Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (NBX) is the gift that keeps on giving for enthusiasts and collectors of all things All Hallows Eve. It’s spooky spin on holiday television staples like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and How The Grinch Stole Christmas seemed pretty quirky upon its release on October 29, 1993, but ultimately it has gained classic status among the classics it set out to spoof.
Though it never generated an on-going sequel franchise, the film continues to ooze oodles of cool collectibles based on the 230 puppets built to fill every corner of its miniature stop motion animation sets.
I could feign astonishment but it’s not too surprising when those characters were fired in the creative cauldron of Tim Burton’s brain. Though he did not direct the film (that was Henry Selick) his eerie but playful visual imprint is unmistakably present from spindly spooks to corpulent corpses.
DST Select NBX Action Figures Series 10… Keeping in step with the abundance of possibilities Diamond Select Toys (DST) has just released a new batch of Nightmare Before Christmas Select Action figures featuring inhabitants of both Halloween and Christmas lands.
This tenth series treats collectors to Mr. Hyde with Corpse Dad, Corpse Mom with Duck Gift, and Mrs. Claus with a Choir Elf and hilarious penguin pie. The figures sport multiple points of articulation and were designed by Eamon O’Donoghue with sculpts by Cortes Studios. They are boxed, along with their fun accessories, in Select action figure packaging featuring side panel artwork to facilitate shelf storage. SRP is $29.99 each.
Dynamic Duo… An even deeper dive into the film’s recesses brings forth the Cyclops and Creature From Under the Stairs in Select Previews Exclusive (PX) format. I think this 2 pack will be a real crowd pleaser. It finally makes these two sort after Halloween Town denizens available to die-hard fans of the film. They’re also designed by O’Donoghue with Cortes Studio sculpts. $29.99 will get you these blokes to adorn your display shelves.
D-Formz Blind Box Figures… DST has also announced an assortment of Nightmare Before ChristmasD-Formz. These are 3 inch PVC figures, which will come as blind boxed collectibles. Characters Jack Skellington, Sally and Oogie Boogie are presented in standard and glow-in-the dark versions. Dr. Finkelstein and Santa Claus figures are the rare chase figures, turning up only once per case.
These pieces come packaged 12 to a counter display. They were designed by Barry Bradfield and sculpted by Rocco Tartamella. You can grab ‘em for $7.99 each.
Thanks to Kristina (Speakeasy) and Ruth (Silver Screenings) for initiating and administering the “Things I Learned from the Movies” Blog-a-thon. As in the past their “assignment” has sent me on a more introspective and autobiographical journey than I might normally attempt or share.
Please be sure to see the blogathon nightly round-ups at their websites for the wealth of interesting features this virtual gathering will surely generate. Send some comment love to the ones you really like, and consider following them.
Gimme a Second…
Stop Motion. It’s what I’ve done most of my life, from behind a camera and usually at 1/60th or 1/125th of a second. Film’s light sensitivity, as in ASA/ISO ratings, in pre-digital days offered limited choices.
Stop Motion, the animation technique, was an obsession throughout my pre to mid-teens, until the first two Led Zeppelin albums and The Who’s Live At Leeds caught my ear and I had to learn how to make that sound.
During those years I spent hours methodically clicking off one frame of film at a time through the Keystone 8mm camera my father gave me. Dad was pragmatic. It was already clear that I wasn’t going to be the fastest left handed pitcher in the history of National League Baseball, but I did share another skill set with him and that was photography and a seemingly natural understanding of visual composition.
Most of my films centered around the adventures of a clay “everyman” I called Glip. In retrospect Glip was a Gumby analog who ran around my home, raiding the refrigerator, climbing ladders, literally swinging from the chandelier. In other films Glip took on the personas of Ebenezer Scrooge, Long John Silver and Mr. Hyde, in (purportedly) comedic spins on classic literary works.
When more majestic scenarios were required my articulated 12 inch tall G.I. Joe’s became helpless subjects and were buried under plasticine to emulate my favorite fantastic film creatures. Ray Harryhausen’s mighty Cyclops was rendered – as best possible – with green clay, a faux pearl eyeball, and a toothpick horn.
Thinking In Stills…
When not producing these meisterwerks an inordinate amount of time was spent staring into a consumer grade moviola screen pouring over Castle Films’ ruthlessly edited collector’s reels. Seventh Voyage of Sinbad was my favorite. I scrubbed that film back and forth intently absorbing the specific movements applied to the Dragon versus Cyclops battle, and I was particularly obsessed with the exact frame in Jason and the Argonauts where actor Todd Armstrong drops his real sword and it is replaced by Harryhausen’s miniature blade which plunges into the heart of the seven headed hydra model.
Simultaneously I was introduced to the work of photojournalist Arthur Fellig by my Father. Fellig became popularly known as WeeGee (think Ouija board) because of his ability to divine the right spot to be in and capture the action. As my Dad pointed out, the goal is not only to produce a technically efficient photograph but to capture an image that encapsulates the event if only a single photo goes to print. In fact, with WeeGee’s rig of a 4X5 Speed Graphic camera, and single flash bulb illumination, there was no room for error. It was a “bring ‘em back alive” style of street photography and a high contrast graphic look that I began to emulate.
Looking back, these were clearly the formative seeds of my fixation with “the instant.” I watch a motion picture but recall it in primary still images. I see a still image and envision the action.
Fractions of Actions…
Eventually I came to see stop motion, the animation technique, as a misnomer. Whereas a still photographer freezes a split second of action, the animator is not stopping motion at all. The subject is static, it “moves” by virtue of a fault of human visual perception. Persistence of vision. All those incremental movements rushing by our eyes can’t be processed as single images and blur into an illusion of life. It works, from the simplest flip book to the most epic mega film.
Even so, the inverse appears to apply. As “move-y” as movies get they are still ultimately built as series of frames with some being more potent or dominant than others. Those key frames appear to be what impact on our brains when we remember a scene. I applied this perception to my animation work with a method of capturing the peak of action with additional frames, thereby boosting it’s visual imprint.
I Scream, You Scream…
Thinking in stills is not a cinematic aberration. Director Sergei Eisenstein knew it. Every film 101 student has been introduced to The Battleship Potemkin (1925) and his triptych of stone lions juxtaposed to seemingly rise to the battle call. It is a hallmark of film editing for effect called montage. Director James Whale seems to have cribbed its timing in the treble of jump cuts to close-up that underscore the first entrance of the monster in Frankenstein (1931).
Eisenstein’s then experimental editing technique is most obvious in the famous Odessa Steps sequence. The scene is filled with examples of “stills in motion,” from the careening baby carriage to the shock and horror on the faces of the victims. Often emulated, I believe never equaled, the sequence also owes part of its origin to the iconic instant of horror portrayed by artist Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893).
Munch’s painting is one of the most familiar and widely appropriated images of this and the previous century. It represents a second in time when artist perceived “the shriek of nature” as he watched a blood red sunset over the Oslo fjord in Norway. It is a single image but it is also a movie. It contains all the information required to allow us to extrapolate a story, perceive an emotion, even if we know nothing about it before our first viewing. It conveys its peak psychological power and elicits a palpable reaction that appears to be universally, and non-verbally, understood. It’s a proto-emoji.
Impactful visuals don’t die, they get reinterpreted. Eisenstein clearly understood the psychological power of this image and utilized it to great effect in several shots during his famed sequence. Later on, influenced by the Eisenstein scene, artist Francis Bacon rendered the screaming amorphous thing that inhabits the right section of his triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1950).
Munch’s distressing vision, one which he revisited in different media several times between 1893 and 1910, appears to tap into the collective human unconscious theorized by Professor Carl Jung. Art historian Robert Rosenbaum’s postulation that Munch may have found his initial inspiration in the gape mouthed pose of a Peruvian mummy exhibited at the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris deepens the possibly of ancient archetypal connections. We only need to view the “Captain Howdy” stingers of The Exorcist series or the photo of an immolated Iraqi soldier from the first gulf war to find modern correlations.
While Eisenstein’s work presents a prime example of the frozen moment technique, other staples abound. Carl Theodor Dryer’s restriction of characters to extreme close-ups throughout The Passion of Joan of Arc reduces them to nearly static icons. There’s also Luis Bunuel’s use of freeze frames in Viridiana that transmute his beggar’s banquet tableau into an irreverent “snap shot” of Leonardo DaVinci’s The Last Supper.
Historically, freeze frames and framed friezes relate. The Roman Catholic “stations of the cross,” are essentially a 14 panel storyboard of the passion of Jesus Christ and present everything a mostly illiterate medieval congregation would have required to understand the narrative. Director Chris Marker took this concept to its filmic extreme with La Jetée, (1962). Its 28 minute runtime is composed almost entirely of black and white still images. The outcome has the feel of reading a fumetti, the pulpy “photo novellas” popular in Europe during the 1950s and 60s.
In fact, movie storyboards so closely resemble comic strips that it is no surprise that early animator Windsor McCay was also a preeminent cartoonist of his time. His Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend and Little Nemo in Slumberland are still revered as blueprints for outsider work on the printed page. As his characters’ exploits often broke through the walls of their outlined panels, McCay also broke the “fourth wall” of the cinema screen when he toured his animated featurette Gertie the Dinosaur (1919). During the showing McCay would engage the projected cartoon creature to do his bidding, much like a trained circus elephant.
The Frame Game…
So what have I learned from the movies? Although I did not continue to pursue three dimensional animation, even as an avocation, I did take away an appreciation for the peak moment of action.
As a photojournalist I’ve aspired to catch those key moments that make images memorable. It’s not just about freezing the height of action. On candid shoots, I’ve learned to watch for the “a-ha” or eureka moments in people’s faces, the body language that reveals their personalities, and the eye contact between subjects that conveys to the viewer something special has just transpired.
Solely as a personal challenge, I often try to capture that instant by attempting to “read” the subject without resorting to rapid frame mode. It’s very hard not to succumb to the temptation of over shooting that digital photography allows. I try to honor the methods of my film days when I had to reduce an entire story to a maximum of 72 exposures. On a current photo shoot, with a DSLR and unlimited digital film resources, it appears to be anathema.
I know it’s old school, but I’m an old guy now. Utilizing the skills I’ve polished over 50 years is not just a comfort zone but offers a real sense of satisfaction. Recently I’ve been using the camera in my iPhone and Instagram, it seems the perfect platform to keep refining single image as story skills. It may even lead to doing some simple animation again.
Soon even the best sports and event photographers will begin to supplant their still imaging methods with 4K and 5K video captures that facilitate grabbing that peak moment from the overall action effortlessly. Does it feel like a cheat? Sure, but maybe the wheel felt like a cheat to the guy who was used to pushing a square boulder up the hill. I’m no luddite, and I look forward to working with these new technologies with the knowledge that a great image will continue to evoke authentic response no matter its creative vehicle.
I had a wonderful time putting this piece but finding the flow to complete it wasn’t easy. Writing about visual communication leaves much in the synapses that (for me at least) cannot be expressed accurately with words. The thought belatedly crossed my mind to present the post as a storyboard, but deadlines (and meager skills) precluded that.
Finding Dr. Temple Grandin’s Thinking In Pictures during my research was a revelation, and an affirmation of my own previsualization techniques. I highly recommend you take a look as well.
During a recent walk through a local Staples office supply store my wife and I happened upon a colorful surprise. A section of a merchandise isle dedicated solely to products from the Crayola Company. I had already been somewhat aware of the diversity of Crayola items seen at a pre-holiday event held by The Big Toy Book, but didn’t fully grasp just how expansive the selection was. Needless to say Crayola’s Toy Fair 2015 booth was one of my main objectives while covering the Toy Industry Association (TIA) event and the tour of goodies did not disappoint.
Starting as the Binney & Smith Company, selling industrial pigments, Crayola has been in business for well over 100 years putting art supplies in the hands of one generation after another. The current product line perfectly embraces a two fold vision. There is a tried and true allegiance to standard crayon-in-hand creativity that blossoms in connection with technology both old and new.
Drawing on History…
For instance, the Sketch Wizard is a colorful spin on the camera obscura, an ancient optical device that essentially allows you to trace your subject via it’s projected image. It is widely posited that many artists throughout history used this method to properly render perspective and foreshortening on the 2 dimensional page or canvas. My niece, whose parents were fascinated by Tim’s Vermeer, the recent film documenting the recreation of a Johannes Vermeer style painting by a non-artist using this method, found this one was under the Xmas tree last December.
Also in old school tech mode is the hand pumped Crayola Air Brush, which turns your markers into spray brushes, giving you a perfect way to create delicate stenciled art or misty backgrounds for your characters to inhabit.
The Color Alive products, what Crayola calls a “4D” experience, feature traditional looking coloring books and crayons that allow image capture into your tablet environment. Once visually pulled into the downloadable app your character comes to life in the colors you chose, and against a selection of backgrounds, including the real world image of whatever you point your device’s camera at. I was treated to a fire-breathing dragon dancing on my head with nary a tipple, I swear. The product range currently includes some very popular licenses from Mattel’s Barbie to the Activision’s Skylanders universe. Specialty crayon colors in each package add active nuances like flames and sparkles to the on screen art.
Additionally, 3D Systems in partnership with Crayola can print up a unique collector statue from your 2D Color Alive art. That option should arrive in April 2015. ‘Tweening for ‘Tweens… As someone who dabbled in stop-motion animation during my pre and early teens I found the most impressive demo to be the Color Alive Easy Animation Studio. In my day I enlisted my full size Hasbro G.I. Joe’s to be the stars of my films, often covering them in clay to resemble the creatures in my favorite Ray Harryhausen epics like Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. My “G. I. Cyclops” got a lot of screen time.
Set for July 2015 release, Crayola’s stop motion animation package includes an articulated figure, book with 10 characters to customize and a software application. You simply move the figure into the main positions you prefer, photograph each with your device and the motion capture app does the “tweening,” giving you smooth transitions between the moves. I was pretty amazed by the finished look based on a few simple moves.
I Am Curious (UnMellow Yellow)…
Several newly announced Crayola kits including the Cling Creator to make gummy window and mirror adornments and The Crayon Carver, an engraver that let’s kids personalize their colors of choice, will be worth your attention. Each would make an interesting “activity station” at a birthday party or family gathering, with something self created to go home with. Others like the Paint Maker and Marker Maker kits give kids a hands-on experience creating their own artist’s tools and colors. Paint Maker was TIA’s Activity Toy of the Year Winner for 2015.
As a professional photographer with a fascination for stop motion animation, the Sketch Wizard and Animation Studio are my two favorites. They hit my historical and technological sweet spots for those two disciplines.
I suggest you make the Crayola kiosk a destination next time you’re shopping to get the full experience. The company has kept the price range very moderate, with kits running from approximately $17.00 – $30.00 USD and expansion and refill packages not prohibitive.
Diamond Select Toys just unleashed a sweet treat for your Halloween bag in the form of an animated video featuring their line of Universal Monsters figures. Created by Alex Kropinak, the man behind the madness of the Marvel “What The …..?” series, the short follows a trio of Halloween candy hunters to some surprising doorways. In just over a minute we get a slew of cute vignettes of which I especially love the Metaluna Mutant conjuring up a giant candy corn on the old interocitor.
Scripted by Kropinak and DST Marketing Supervisor Zach Oat, the film nicely displays the expanded articulation of DST’s newest additions to the line, Son of Frankenstein and a beautifully revamped Creature from the Black Lagoon. It also affords a cameo appearance to their first original concept Van Helsing character. SkeletonPete Says…
Thanks to the Diamond Select gang for this excellent surprise. Having spent a healthy chunk of my early teen years creating backyard “jungle” adventures using a collection of 12 inch G.I. Joes, I’m always appreciative of a nice piece of stop motion animation like this one. The miniature sets are an inspiration for us toy photographers and Kropinak utilizes a touch of CGI for the atmospheric effects. This truly makes me pine for a proper animated version of Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree.
Word is Diamond Select will continue it’s Universal Monster line next year. A super articulated Wolfman would be awesome, but I’d be just as happy to see them do something left-of-center like a Henry Hull Werewolf of London. I’m also really curious to see what their next original creation will be.
Additionally Diamond Select will kick off their The Nightmare Before Christmas Mini-Mates series via shops participating in Halloween ComicFest, with a great Jack Skellington figure that was on display at New York Comic Con a week ago.