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“It’s a slow, rhythmic process, and very gradually this thing comes alive” – Director Robert Morgan Talks Stopmotion

6 min read
A scene from Stopmotion

Image: IFC Films/Shudder

After delighting and terrifying horror audiences across the festival circuit, Rober Morgan's part-animated nightmare Stopmotion has come to Shudder. The surreal tale follows Ella (Aisling Franciosi), a stop-motion artist forced to continue the work of her mother when she becomes ill. After meeting a mysterious young girl, she changed the direction of the project and soon the lines between reality and the fictitious tale become blurred.

Stopmotion is a spine-chilling love letter to the intricate craft of stop-motion, blending traditional acting methods and stop-motion animation into not one, but two terrifying films. As the film comes to the UK streaming platform, FILMHOUNDS chats to Morgan about balancing two filming schedules, bringing his vision to life, and the art of animation.

is now available on Shudder for UK viewers. Can you tell me what inspired the film?

I'm a stop-motion animator so that's, that's where the idea came from. I've made many short films, and I always felt like the process of stop-motion animation itself was quite an interesting process. I've never seen a stop-motion animation depicted onscreen as a vocation, so that was the original idea. Then the other thing that merged with that was, basically, when you work with puppets, what can sometimes happen is this strange, uncanny thing that the puppet seems to come alive. I had been making this short film where I had the sensation that the characters had their own agenda. So those two things merged together. It's exhilarating when you're working on any piece of art, and it starts to feel like it's coming alive. It's like you're you're not necessarily completely in control of it. That's kind of an exciting place to be, but it can also be a little bit scary.

As a stop-motion artist, what to you is important when it comes to bringing stop-motion characters to life?

I hate to say the cliche thing, but it is the magic of animation. It's just an amazing thing when you've got a talented animator who's bringing it to life. I never tire of just that strange magic that you get when you've been moving this object one frame at a time, and then you watch it back and it has the appearance of life, movement and agency. It's also partly down to the story because the intention was to put you completely within Ella's head. She's in every single scene in the film, so nothing happens in the film without her and experiencing everything through her. And for Ella, there is no difference between the material for her film and the humans in her life. In fact, those things become blurred as the film goes on. The puppets become more real to her than the people around her, and the people become less real and start squeaking like they've got armatures inside them. So it's like the exterior world is slowly disappearing and the inner world of her animation is becoming increasingly real.

The stop-motion animation itself in the film is beautiful and so haunting. How did you achieve the look of the characters?

I've been making films for 20 years with characters that look like that, so that's just what I do. So it wasn't specifically for this film, but I suppose it was informed by the story, which is that she's making the characters out of increasingly visceral materials. And the way that she's making them is almost in blackouts where she's not even sure how she did it, so they had to be very crude. I didn't want them to be too designed and too slick. They had to feel like they'd been made very roughly and crudely out of the raw materials.

I read that some stop-motion animators do use materials such as raw meat for their figures – just like in the film. Is that true?

It depends on the filmmaker. Jan Švankmajer used raw meat for objects, and Ladislaw Starewicz used taxidermy animals and dead insects. If you can touch it and move it, you can animate it. Every material that you can imagine has been animated at some point by somebody. Using macabre material lent itself to this story. And there is an uncanniness of stop-motion animation, where it does feel like you're bringing dead things to life. So there's a Frankenstein quality to it.

Stopmotion is very much a film within a film. What was that like to navigate as a director?

We did the live-action shoot first and then all of the bits where stop-motion characters are interacting with live-action characters. They all had to be shot at the same time as the live-action stuff because we had to line the plates up. Then all the stuff on a laptop screen and all the stuff where it goes full-screen animation, I did that later on myself basically in my lounge while we were editing the film. And that gave me an opportunity to allow the main film to inform the film within the film. I could see which bits needed to be more punchy or scarier, so it helped me. We were originally going to have a second unit for shooting all the animation at the same time as the live-action with me running back and forth between them, but it became too complicated to do it that way.

The tension in the film never falters until the final scenes where it really ramps up. How did you achieve that?

It was always the intention to make a slow-burn film. The idea was to start in a kind of reality where you feel like, “Okay, this is real, and that's not real”, and there's a separation between the animation and the live-action. And then as the film progresses very, very, very slowly, those lines dissolve. And so you go into a kind of a psychosis with Ella. I think that's partly how the tension works. We worked hard in the script to create a rhythm where reality and fantasy slowly start to merge. It's also mimicking the structure of how you do stop-motion animation. It's a slow, rhythmic process, and very gradually this thing comes alive. And so Stopmotion was always going to be a slow, introspective process. And you're and you're watching.

Aisling's performance helps that as well. It's just putting you in her head as much as possible so that you're with her when reality starts to blur. And like you would be in that situation, you don't necessarily have the answers as to why this stuff bombards you. We very carefully wanted to remove information from it and make as elusive as possible, because Ella wouldn't understand.

Aisling Franciosi is fantastic as Ella in the film. How did she get involved with the project?

I didn't have anyone particularly in mind when we wrote it, but I had a very short list of people who I thought could do it, and Aisling was one of them. Because I knew that she was going to be carrying the whole film on her shoulders, it had to be somebody special. Somebody who could hit all of the notes. I knew from seeing her previous work that she could do the quiet and perspective stuff. When you watch her, you can see what she's thinking. And then when Ella becomes violent at the end, I knew Aisling could definitely do that. She's just incredibly intense on screen. We sent her the script and she responded to it so brilliantly and just totally got it. Not from an animation perspective, but from an acting perspective and the pain of trying to live a creative life and how soul-destroying that can be sometimes.

The mythology of the ash man in Stopmotion is fascinating and frightening. What inspired the concept of the antagonist?

When I was first starting to write the script with Robin King, my co-writer, there were a bunch of things I already had. I knew it would include a stop-motion animator, the little girl character, and I had her moving into a flat that's not her own to make this film. I didn't know how it all fitted together, but I had it as it popped into my head. I also had this scene where one night, someone comes into the building, knocks on the door, she looks through the keyhole, and there's an eye pressed up against it.  I thought that was scary, and so when we were writing the script, these random fragments helped create the bigger picture that we were working on. The way that he looks comes out of the logic of the story. She's making stuff out of meat, wax, dirt, and twigs, so we wanted a monster that was rough, dirty, and crude. I feel like too many monsters nowadays and horror films are too polished and designed.

Stopmotion is available to stream now on Shudder UK