I have been a fan of stop-motion animation for as long as I can remember. The magical quality of inanimate objects coming to life—sometimes smoothly, sometimes with an endearing imperfection—continues to fascinate me. I have always been amazed at just how much time, work, and dedication goes into stop-motion animation; it has to be one of the slowest animation mediums, but also has the potential for huge, satisfying payoffs.
I believe my earliest encounter with it was the intermittent Claymation bits on Sesame Street (most of these created by Claymation pioneer/legend Will Vinton), such as the catchy tune “Lucille” which featured a shape-changing orange ball with bright red lips.
Not long after, I discovered the thirty-minute television special The California Raisins: Meet the Raisins!, as well as Will Vinton’s Claymation Christmas, both of which I recorded from TV onto a VHS tape the soonest chance I got (these were both on frequent rotation on The Disney Channel, as I recall). I didn’t see the second California Raisins special (or even realize it existed) until two years ago when I purchased both on a combo DVD (which also included the 13-episode season of the California Raisins traditionally-animated show, which is decent, but only if you’ve had a lot to drink). Unfortunately, The Raisins Sell Out! is nowhere near as clever as the first special; the jokes are juvenile and the animation feels slapped together. Will Vinton’s work since then has been hit or miss as far as stories go (The Adventures of Mark Twain has its moments but is largely hard to sit through), but his style and the quality of his animation are second to none.
My love for Claymation continued with the discovery of Wallace and Gromit (the first three shorts, primarily), The Nightmare Before Christmas (a film my mother was strongly opposed to), James and the Giant Peach (which is stop-motion blended with CGI), the horribly-creepy-how-can-they-call-this-a-children’s-movie Return to OZ (the Nome King sequence is damn impressive), and the obligatory Rankin Bass productions (Rudolph, Santa Clause is Comin’ to Town, and the delightfully trippy Rudolph’s Shiny New Year).
As a ten- or eleven-year-old with conservative parents, I would secretly tape episodes of Celebrity Deathmatch from TV and watch them at night in my room; I found these equally fascinating and gross.
Several years ago, I Google-hunted for every stop-motion feature or short film that I could find, many of which were from foreign directors and obscure, and I gobbled up every one of them that I could get ahold of. Some of the more notable ones were Blood Tea & Red String (a bizarre feature-length with creepy rats and no dialogue. It took the director, Christiane Cegavske, thirteen years to complete, and she did all the animation herself), The Book of the Dead (which is impressive but not altogether interesting), Mary & Max (a sweet and humorous comedy from New Zealand), $9.99, and Jan Švankmajer’s Alice (a mixed live-action/animated surrealist take on Alice in Wonderland). More recently, I very much enjoyed Wes Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox, a film I watch at least once a year.
Earlier this year, I was going down some YouTube rabbit-hole or another (probably the ten best villain deaths, the best one-liners from Schwarzenegger, or something equally as absurd) when I happened upon a video called Claycat’s Evil Dead II; a two-minute Claymation film with crudely-modeled cats acting out Sam Raimi’s film in rapid time. I was mesmerized, and immediately went to the creator’s page—Mr. Lee Hardcastle, a twenty-nine year old writer, director, and animator from the UK—subscribed to his videos, then watched another handful of his films (by this point I’ve watched them all, most more than once).
Lee Hardcastle began doing Claymation full time in 2010 after online success with his video The Evil Dead in 60 Seconds with Clay. In 2011, he sold all his belongings to support an unpaid career in creating short films, some of which screened at Cannes Film Festival. His short T is for Toilet won a spot in the feature film The ABC’s of Death, and the sequel, Ghost Burger, is Lee’s longest film to date at 22 minutes (currently available for HD download at Vimeo OnDemand. I highly recommend). He has gone on to work with Momentum Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Adult Swim, E4, as well as the bands Kill the Noise (for which he won MTV’s Video of the Year), Portugal. The Man, and Sufjan Stevens. His fan-film Claycat’s The Raid was included on the DVD release of the actual film.
Lee has managed to blend the gore, humor, and over-the-top element of 1980’s horror and exploitation films with the vibrant medium of clay animation. It’s a strange sensation, seeing a figure have his eyes forced out and his face crumpled inward, or a man vomiting his innards onto a birthday cake—the most violent, bloody things imaginable, basically—and not feeling too sick to your stomach about it because, after all, it’s just clay. Lee’s early videos are good, but he has clearly continued to hone his craft over time, and his most recent films are masterful. The handmade quality is still apparent, but there is nothing lo-fi about his work. In addition to his skillful hands—Lee animates all of the films himself—he is also a talented storyteller (again, Ghost Burger).
In early 2014, Lee created a mock-trailer and launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund his full-length, 3D feature film, Spook Train. The trailer itself is gorgeous, and makes one giddy with excitement to see the full film; it is a colorful and terrifying teaser in all the right ways. But alas, the campaign was unsuccessful. Lee explained that a film as ambitious as Spook Train would take him at least two years to complete, and he would need enough funds to live off of during that time, not to mention the many production and distribution costs. Lee’s YouTube page has 136,414 subscribers (as of July 3, 2014), and some of his videos have gone into the millions of views, so one would think that he could easily reach the £40,000 needed to fund the film (he ended up reaching a little over £12,000). I guess his subscribers aren’t so loyal after all.
It’s up in the air as to whether Spook Train will ever get made, but in the meantime you can subscribe to the Spook Train Newsletter for updates.
So why all the info about Lee? Because he’s a damn genius (I would say he’s a f*cking genius but someone might get upset), and you need to absorb his entire YouTube channel into your eyeballs. Lee Hardcastle has created a genre all his own, and his work deserves to be seen and appreciated by even more people. This isn’t some gimmicky YouTube user who posts funny but pointless talking-head features of themselves complaining about celebrities or showing girls how to utilize their make-up and somehow gaining thousands of subscribers; this is one hard-working dude with some serious talent and dedication. His claymations are darkly humorous, unbelievably violent, and completely brilliant.
Oh yes, and they’re not for children.
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My personal favorites are:
Now go watch some stop-motion.