Past and Present
In the mid-20th century, clay animation became synonymous with the work of Art Clokey, the pioneer behind children’s TV characters like the happy-go-lucky Gumby as well as pious Davey and his talking dog, Goliath. But the clay monsters rampaging across drive-in movie screens proved stop-motion animation could have a dark side. This map traces this herky-jerky tradition all the way to Doug TenNapel’s video game The Neverhood and the head-rolling, teeth-gnashing creations of Tim Burton.
Before the 1960s, stop-motion animation was used mostly for special effects by pioneers like Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen, the talent behind the films King Kong and Jason and the Argonauts, respectively. Then along came Art Clokey, Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass, who took the craft in a more colorful, storybook direction. Clokey’s children’s TV programs The Gumby Show and Davey and Goliath had earned a massive following. His style of animating with modeling clay became known as Claymation, a term later patented by animator Will Vinton. Around the same time, Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass, using the Pal-Doll (Puppetoons in the USA) stop-motion techniques developed by Hungarian-born film producer George Pal, created a new style: Animagic. Though often confused with Claymation, Animagic uses freestanding puppets with flexible wire skeletons and exteriors decorated with everything from fabric to fur. Rankin and Bass are most famous for uplifting Christmas specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, but they also produced Mad Monster Party?, a spooky movie about a haunted house and its residents (voiced by Phyllis Diller and Frankenstein’s Boris Karloff), which has become a cult classic among Halloween fanatics.
Gumby possesses numerous admirable qualities: He is generous, humble and steadfast in the face of adversity. He’s so good, in fact, that for comedian Eddie Murphy, he begged to be satirized. In the 1980s Murphy donned a foam rubber suit and portrayed Gumby in a recurring sketch on Saturday Night Live, reimagining the beloved icon as an egotistical, entitled old-Hollywood celebrity. Murphy’s parody became famous for the catchphrase “I’m Gumby, dammit!” Gumby creator Art Clokey, according to his son, thought Murphy’s portrayal was hilarious and called it “the anti-Gumby.”
In SNL’s “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood” sketches, Murphy turned another classic kids’ TV show on its head with his gritty version of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. A decade later Murphy revisited many of the same themes in The PJs, the animated series he created about an inner-city housing project, where issues of social inequality were made more palatable with the use of large-headed clay characters. The show was produced by Vinton Studios, a company founded by the iconic animator Will Vinton (“The Little Prince,” The Adventures of Mark Twain, the California Raisins), who had been influenced by Clokey’s work.
Doug TenNapel created and animated Earthworm Jim, a cartoon series that for those who grew up in the 1990s was as iconic as The Gumby Show was for their parents. After animator Art Clokey’s death, TenNapel blogged, “Art was one of the guys I modeled my own career after,” explaining that he admired Clokey’s ability to make fine art that also served a commercial purpose, “even when selling his services to the Lutheran Church to make Davey and Goliath religious shorts,…a religion that was not his own, by the way. Clokey was more an Eastern mystic than a Lutheran.”
In 1996 TenNapel mixed spiritualism with commercialism in The Neverhood, a computer adventure game in which the player physically and morally steers a Gumby-like innocent named Klaymen through a clay-animated landscape complete with its own mythology and laws of physics. TenNapel created an entire world out of three tons of clay. “We ended up kind of losing ourselves in the word clay and the medium of it; we surrounded ourselves with it,” he recalls. “I’d never been so intimate with a medium.” Clokey described that same intimacy: “It comes through the heart and the hands, and it gets into the figures.”
After making their name animating Christmas crowd-pleasers, Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass decided to apply their Animagic to the Halloween-y world of Mad Monster Party? This shift of focus weirdly resembles the plot of Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas, in which the ghoulish residents of Halloween Town commandeer the world’s Christmas festivities for a year. Coincidence? Not where Burton is concerned. The filmmaker and animator (he was working at Disney when he hatched the idea for Nightmare) cites the Halloween feature as a major influence on his work. Mad Monster Party?, which remains much less known than Rankin and Bass’s annually rebroadcast Christmas specials, was screened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art as part of its Burton retrospective.
Both The Nightmare Before Christmas and Mad Monster Party? feature a motley cast of classic horror-movie staples—like vampires, reanimated corpses, goblins and skeletons, all fitted with oversize heads and goofy expressions suitable for children—while maintaining a creepy color palette and morbid sense of humor for the amusement of adult audiences. Fans have also likened the song “Stay One Step Ahead” from Mad Monster Party? to the underworldly musical number “Remains of the Day” in Burton’s Corpse Bride.
Like the miniature sets in which its posable figures are filmed, the world of stop-motion animation is tiny. The process requires a combination of experience in animation, costuming and set design, and the same talent will often work for several different companies. Christmas specialists Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass, for example, shared animators with Art Clokey’s teams for The Gumby Show and Davey and Goliath. Later, art director Nelson Lowry worked on The PJs and Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, two contemporary Claymation classics. (Lowry also served as production designer for Wes Anderson’s film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s novel Fantastic Mr. Fox, which utilized an animation method similar to Rankin and Bass’s puppet-based Animagic.) Lowry’s detailed sets and costumes bring a degree of realism that conveys an atmosphere, often a darkly humorous one, before a line of dialogue is ever spoken. Sewer slime or a cockroach infestation in The PJs is every bit as disquieting as the rotting flesh of Burton’s corpse bride. Whether depicting an inner-city housing project or Gothic Europe, Lowry’s sets are designed to disturb the audience just enough so that they might also laugh.
Much like the multitalented Tim Burton, illustrator, writer and animator Doug TenNapel has devoted his life to telling weird stories. The two have garnered consistent comparisons, especially after the publication of TenNapel’s graphic novel Ghostopolis, about a journey to the afterlife (see: Beetlejuice, Corpse Bride) (see also: Skinny the bone horse’s resemblance to Jack Skellington’s bone reindeer). Some fans think Ghostopolis should be Burton’s next movie. TenNapel protests the comparisons. “I wanted to get away from the skater-pop iconography that came from Tim Burton and German expressionism,” he says. “Instead of the usual glowing purples, blacks and striped shirts, I wanted a more natural, classic-literature feel to the environments.”
Even so, the two share a vast imagination, dark sense of humor and deep love of Claymation. When talking about his video game The Neverhood, TenNapel described the magic of the medium: “I came home every day with clay under my fingernails, and it felt funny if I didn’t work with it every day.”
“It’s a funky old art form, stop-motion,” Burton agrees. “There’s something very gratifying about that, something I love and never want to forget. It’s the handmade aspect of things, part of an energy that you can’t explain.”
The 1980s and ’90s gave rise to a massive Gumby revival, which, as Henry Selick, director of Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas, explained, “attracted a lot of young stop-motion animators to California. Many of the animators for Nightmare Before Christmas came from that group.”
Burton shared not only animators with Gumby, Pokey and pals creator Art Clokey, but a way of thinking about art and life. After the premiere of the short film “Vincent,” his first foray into Claymation, Burton was hooked on the medium. As he says in the book Burton on Burton, “There’s an energy with stop-motion that you can’t even describe. It’s got to do with giving things life.... To give life to something that doesn’t have it is cool, and even more so in three dimensions, because, at least for me, it feels even more real.” What sounds Frankensteinian from Burton sounds like apotheosis coming from Clokey: “When we started doing Gumby, we felt like gods. We had these little clay figures that we brought to life. When we’d see it on the screen, we’d say, ‘My goodness, I created that life.’”