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A Full-Circle Artist Effect: Black-and-White Animation

When The Artist arrived on screens last year, it spawned a revived interest in black-and-white and silent film screenings at local arthouse theaters and film festivals. The Oscar-winning love story seems also to have had a longer-reaching creative influence on movies coming out this fall. The arrival of two animated films in particular—Disney Animation Studios's upcoming short, Paperman (above), due November 2, and Tim Burton's stop-motion Frankenweenie—recall elements of The Artist's plot, referential storytelling techniques and old-school, black-and-white style.

In Frankenweenie's latest trailer, released in June, Burton's homegrown style is clearly on display. But he also borrows enough of The Artist's primary motifs (themselves borrowed from the films of Billy Wilder, Orson Welles and too many silent and romantic comedies to mention) to warrant a knowing nod. A flickering screening room scene? Check. A madcap dog chase? Check. A sweet but quirky love story? Check.

Less is known about Paperman, save for a few published stills and concept art and its archetypal, classic film plot line. According to IMDB, the short "follows the story of a lonely young man in mid-century New York City, whose destiny takes an unexpected turn after a chance meeting with a beautiful woman on his morning commute." The film's narrative rests on what he does with mounds of office paper to get her attention.

Beyond the stylistic references, this silent film/Artist effect on animation is actually a return to the source. Today's stop-motion animation is a direct descendant of techniques used by Georges Méliès in his 1902 film A Trip to the Moon (both lionized by Martin Scorsese in Hugo). Animators, starting with Walt Disney himself, have long been influenced by the stars of silent films, finding poetry in the syncopated set pieces of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. (For more about Disney's often forgotten silent animations, see Russell Merritt and J.B. Kaufman's Walt in Wonderland: The Silent Films of Walt Disney.) The slapstick and exaggerated visual comedy of silent films, which took a backseat to verbal fireworks when sound arrived, became the core of Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett and Friz Freleng's Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons for Warner Bros., Hanna-Barbera's Tom and Jerry and the work of Tex Avery ("Red Hot Riding Hood") at MGM.

In Burton's case, of course, the love of old films and a black-and-white palette run deep. His first short, Vincent, is an homage to Vincent Price and the films he inhabited on the big and small screen for so long. (Price narrates, one-upping Boris Karloff's rhyming couplets in How the Grinch Stole Christmas!)

A pastiche of Edgar Allan Poe and Vincent Price references (with more than a bit of Grinch mixed in), Vincent spawned the plot of Burton's next film, Frankenweenie, a live-action featurette that, after the syrupy, pre-credits Disney open, owes as much to David Lynch's Eraserhead as it does to James Whale's original 1931 Frankenstein. The 1984 cult classic (watch it in full below) allegedly got Burton fired from Disney. Executives found it too disturbing, but there is so much to like about this story of a boy and his dog. The brilliant casting of Shelley Duvall and Daniel Stern helps nudge it nicely off-center, and the jumper cable closer feels like it's straight out of American Graffiti.
 

Many of Burton's later films, namely Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride, can be traced directly back to Vincent. From the looks of the new Frankenweenie trailer, that film is embedded with Vincent's DNA as well. I think The Artist is in there, too. Maybe Burton's own backward glance on his long career played a part. Or maybe we're all too in love with meta-moviemaking, everything new just the sum of their self-referential parts. Whatever the reason, a seemingly sweeter, more widely appealing, feature-length retelling of Frankenweenie, awash in nostalgia, will arrive in theaters this fall. If we're lucky, the original Frankenweenie's off-center sensibility won't get lost in translation. Those at Fantastic Fest in Austin will find out during a sneak peek on September 20.
 

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