Plasticine, Wire and Patience – stop motion-animated puppet cinema x 3

An article by
Nina Widerberg, film historian writer at the Swedish Film Institute
The Burden

In Birgitta Jansson’s Semesterhemmet (‘The Vacation Resort,’ 1981) we watch a very elderly fellow in front of his lunch plate; so crooked is he, that his nose is digging among the potatoes, pushing them around. In the animated scenes in Hanna Sköld’s feature Granny’s Dancing on the Table (2016), a girl is fantasising in order not to lose her mind. In Niki Lindroth von Bahr’s The Burden (Min börda, 2017) office monkeys are singing about their desires.

Three statements on life on earth, all told through stop motion-animated puppets. If the arms, eyebrows and paws are moved just a teeny-weeny bit at the time, and a picture is taken of every new position, the finished film makes the brain think that artificial naked mole-rats can tap-dance and scrub floors.

In Semesterhemmet, a true milestone in the history of Swedish animation, a lady made out of plasticine is talking to a friend, moulded from the same material: “…we were on, you know, health food, last summer, me and Knutte were. Nine days of fasting… Lost ten pounds. Not a single cigarette… And no coffee. As soon as I got home, I rushed to the kitchen to make coffee and smoke a cigarette, and then I ate regular. The carrot juice, I’ll tell you. To this day, just the sight of grated carrots makes me want to throw up.”

Birgitta Jansson created Sweden’s first animated documentary, literally a one-woman achievement. She recorded conversations and sounds of squeaky chairs at a vacation resort for pensioners in northern Sweden where she had worked earlier, she created the old people out of clay, she built the sets by hand, she shot and she edited. The clay clock ticks and the clay porcelain rattles when coffee is served. Nothing much happens, but it is impossible to stop watching. Every detail is present: the glasses, the cardigans, the radio and the slippers, the meatballs and the beer bottle opener. Even Harry Schein, the founder of the Swedish Film Institute, is around: he can be seen sitting on the porch.

“To me, cinema is an extension of the imagination”. In Hanna Sköld‘s Granny’s Dancing on the Table, an abused young girl lives with her dad in a house in the woods. She is not permitted to have any contact with the outside world, but in her stop motion-animated inner world lives a grandmother who once travelled across the Atlantic and to America. The film has an autobiographical background and Sköld has chosen to animate those parts that are “too heavy to be carried by regular actors”. The girl gets beaten, but granny lifts her skirts and climbs up on the fully set table. The meticulous designs are lit a like real set, but with the puppets it is the other way around. Parts of the steel wire skeleton sticks out of the clay, facial features are all over the place and the hair looks like combed-back Barbie hair. Sköld wants to make the spectators co-creators, and puppets that look “like they were made by children” provide a good canvas.

Niki Lindroth von Bahr wants to “unsecure everyday life, or show how deceitful our sense of security can be”. In The Burden the puppets are not humans, instead they are dressed animals: fish, rats, monkeys and a dog. The fish stand on their tail fins and the other characters are on two legs. They are also dancing, for The Burden is a musical. When the darkness has fallen over the highway mall, the workers in the desolate buildings sing songs that become one. The buildings, the puppets and the objects are made with infinite care; in the storehouse and in the long-term hotel, at the hamburger restaurant and the monkey office the potato chip bags, the fish eyes, the cleaning carts and the sweaters are unbelievably realistic. The animals, so far removed from their own natural habitat, behave like us; a lonely fish has skin problems, rats wipe away ketchup stains and mops up spilled soda, monkeys with headsets are hustling people for money and a shop dog fills up mile-long shelves with food items. Everything looks very familiar – in fact, so familiar that you get a bit worried.

Making a stop motion-animated puppet movie is an incredibly exhausting way of expression. It requires guts to embark on a project that will take years to create, frame by frame, something that will make the spectators sharpen their eyes to the fullest. A film where you see how it is done. When it succeeds, there is nothing else quite like it.

(originally published in Swedish in December 2017)

Stop motion-animated puppet cinema x 3 (+ 2)

  • In Bristol, Aardman Animations' Lord and Sproxton work with "found sound" for BBC and in Östersund, Birgitta Jansson creates Sweden's first animated documentary, a masterwork in which she combines recorded vacuum cleaning and midday coffee sounds with old folks created out of clay, at the pace of one frame at the time.

  • A young girl cut off from the outside reality and beaten by her father imagines her wild grandmother. In the animated sections of this live action feature, director Hanna Sköld channels her own experiences into puppets that look like "they were made by children".

  • Humorous lamentations performed though song and dance by stop motion-animated animals in an afterhours shopping mall setting. Niki Lindroth von Bahr's multi-awarded musical, where every hamburger menu is in its right place, took several years to make.

  • Two heavily pregnant stop motion moms who do not feel like changing diapers perform auto-erotic activities and make out with each other in front of a Sphynx cat. The narrator, a child dressed in an animal pyjama, informs the spectators that moms, too, are allowed to "slut around" from time to time.

  • Plasticine basketball star skilfully dribbles around a jerk who then gets even by pulling down her trousers in front of the whole school yard. No one helps her but when she gets the courage to go back to school, all her friends are rooting for her.

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