LOS ANGELES — The Pirate Captain, the lead swashbuckler voiced by Hugh Grant in the new stop-motion animated film "The Pirates! Band of Misfits," possesses an overweening sense of optimism and some spectacular facial hair. It was the latter — a dense nest of curlicues that the character repeatedly refers to as his "luxuriant beard" — that kept the filmmakers up at night. Model makers labored for months to find a natural way to animate the rubber whiskers, eventually fashioning a mechanism out of the tuning head of a guitar to make the beard spring to life.
That kind of handcrafted solution sounds quaint in a cinematic era dominated by sophisticated computer-generated visual effects, but it's typical of films made using the homespun medium of stop-motion animation. For a technique first developed before talkies, stop-motion is surprisingly current: In addition to "Pirates," which opens Friday, there are three more stop-motion films due in U.S. theaters this year — in August, Laika Studios' zombie comedy "ParaNorman" and an English-language dub of the Czech film "Toys in the Attic," and in October, Tim Burton's "Frankenweenie."
"Pirates," co-directed by Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt, and adapted from a novel by Gideon Defoe, is the most logistically ambitious stop-motion film to come out of Aardman Animations, the studio in Bristol, England, behind the lovingly rendered clay characters in "Chicken Run" and "Wallace and Gromit," as well as last year's computer-animated holiday film, "Arthur Christmas." The first Aardman stop-motion movie shot in 3-D, "Pirates" follows a group of underachieving buccaneers from the high seas to fog-shrouded Victorian London, a process that required 250 puppets, dozens of CGI backgrounds and an ornate, 770-pound plywood pirate ship with a bumper sticker on the back that says, "Honk if you're seasick."
Stop-motion is a notoriously arduous process that requires animators to manipulate a puppet's movement frame-by-frame — a typical pace for the 33 animators on "The Pirates!" was to shoot six seconds of footage a week. But the result can be a tantalizingly tangible image, a messy, lifelike contrast to the shiny perfection of CGI. According to Lord, who co-founded Aardman with David Sproxton in 1972 to produce short films and advertising spots, it's precisely that imperfection that is keeping stop-motion, or "stop-frame," as he calls it, alive.
"No one's amazed by anything anymore," said Lord in an interview in January at Sony Pictures Animation. ("Pirates" is the second Aardman film to be co-produced by the studio.) "The sense of wonder has gone out of movies. We appreciate the beauty of what's done, the ingenuity of the director to put these images on the screen, but the sense of magic is gone, because a 14-year-old knows that when they see something amazing on the screen, the default answer is, 'Yeah, they did it all on computer, and there's nothing you can't do.' This slightly old-fashioned idea of stop-frame somehow brings the wonder back."
Stop-motion animated films cost less than their CG counterparts — budgets of about $60 million are typical, compared with more than $200 million for the top CG movies — but they perform more modestly too. "Chicken Run," which Lord co-directed with Nick Park, is the "Avatar" of stop-motion films, earning $225 million at the worldwide box office in 2000; the three top-grossing CG-animated films last year each earned more than $500 million. "Pirates," which opened in Europe in March, has earned $56 million at the foreign box office.
Stop-motion dates to the earliest movies, where it was often used as a special effect in live-action productions, like the skyline-stomping "King Kong" in 1933. Many viewers' first experience with stop-motion animation was in children's television, either through the claymation series "Gumby" or the Rankin/ Bass Christmas specials such as "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." The first feature-length stop-motion animated film to garner a wide release was "The Nightmare Before Christmas," the spooky 1993 musical fantasy directed by Henry Selick and produced by Burton that has endured as a cult hit, with Disney rereleasing it in 3-D every Halloween since 2006.
Just two years after the release of "Nightmare," however, the animation world underwent a technological revolution with the arrival of CG, and the creaky technique of stop-motion fell out of favor.
"There was a long time when CG first came in after 'Toy Story' and then DreamWorks was founded, when it was very difficult to get stop-motion films financed," said Selick, who also directed "Coraline" and "James and the Giant Peach," and whose new San Francisco animation studio Cinderbiter is in production on an as-yet-untitled stop-motion film for Disney. "But after so many years of perfect special effects, a little handmade or crude quality, a sense of something a little more primitive, became attractive again."
There have been modest advancements — a 3-D printing technology called rapid prototyping developed on "Coraline" allows animators to create countless expressions for their puppets, popping smirks and glowers on and off as needed — but most techniques used in stop-motion are a century old. The artists tend to be craftspeople who work with their hands, such as ceramicists, watchmakers and seamstresses.
The number of filmmakers who work in stop-motion is minuscule, and the films mirror their particular tastes, from the whimsy of the Aardman comedies to the darker fantasies of those made by Burton and Selick.
"Frankenweenie," a remake of Burton's 1984 short film in which a boy attempts to bring his dog back to life, is a black-and-white homage to classic horror movies.
"ParaNorman," a similarly spooky story about a boy who can communicate with the dead, will be the second feature from Laika, the Hillsboro, Ore., studio that produced Selick's "Coraline." Laika eventually aims to produce a movie a year, according to its president and chief executive, Travis Knight, and expand the kinds of movies that are made in stop-motion.
"We want to push on the edges of the form," Knight said. "We want to tell creatively richer, more emotionally resonant stories in this medium. You could have a western, a romance, a musical, a sci-fi epic. Stop-motion is probably the worst, most painful way to make a film. It's a completely awful process to engage in, an anachronism. But the stories have a warmth and a charm. You're not looking at ones and zeros. You're looking at the hands of the artists who made it."