulish Book Festival HERE.
DARK MOON DIGEST ISSUE #46
It’s everybody’s favorite holiday: New Dark Moon Digest Day!
The 46th Issue of Dark Moon Digest contains fiction by Kelly Griffiths, Brandon Kingdollar, Gordon Linzner, Daemon Manx, Adam McPhee, Calliope Papas, and Kayli Scholz. Featuring non-fiction by Nicola Lombardi and Max Booth III, as well as an excerpt from the novella Below by Laurel Hightower!
The front cover, designed by Lori Michelle, comes from a photo I took of a bridge while we were visiting Alaska. I’m glad she finally figured out a cool way to use the photo, as I’ve always been fond of it. Here’s the original:
Purchase via Webstore | Amazon | Barnes & Noble
I have an essay in the above issue of DMD. It’s actually a reprint of something I wrote for FANGORIA back in 2018. I’ve always been fond of this particular piece, and the subject matter. So, in addition to reprinting it in the latest issue of our spooky magazine, I thought it would be cool to also reprint it in this week’s newsletter.
Sooo…here ya go. My article about stop motion animation.
Note: Due to the length of this newsletter, it will most likely get cut off in your email. I recommend reading it in your browser instead.
“DECAPITATIONS, CORPSE MELTINGS, AND HORSES: EXAMINING THE WEIRD HISTORY BEHIND STOP MOTION ANIMATION”
In 1860, a 30-year-old British bookseller living in San Francisco named Eadweard Muybridge made a decision. He would leave his brother in charge of his shop and sail back to Europe to acquire rare books for the business. The date was set. Except, for whatever reason, he missed his reservation and the boat took off without him. So, instead, he waited another month and attempted to travel to St. Louis on a stagecoach. Everything would have gone over smoothly, too, if complete disaster hadn’t struck almost immediately after their departure. The driver lost control of his horses and the stagecoach collided directly into a tree, killing one passenger and injuring the rest—including Muybridge, who found himself flung through the air and cracking his head against a stone several feet away.
Muybridge proceeded to spend the next five-to-six years living with a medical specialist who attempted to treat the brain damage gained from the stagecoach incident. Once a patient and calculated businessman, the bookseller now acted brash and eclectic. The medical specialist recommended he consider leaving the customer service industry, perhaps fearing how he would interact with folks while selling books, and suggested Muybridge instead take up photography. Over the next several years, Muybridge’s fame rose as a photographer to watch. Perhaps thanks to permanent brain damage, he took more risks than anybody else in the industry dared to handle. One famous photograph published in 1872 depicts Muybridge lounging at the slanted edge of a cliff hanging over the Yosemite Valley, 2,000+ feet of empty space below.
The dude simply didn’t give a fuck.
Which made him the perfect person to settle a debate about whether or not all four feet of a horse lift off the ground at the same time during a traditional gallop. A wealthy racehorse owner and former California governor, Leland Stanford, reached out to Muybridge and challenged him to crack the mystery. Muybridge accepted the offer and got to work immediately.
However, he made little progress before discovering his child had been conceived by his wife’s best friend, so he had to take a quick break from his studies to visit her lover. “I am Muybridge,” he told the man, “and this is a message from my wife.” Then Muybridge shot him dead with a Smith & Wesson six-shooter. He pleaded insanity during the ensuing trial, blaming the stagecoach accident from several years back for his irrational behavior. Longtime acquaintances testified that Muybridge had indeed changed since the brain injury, claiming he had transformed from a pleasant gentleman to an unstable lunatic. Eventually he was acquitted, and he returned to work on Leland Stanford’s horse dilemma.
It was then, in 1877, that Muybridge thought to place twelve cameras along a horse track with the intention of photographing a horse during one continuous motion. The cameras were each equipped with an electromagnetic shutter featuring a speed of 1/1000th second. He tied thread to the shutters, stretching the fabric clear across the track, so when the horse ran past it would break the thread, thus triggering the shutters in quick succession.
Muybury may have been crazy, but he was also smart as hell, and he is credited with devising the very first motion picture technique.
Author’s note: Recently Jordan Peele revealed the trailer for his new film, Nope, which also briefly discusses this experiment. I can’t wait to see how it further ties into the plot. It looks incredible.
Back to the article…
Fast forward 18 years. Camera technology has evolved in truly spectacular ways. The future has arrived, and so has the very first film utilizing the stop trick. The stop trick being, of course, the act of stopping a camera, moving an object, then turning it back on to create an illusion of one uninterrupted scene. It’s the basic foundation stop motion is built on.
And who do we have to thank?
Thomas Goddamn Edison, of course.
In 1895, he and Alfred Clark dropped an 18-second short film titled The Execution of Mary Stuart. In it, the titular Mary (Queen of Scotland from 1542 to 1567) is led, blindfolded, to an execution block surrounded by an eager crowd. The executioner raises his axe and decapitates her, then picks up her severed head and holds it up to the camera as if presenting a trophy. The edit isn’t exactly smooth between switching out the actress (credited only as “Mrs. Robert L. Thomas”) with a dummy, but it remains incredibly impressive considering when Edison produced it.
Although Thomas Edison clearly established the stop trick first, a French filmmaker by the name of Georges Méliès is often credited, too. From his 1907 book, titled Les Vues Cinématographiques:
An obstruction of the apparatus that I used in the beginning (a rudimentary apparatus in which the film would often tear or get stuck and refuse to advance) produced an unexpected effect, one day when I was prosaically filming the Place de L'Opéra; I had to stop for a minute to free the film and to get the machine going again. During this time passersby, omnibuses, cars, had all changed places, of course. When I later projected the film, reattached at the point of the rupture, I suddenly saw the Madeleine-Bastille bus changed into a hearse, and men changed into women. The trick-by-substitution, called the stop trick, had been invented and two days later I performed the first metamorphosis of men into women and the first sudden disappearances that had, at the beginning, such a great success.
Despite claiming to have invented the stop trick, many scholars seem to believe he instead developed and perfected it through detailed studies of The Execution of Mary Stuart.
All of this is leading up to, of course, the first real use of stop motion animation, thanks to the founders of Vitagraph Studios: J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith. Together, they created The Humpty Dumpty Circus using a set of circus animal dolls belonging to Smith’s daughter. The short film featured acrobats and animals having a good ol’ time, playing together and being best pals. Sadly, the film is currently lost. Blackton continued producing new work and, in 1907, returned to stop motion with The Haunted Hotel, a short film about a bizarre-looking man being harassed by various objects in his room.
Tea pours itself into a mug. A knife handled by a phantom hand slices through a loaf of bread. A rogue white sheet challenges the man to a fight and makes him look like a fool. People loved it, cementing the idea that the weirder you went with stop motion, the better it’d be received.
Enter Władysław Starewicz, a Polish-Russian who, in 1910, desperately wanted to film two stag beetles beating the shit out of each other. Except, he kept encountering a little problem. Whenever the stage light blasted on the insects, they would just end up dying. But did this stop him? Hell no. After replacing the insects’ limbs with wires, he managed to reanimate the corpses into moveable puppets. Then, through the magic of stop motion, he created numerous excellent, disturbing films about insects brawling with swords and axes.
Until then, nobody had used puppets for stop motion. This revelation changed everything, unleashing the world with an onslaught of puppeted stop motion films that continues to be reproduced and improved to this day. Without Starewicz’s weirdo desire to watch beetles kill each other, we might never have had 1925’s The Lost World, the very first feature-length film to utilize stop motion as its primary special effect. One of the coolest dinosaur fights of all time can be viewed in this picture.
The film’s animator, Willis H. O’Brien, would continue to make strides as a filmmaking pioneer throughout his career, especially with his work on the original King Kong (1933).
And, of course, we cannot discuss stop motion without covering clay animation—or, as Will Vinton coined it in 1978: claymation.
This particular style of stop motion can be largely contributed to an art teacher in England named William Harbutt who, in 1897, searched for a more convenient material to teach in his sculpture class. As a solution, he created a non-toxic, malleable clay that could not be hardened if heated in an oven. He called it Plasticine, and by 1900 its first commercial factory went under construction. It was perfect for claymation, and remains to this day the preferred material for both amateurs and professionals.
The first recorded instance of clay animation mixing with live action can be found in The Sculptor’s Welsh Rarebit Dream, produced in 1908 by Thomas Edison’s manufacturing company.
Not too long afterward, stop motion and claymation really began to take off. Helena Smith Dayton, possibly the first known female animator, gained fame by creating humorous cartoons, her biggest success being a claymation adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Unfortunately, no copies of the film seem to exist anymore. She also broke new ground by dressing up her clay models with doll clothing and using real human hair for extra realism. Yeah, Dayton was kind of a badass.
Most people think of claymation, and their minds immediately visualize Gumby, the adorable green humanoid with giant legs and a slanted head. Created by Art Clokey in the early 1950s, Gumby made his first appearance on The Howdy Doody Show before branching off into his own program, appropriately-titled The Gumby Show. Personally, as a kid growing up in the ’90s, I devoured the reruns of this show. I owned Gumby merchandise, played with the toys, you name it. It wasn’t until recent viewings of a few earlier episodes that I realized just how well it actually falls into the horror genre. In the pilot, Gumby (a little boy) steals a spaceship from a military base and joyrides to the moon. While exploring its surface, a weird triangular alien disguised as a rock stalks him and attempts to...I don’t know, murder him? It’s never quite clear.
By the way, the most eerie fucking score of all time is playing throughout these events, delivering a truly trippy experience that might explain my later love for horror fiction. Oh, and in the second episode of The Gumby Show? Gumby attempts to complete a simple grocery store errand for his mother, only to get interrupted by a fucking insane construction worker intent on burying Gumby alive for no apparent reason. Gumby escapes by entering a random mirror in the middle of town that somehow leads into multiple dimensions of reality. Inside these new dimensions, he is introduced to different versions of himself, each one more distorted and terrifying than the last. Once again, I remind you: this was a children’s show.
But Gumby isn’t the only source of awesome horror when it comes to claymation. In fact, this particular style of stop motion lends itself extremely well to the genre, often turning seemingly innocent programs into living nightmares. Will Vinton, considered one of the most famous claymation animators in history, created numerous remarkable works. In October 2018, he passed away at age 70 from multiple myeloma. One of the best examples of weirdo claymation can be found in his 1985 film, The Adventures of Mark Twain.
This is another children’s film guaranteed to unsettle any child who dares to watch it. The majority of the film maintains a weird tone, given the general nature of claymation, but then we arrive at a truly horrifying segment once the main characters stumble upon a cigar-smoking angel named Satan. Satan gives the children balls of clay and instructs them to create “people”. The figures then come to life and begin to attack each other. Enraged, Satan smashes them to death and the clay corpses mutate into tiny coffins. “Fools,” Satan says in an awkward, robotic voice as other clay figures gather around the coffins to mourn, “what fascinations there are on this planet. Strange mortals with...curious customs.”
For horror films, stop motion has become a gift unlike anything else. Browse through your favorite flicks and there’s a good chance some have utilized the special effect. Remember the infamous “corpse melting” scene at the end of The Evil Dead? That’s claymation, baby! Artist Tom Sullivan convinced a doubtful Sam Raimi the scene could be accomplished no other way and got straight to work. Also, if you’re wondering: the substance that squishes out of the corpses’ skulls during the disintegration is a combination of oatmeal, food coloring, snakes, and cockroaches. Not just any cockroaches, either, but gargantuan Madagascar hissing cockroaches acquired from Michigan State University. And the disgusting material splattering against Bruce Campbell’s face during each cutaway? Dog food, obviously. What else could it have been?
Also released around the same time as The Evil Dead we have John Carpenter’s The Thing. Owners of special edition DVDs will have undoubtedly already viewed the deleted scene toward the end, which featured a super cool stop motion monster exploding from the floor, courtesy of the talented Randall William Cook. It was ultimately cut by Carpenter due to it looking too much like animation. Cook, by the way, also handled the special effects on another classic horror film: The Gate. He would later go on to do similar but very different work on the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Stop motion and claymation are everywhere. This article could take up the entire magazine and then some describing all the classics. Fans of the genre surely remember the hilariously disturbing motel room scene from Basket Case, wherein the protagonist’s deformed twin (consisting of only a head and arms) crawls around the floor, destroying everything in its path while screaming grotesquely. If you don’t know how something can “scream grotesquely”, then you’ve never seen Basket Case.
Tim Burton’s name can also be found all over stop motion, from The Nightmare Before Christmas to Beetlejuice. Return to Oz, the little-known-but-spectacular sequel to The Wizard of Oz, uses this special effect to its full effect when the Nome King attempts to devour Jack Pumpkinhead (another film marketed to children but, in retrospect, is actually very disturbing; also another film with Will Vinton claymation credits). Jan Švankmajer’s Alice (a groovy reimagining of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) features one of the most terrifying rabbits ever to grace the screen thanks to his skillful stop motion abilities.
Claymation is the perfect tool to turn pretty much anything into a weird and wonderful spooktacular event. There is something magical and simultaneously fucked-up about its texture. Nothing about it looks like it should be real, yet it still moves like it’s alive. The awkward, jagged motions of claymation puppets directly rebel against the laws of physics. Consider the uncanny valley, described on dictionary.com as
a psychological concept that describes the feelings of unease or revulsion that people tend to have toward artificial representations of human beings, as robots or computer animations, that closely imitate many but not all the features and behaviors of actual human beings.
I can think of no better way to explain the inherent creepiness of claymation, and that’s why I love it with such a deep passion.
Purchase DMD #46 via Webstore | Amazon | Barnes & Noble
Okay, that’s it for this week. You can support us on Patreon, browse the books in our webstore, and follow us on Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter (PMMP | DMD | Ghoulish podcast | Ghoulish Books | personal). Reserve your ticket for the first annual Ghoulish Book Fest. You can also join us on the Ghoulish Discord.
See you next weekend, ghouls.