It takes less than two minutes before Will Vinton's Closed Mondays gets really weird. In the 1974 short by the stop-motion animation pioneer and Oregonian, an old man walks into an art gallery. But the banal scene quickly turns surreal when music notes painted on one of the canvas start moving. From there, Closed Mondays only moves further from reality, until it culminates with a green robot with oversized teeth mutating into what looks like an apple, then the Earth, then a hand and finally, Albert Einstein's head.
Just over seven minutes, Closed Mondays is screening as part of Animated Worlds: Stop-Motion Shorts. Its strange transformation offers a stunning reminder of stop motion's potential to test the boundaries of film. "Seeing the puppets interact with art works and art works coming to life was a pretty mind-altering experience," says Mark Shapiro, who curated the series and works for Hillsboro based, internationally acclaimed stop-motion studio LAIKA.
Animated Worlds is part of NW Film Center’s ongoing stop-motion animation series that continues until April. It’s also part of a Sunday screening program that is a part of the Portland Art Museum’s LAIKA exhibition. The movies in the series stretch from the 1933 King Kong to LAIKA’s most recent movie, the multi-Oscar nominated Kubo and the Two Strings.
But Animated Worlds is the only screening in the series dedicated to shorts. It will feature works by stop-motion legends like Vinton and Tim Burton. But there are also shorts by current stop-motion's current innovators. That includes a work by Kirsten Lepore, whose short Hi Stranger, which depicted a waxy figure lying on its stomach and talking in a low voice about its butt, went viral last year. "The goal," says Shapiro says, "was to create a program that exhibited the best of stop motion."
Even though he works for one of the most innovative stop-motion companies, Shapiro isn't exactly who you'd expect NW Film would ask to curate a lineup of stop-motion shorts. Shapiro is LAIKA's brand manager, not one of its creators. Before he took the job at LAIKA, he had no background in stop motion. "It takes a unique talent to be an animator, and I don't have that," says Shapiro. "But I have the appreciation."
Still, his years at LAIKA have not only inspired a personal passion for the art form, but have made Shapiro a uniquely authoritative voice on stop motion. Over the years, he’s attended dozens of national and international film festivals where LAIKA and other stop-motion shorts are screened. It’s made Shapiro well versed in modern-stop motion animation, and allowed him to develop a knowledge of the genre that stretches far beyond LAIKA.
Though he says that comparing shorts to features is like "comparing a poem to a novel," Shapiro has a particular passion for short films. He especially admires the "handmade, tactile" quality of stop-motion animation, which is visible in the features of the misshapen, obviously sculpted hero of Closed Mondays, who is all the more remarkable because you can visibly see the work it took to bring him to life.
Especially impressive in Animated Worlds' lineup are Fresh Guacamole and Western Spaghetti, two shorts from the filmmaker PES that turn household items like dice and sticky notes into guacamole ingredients. "If he's showing a Rubick's Cube being cut, what's the sound that that makes?" says Shapiro. "That all has to be manufactured and attached to the image, which is another incredible part of a filmmaker's world. They're not just moving the puppets. They're actually creating energy and sound and movement."
Ideally, Animated Worlds will impact Portland moviegoers the same way that those living paintings in Closed Mondays once wowed Shapiro. "When the lights go up," he says, "hopefully, people will walk away, go grab coffee or something and talk about what they've just seen."
SEE IT: Animated Worlds is at NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 NW Park Ave., nwfilm.org. 2 pm Sunday, Jan. 7. $9.