Brad Schiff | Animation as a Social Act

schiff 75“A lot of animators, especially CG animators, I find are a little bit more introverted. Stop-mo, we’re a slightly different breed, you know?”




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Picture a stop-motion animation feature film. You’re probably thinking of something Tim Burton’s been affiliated with in the past 20 or so years: The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Corpse Bride, Frankenweenie. Now picture a stop-motion animator. You’re probably imagining someone who looks pretty much like Tim Burton, right? Dark and arty and not predisposed to dealing with people. Now stick them in front of a large crowd for a speaking gig, and put yourself in their shoes.

“A lot of animators, especially CG animators, I find are a little bit more introverted. Stop-mo, we’re a slightly different breed, you know? It’s because we’re out on sets all day, working with a team of people.” So says native St. Louisan Brad Schiff, one of a very small number of Americans who has successfully made a career of stop-motion animation, and who is coming to town on Saturday for an event with SLIFF/Kids. Then he laughs and says, “I don’t really like [public speaking]. It makes me nervous… If I said I was comfortable onstage in front of people or in front of a camera, I’d be lying.”

But then, there he is, if you watch the special features on the Criterion Collection release of Fantastic Mr. Fox, on camera in behind-the-scenes footage, talking to Wes Anderson and working on the Whack Bat sequence, about which Anderson says on the commentary track that Schiff is the only person who knows exactly how Whack Bat is played. “We [Anderson and Schiff] had to invent this game together… Some of the action was based on what looked good, and some of it was based on coming up with rules to the game. So that was pretty cool; that’s one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had as an animator.”

schiff-500The reason why Schiff is on camera in those special features, at least in part, is because it’s a lot more visually interesting to watch a stop-motion animator at work than it is to watch a traditional, hand-drawn animator or a computer animator. Stop-motion animators tend to look like they’re playing with toys. It appears to be a lot more fun than laboring over a drawing board for years on end, though stop-motion is hardly less or easier work; it’s just different, is all. Again regarding the Whack Bat sequence: “The characters in the wide shots of the actual game are 2 inches tall, and there are 13 of them running around. I have a picture of me on set and I just have this look of utter frustration on my face.” That sounds more in line with how I imagine stop-motion animators.

But really, Schiff seems to be a pretty regular guy; both from my speaking to him and the footage of him animating I could drudge up, he looks more or less like any other St. Louisan (which I don’t mean as an insult), and not like the super arty goth dude one might expect to have worked on The Corpse Bride, ParaNorman, and Coraline. (He did not work on The Nightmare Before Christmas nor Frankenweenie, however, the former because it was before his time, the latter because he was off on other projects.) He went to Parkway West High School, and still makes a point to hit an Imo’s while he’s in town. It also just so happens that he’s worked with some of our most cultishly adored modern film directors.

Things weren’t always this way. At the time Schiff was in grad school at NYU, stop-motion animation wasn’t much of a thing; even now, in the wake of Nightmare Before Christmas’s (eventual) success, you see stop-motion a lot less often than traditional or computer animation. “It was a terrible idea to get into stop-motion, when I go back and think about it, but it turned out really fantastic. What a ridiculous thing!” It boggles the mind that it even occurred to Schiff to pursue it the first place, as stop-motion animators didn’t exist on any recognizable level when he first got into the field. “I had a friend that was taking these animation classes, and he wasn’t the most talented artist, but he was doing these really cool films. He had an instructor there who had a philosophy that ‘You don’t have to draw great to animate great,’ and I found that fascinating, as someone who’s self-conscious about their drawing abilities… Because of my insecurities with drawing, I kind of latched onto sculpting.” The hardest part, making the leap from St. Louis to a major studio (he briefly returned here after finishing school), went down like this: “Nobody’s going to fly anybody out from somewhere else in the country unless you’re super hot talented and have been doing it for a while; I soon realized that I should move to where the work is. So I moved to San Francisco, I kept sending stuff out, I worked at Burlington Coat Factory, I worked at Bank of America… It was three years really before I got my first really big gig, which had me back in New York on Celebrity Deathmatch.”

As for what attendees of his SLIFF/Kids event can expect, Schiff tells me that he’ll “talk a little bit about how I got into the business; I’ll talk a little bit about our studio, LAIKA, and the type of animation we do; I’ll have a couple puppets with me that I can show off that I might save until the Q&A afterwards to entice people to stick around after the screening.” It’s a rare treat to meet someone who’s made it in as specific and underused a field as stop-motion animation, and more so because of the inherent charm of the work; it’s great fun to watch the films, and it’s great fun to watch how they animate them. I guess we’ll have to see if it’s as satisfying to hear the animators talk about their craft, but if my interview with Schiff is anything to go by, that isn’t anything to worry about. | Pete Timmermann

Brad Schiff will be appearing at COCA in the Loop alongside a screening of
ParaNorman at 7 p.m. on August 2. The event is free, and recommended for ages 8 and up. Visit the Cinema St. Louis website for more information.

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