Sundance opening night pick spotlights animation tech

The digital world meets one of the oldest film forms in the clay animation film <i>Mary and Max</i>, chosen to kick off Robert Redford's annual film festival in January.

Michelle Meyers
Michelle Meyers wrote and edited CNET News stories from 2005 to 2020 and is now a contributor to CNET.
Michelle Meyers
3 min read

The Sundance Institute's decision to open its upcoming film festival with a clay animation flick shines a light on one of the oldest forms of filmmaking--molded with a modern day twist.

Robert Redford's film institute last week announced that the opening night film at its annual festival in January will be Mary and Max, a feature-length movie directed by Australian animator Adam Elliot and produced by Melanie Coombs of Melodrama Pictures. Elliot and Coombs' 2004 Sundance film, Harvie Krumpet, went on to win the Academy Award for best-animated short film.

Mary and Max promo
A promo from 'Mary and Max'

Mary and Max, narrated by Barry Humphries, is described as the tale of two unlikely pen pals: Mary, played by Toni Collette, a lonely 8-year-old girl living in the Melbourne suburbs, and Max, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, a 44-year-old severely obese New Yorker with Asperger's syndrome.

The film also has an interesting off-screen story related to technological innovations that have helped bring an old-school laborious, time-consuming filmmaking technique--stop motion animation--into the digital age.

That story starts with a 2 1/2-person Melbourne-based software company called Stop Motion Pro, which launched about eight years ago out of a water-cooler conversation. Company founder Paul Howell showed his colleague Ross Garner, a self-described "backroom boffin," the stop-motion film he had made over the weekend.

In stop-motion, or frame-by-frame animation, an object is physically manipulated by small amounts between individually photographed frames. When the frames are played as a consecutive sequence, it creates the illusion of movement. The technique is very different from computer-generated animation--used in films like Toy Story or Shrek--in which you actually create the animation in the computer itself.

The historical challenge, however, prior to digital formats, has been that stop-motion animators would make all their movements without getting any feedback until the film was sent off to the lab, processed, and returned, sometimes over a matter of days. "You wouldn't know whether you moved the model too much, too little, or whether you had knocked it by accident," Garner said.

Recognizing that problem and realizing that there was no related software on the market, Garner and Howell decided to write their own.

"With Stop Motion Pro, we control the computers," Garner said, explaining that every shot gets recorded into the computer and can be viewed immediately. "So if you've made a mistake or moved too fast, you can see it instantly."

7-step process
Stop Motion Pro's animation software was used to make the latest Wallace and Gromit movie, scheduled for release on Boxing Day. Stop Motion Pro

The software (ranging in price from $70 to $1,800 a copy) quickly captured the attention not only of the likes of Aardman Animations, which used Stop Motion Pro in its newest Wallace and Gromit film coming out on Boxing Day, but also of educators and hobbyists.

"What we've created with our product is within two minutes, anyone from 5 years old to 85 years old can create an animated film," Garners said, excited about creating a tool that helps people exploit their creativity. "That works for people like Adam Elliot, who are making spectacular films like Mary and Max, but also applies to the 6-year-old who gets a tremendous amount of joy out of making animated films."

Stop Motion Pro's  Ross Garner, left,  and Paul Howell on set with Mary and Maxdirector Adam Elliot.
Stop Motion Pro's Ross Garner, left, and Paul Howell on set with Mary and Max director Adam Elliot. Stop Motion Pro

Mary and Max was filmed using the most recent version of Stop Motion Pro along with the latest generation Canon Digital SLR still image cameras, which capture RAW images in a a 4K motion-picture resolution.

Once captured, the images were then processed using software from Australia-based XDT. They then went through a post-production content management system specifically written for Mary and Max.

The Sundance Film Festival, celebrating its 25th year, will take place from January 15 to 25 in Park City, Utah, and CNET News will be there covering it with an eye for technology. The rest of the festival program lineup will be announced on December 3 and 4.