Stop-motion animation—where a puppet is moved by an animator and photographed frame-by-frame to create the illusion of motion—is a special-effect technique that is as old as the movies themselves, but in recent years it's been on the wane, with only a couple high-profile animators (such as Aardman Films of Wallace and Gromit and Harry Selick, director of Nightmare Before Christmas) still carrying the torch. For most animators, professional and amateur alike, digital has superseded the physical.
Even so, stop-motion animation can be used to create an effect that computer animation can not. For proof, just look at Operator. With a plot best described as Alien meets 1984 with a dash of zombie horror thrown in, Operator is one of the creepiest movies of the year. And it was all done by one filmmaker, Sam Barnett, who spent eight months playing with puppets.
The plot of Operator is relatively simple. Bob is an Orwellian drone working for Infocorp, a faceless, efficiency-obsessed megacorporation of the future. His job is to clock in every day, screwing plugs into lettered sockets according to the verbal instructions of an overhead computer, which cites him if he takes too long changing any one plug. Bob manages to get through this dehumanizing drudgery by thinking of his family, until one day, when a biomechanical parasite crawls through the sockets and tries to take over Bob's mind.
"At a basic level, I wanted to make a film that allowed people to empathize with someone who is really powerless," Barnett tells Co. Design. "Someone who is trapped in a system against which they have no defense."
Mission accomplished. The whole film is extremely unsettling, and the use of stop-motion animation to emphasize the unreal, dreamlike creepiness of the premise is very much in keeping with other, better known animators, like Czech stop-motion legend Jan Švankmajer. But it also gives animated films a tangibility they wouldn't other have, Barnett says, a fact that he took advantage of to bring to life his tale of dystopian corporate bio-horror.
"In stop-motion, everything is very specific," Barnett says. "Anything you animate is a real object that is not only full of imperfections, but a history of the things it has been through. It is very hard to create this feeling of history in 3-D."
But the technique is time-consuming. To create Operator, Barnett worked in his studio for eight hours a day for almost eight months, animating puppets that that he had made and clothed himself. These puppets have metal skeletons inside them, which allow them to hold their shape. Moving them deliberately, a quarter-inch or less at a time, Barnett animated his movie frame by frame on a set he had constructed out of metal poster board and an untold number of 1/4-inch headphone jacks. In the end, Operator cost Barnett about a dollar for every hour he spent making it, or around $1,000 total.
Asked if he was trying to make any particular statement with Operator, Barnett says ultimately he meant it to be a commentary on society today. To Barnett, the biomechanical parasite of Operator is a physical avatar for the parasitic mechanization of corporate bureaucracy. "I hope people will think about identity, and what it means when corporations become more important than the people they serve," he says. Even if that doesn't jive with you, you have to admit: Operator is certainly a memorable—and nightmare-inducing—way to make that point.