When you hear the words stop-motion animation, your mind may go to that 1964 Christmas classic “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”. If you’re a child of the 80s, maybe The California Raisins ring a bell?
In more recent years, feature length stop-motion animation films like “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Coraline,” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox” have gained wide audiences for the animation style. But it’s actually an art form that dates back to the late 1880s. The first documented stop-motion animated film was “The Humpty Dumpty Circus.” which followed a day in the life of a toy circus. Just a few decades later, animators like Willis O’Brien were using stop-motion techniques in box-office hits like 1933′s “King Kong.”
It’s an art form that grabbed the attention of Tewodross Melchishua Williams at a young age. Melchishua Williams is a filmmaker, animator and visual artist who chairs the Department of Fine & Performing Arts at Bowie State University in Prince George’s County, Maryland.
“It really started off when I was about 6 or 7, having this love of puppetry and special effects and all things that are moving,” Melchishua Williams said. “There was a great interest with artists like Ray Harryhausen and all of the great pioneers with stop-motion animation — your King Kongs and Godzillas — where [they] didn’t have all the great digital technology, so a lot of it was done through miniatures and stop-motion animation to recreate those creatures.”
For the past 18 years, Melchishua Williams has been teaching visual communication and digital media at Bowie State, but had never had the opportunity to incorporate stop-motion animation into the curriculum. That is, until now.
Melchishua Williams has recently created a new course at Bowie State called “Stop-Motion and Experimental Animation,” a hands-on studio course that “focuses on stop-motion and experimental animation, as well as the genres of replacement animation, pixilation, puppet, paper, cut-out, object animation, motion graphics and visual effects.”
The course is currently in the review process, but the hope is to have it up and running by next spring, once their first-of-its-kind, stop-motion animation studio is done. And that is where a company 2,800 miles away comes in.
Enter Oregon animation studio LAIKA, which is best known for award winning films like “Kubo and the Two Strings,” “Missing Link,” and “Coraline.”
“We were definitely looking specifically to expand our outreach,” said Arianne Sutner, the head of production at LAIKA. “We have been always trying to diversify and that means looking at all corners of the world to try to find talent.”
Initially, the studio had reached out to the Career Development Center at Bowie State to discuss internship opportunities, with the goal of providing a career pathway for students into the animation industry.
But Melchishua Williams saw this as an opportunity to go one step further, asking to expand the collaboration to include more than just internships. The university had a green screen studio, but it was largely unused.
“We’ve got a green screen studio that’s sitting, collecting dust. Maybe we can use it as a stop-motion studio?” Melchishua Williams said. “And so we started talking more about curriculum and courses, and then the conversation kind of led into the studio.”
Funding from LAIKA will go to new equipment, software and upgrades to the current green-screen studio to build the nation’s first stop-motion animation studio at a historically Black college or university. Bowie State was recently recognized as having one of the nation’s top HBCU art programs, and their animation and motion graphics concentration is one of the university’s fastest-growing majors.
The choice for LAIKA to reach out specifically to Bowie State was not by chance. Not only are animation curriculums a niche concentration for some schools, stop-motion animation specifically is time consuming and intense. It can take weeks to produce just a few seconds of animation. A feature length film can take years, if not a decade. So Melchishua Williams’ interest was key.
And picking Bowie State, one of the oldest HBCU’s in the county, for the collaboration was also intentional for LAIKA.
Animation, and the entertainment industry in general, has historically been very white. Of course Black animators have existed since the artform started. Notable legendary artists include Frank C. Braxton, Jr., who is often referred to as animation’s Jackie Robinson, and Floyd Norman, who was the first Black animator at Disney and contributed to classics like “Sleeping Beauty,” “The Jungle Book” and “Mulan.”
But the chance for Black artists to tell their own stories is a much more recent experience.
“For years, decades even, we’ve known that there’s an audience for this type of material, but we’ve just never been able to get our foot in the door,” said Ronald Palmer, a senior at Bowie State University, majoring in visual communication and digital media arts with a concentration in animation and motion graphics.
As a Black creator, Palmer said he’s already seeing a shift in the industry.
“People are starting to crave to hear my voice and my vision,” Palmer said. “You can see examples, like Ian Jones Quartey with “Okay. K.O.!,” a Black creator putting his work out there. And things like “The Proud Family” is coming back.”
Palmer is just months away from graduating, so he won’t get to be part of the stop-motion concentration at BSU, but he understands the impact it will have.
“For future students, that’s going to give them a whole new medium of animation to explore,” Palmer said. “We’re seeing a call for voices from marginalized and underrepresented groups, LGBTQ, women, Black. It’s a very, very excellent time to be a Black creator in this field.”
And by this time next year, Black creators at Bowie State will have one more medium to share their stories.