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Ron Cole’s In the Fall of Gravity is an award-winning, fantasy stop-motion-animation short film that explores the deeper issues of life, consciousness and free will. Cole, following in the footsteps of the legendary Ray Harryhausen, created every aspect of the 11-minute-long film himself (apart from the score) on a non-existent budget, in his own basement. In the process he had to overcome several technical difficulties (not least, going from 35mm film to digital halfway through the project), but the end result is something wonderful. Anyone who has attempted stop-motion animation will be staggered at what Cole has achieved here – and, rather than aiming for a wide market via ‘lowest-common-denominator entertainment’, he has instead dedicated all those hours into creating a work of art that contemplates the mysteries of existence:

Upon a journey to the Takakjian Castle, the wizard Isomer and his traveling companion Trevor Verity discuss the nature of Life and the Universe. What Isomer describes is a philosophy that traces all the energies of the world back to one fundamental force, Gravity. But this philosophy is disturbing to Trevor as it also implies that even the workings of the mind are completely logical and predictable, over which we have no real control. The notion of free will is challenged and debated between the two.

The wizard goes on to explain there is more to this philosophy than is commonly understood and that Life is a force of nature that is non-physical and when properly understood, we will find our individual lives are but extensions of the life of the Universe. Trevor struggles to understand this concept as Isomer demonstrates this meaning, through the strings of a marionette whose performance mimics the wizard’s words.

A work of ‘cinematic poetry’, In the Fall of Gravity is a film crafted to entertain the mind and eyes with new concepts for both.

Daily Grail interviewer Greg McQueen spoke to Ron Cole about the creation of his wonderful film and the art of stop-motion animation.

TDG: Ron, I appreciate that you’ve agreed to an interview for the readers of the Daily Grail website. Some readers may not be aware of who you are or what it is that you do. Would you like to tell the readers a little about yourself and also talk about what you do ?

RC: I’ve always thought of myself as a special effects artist although my works as a craftsman, sculptor and painter has taken my career in a number of different directions over the past 20+ years. In those years I’ve worked as an artist on numerous types of jobs and projects, from creating miniature landscapes for the Back to the Future theme park ride, designing and creating Muppets for Henson Studio film (Muppets Treasure Island), designing and creating realistic monster effects for horror films to creating realistic food & flowers for magazine and TV ads. Despite my primary interest in stop motion animation, my career has really been a fun and unpredictable adventure .

TDG: Of your numerous projects, one in particular stands out; the short film In the Fall of Gravity. I understand that this project took six years of dedication, improvisation and eventual mastery over some rather unique puppetry technologies while at the same time applying all that to stop motion film making. The result is a film that might well be described in one of the character’s own words, ‘a vision of chaotic poetry, a celebration of consciousness.’ What can you tell us about that process; what are some of your best or worst memories about working on that project and what are some of the things you’ve learned?

RC: The process of developing a cable control system for articulating the facial expressions was really the reason for the entire project. Cable controlled puppets have been used exclusively for live action films, puppets like Yoda, E.T. and the 1976 version of King Kong all had facial features controlled by this method. I had always wanted to find a way to miniaturize that process in order to use it in the same way for stop motion.

When I began the process of adapting the cable controls for miniature puppets, I quickly discovered that it would not be a simple matter of reproducing the same thing only smaller, there were a couple of fundamental differences that were going to make it difficult. One difference is that when you use cable controls on a live action puppet, you pull the rubber via the attached cables for only the short time it takes to shoot what you need, but in stop motion, the puppet needs to hold an expression sometimes for many hours because you’re shooting frame by frame. That was a big problem because the cables rip out of the rubber after all that time and tension.

The solution to that problem was simple but not obvious, I did an awful lot of experimenting with different materials and methods before finding the solution. Nylon fabric embedded into the rubber while casting does the trick…who knew?

The other and even more difficult-to-solve problem was figuring out how to create a puppet face that could perform the full range of facial expressions and pronounce all the needed dialog at the same time. Trying to create a system that will allow the mouth to smile, frown, open both showing teeth and not showing the teeth is hard enough, but when it also has to pronounce the letter “O”, the number of cables pulling in different directions come into conflict and so far as I know, nobody has ever created a single puppet face that could do it all.

So the best and worst memories I have from that invention process are similar in a way – the bad memories involve seeing a hole rip open in the face when I pull the controls versus the good memory of finally seeing a smile pose turn into a tiny hole that makes the face appear to be whistling…that’s JOY in the world of a puppet maker.

TDG: It’s no secret that one of your inspirations is the legendary Ray Harryhausen. Ray, of course, created the puppets and produced the stop motion animation for screen greats like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, the original Jason and the Argonauts, and the epic The Valley of Gwangi. Which leads me to one of your current movie projects, Sinbad: The Fifth Voyage. This upcoming movie offers you an opportunity to put all those hard earned stop motion skills into practice for the big screen. What can you tell the readers of the Daily Grail about this project and of your part in it?

RC: Wow, yeah, Sinbad: The Fifth Voyage was a surprise I did not see coming, it was a total coincidence because at the time I found out about this production, I was already planning to shoot something with more realistic stop motion creatures. A friend of mine told me that he’d seen a page on Facebook about this company ‘Giant Flick Films’ that was already planning to shoot this film.

At first, I was a bit reluctant to make contact with the producer because I just assumed that any suggestion of using Harryhausen-style stop motion today would be rejected out of hand, in favor of computer generated animation. But after some thought about it, I realized I had to at least contact the production and make the pitch. So I sent off an email to their website along with some photos of my work. I was totally surprised when I got a response from them within a couple of hours, expressing their desire to have some portion of the special effects for their film to be shot ‘old school’ and they requested that I forward them my animation reel.

Since then, I’ve shot enough test footage for this film that I’ve managed to convince the producer (Shahin Sean Solimon) that stop motion really can live up to the expectations of today’s audiences. The role stop motion effects will play in this production has been expanded as a result and I couldn’t be happier about that.

Ray Harryhausen’s ‘Dynamation’ films were something I fell in love with at a very early age, it’s a classic cinematic art form which sadly has not been used in far too many years. There are only a small handful of animators in this world who have tried to keep that dream alive – to see more of that beautiful hand crafted art on screen. We’re ‘die-hard’ fans probably more than we are animators in that regard, and the desire to see more of those types of films is what drives the passion to make them.

The first time I saw the video teaser they put together for this film, with one of my stop motion shots in it along with the words ‘Coming Soon – In Dynamation’… I wish I could think of a better word than THRILLED to describe how I felt about it.

TDG: Harryhausen has left many treasured imprints in my imagination: sword wielding skeletons, the creaking statue of Talos, flapping harpies attacking a blind man, a vibrant and hissable Medusa and the numerous dinosaurs. The cyclops featured in the new teaser is fantastic and while comparisons to the Harryhausen’s cyclops (from the 1958 Sinbad) might be made, the models are actually very different. You previously told me that you have had the privilege of meeting Ray Harryhausen. What can you remember about that meeting?

RC: Meeting Ray Harryhausen for a 16-year-old kid who’s in love with stop motion is of course very exciting but, it was also a bit frightening because he saw some animation I had done at that time. A friend of mine (Vincent Guastini) and I had made a short film and had finished it up literally the night before meeting Mr. Harryhausen at a science fiction convention the next day. We got to show him our 9 minute film in a small screening room semi-privately so, that made us feel really honored.

Ray spoke with us for a while after we screened our film for him, he was so charming and fatherly that he really put us totally at ease. Our film was inventive and we were proud of it but, it was badly spliced, the sound was slightly out of sync and the animation was a bit choppy but, Ray was enthusiastically encouraging and praised our efforts despite the flaws. Most of all, he was encouraging and wished us well on our future projects.

To me and for many other who were so influenced by the works of Ray Harryhausen, he is far more than any other famous person – he is one of those extraordinarily rare people who truly deserve the title ‘living legend of history’. When a man like that looks at what you’ve done and says you did a good job… you never forget how that feels, ever.

TDG: What do you see in terms of the future of stop motion animation and how do you hope to participate in that future?

RC: The future of stop motion is a future that was in doubt through the rise of computer animation. Over the past decade, stop motion animation had been given the title of ‘the dying art of stop motion’… as if ALL forms of animation would now become obsolete with the coming of this technological ‘does-it-all’ tool. Although I must say that computer animation is indeed a wonderful tool, the idea that it would replace ALL other forms of animation was an idea that bothered me deeply.

For as marvelous as the computer seems, with all the new abilities it gave to artists of all types, I found the idea that ALL forms of animation and special effects would forever more be created with this one desktop tool… repulsive. The tools, methods and traditions of the hand crafted arts: puppet making, miniatures, painting, sculpting, mold making, carpentry, metal works, etc, would all disappear in favor of some ‘more perfect’ method? If that were to be the case, I would have NO part in that.

While it seemed the entire film world was switching over to this new homogenized method of creating everything, I continued on with the traditional methods of my craft, hoping against hope that I was not the only one remaining devoted to the tangibly real arts in film… and it seems that hope was well founded! In the past few years, it has become abundantly clear that I was FAR from the only one holding out this hope, Stop Motion Animation has seen a renaissance that has not only brought the craft back to the screen, but there is now more stop motion being created than ever before in the history of the art! Recent years have yielded the emergence of a whole new generation of young people taking up this art form and many of those who were devoted to the preservation of physical arts in animation have reemerged, ready to resume and advance these arts for years to come.

Puppet and clay animation is back with a vengeance! Just the past couple of years brought to the big screen Fantastic Mr. Fox, $9.99 and Coraline [eds. note: readers might enjoy this short film Ron made for a Coraline competition, featuring his In the Fall of Gravity characters], and lots of stop motion being shot for TV shows and commercial ads. The independent film world has countless stop motion films, some of them (like Peter and the Wolf and Madame Tutli Putli) which have earned Oscar recognition.

One form of stop motion animation however, has not had such a successful return to the film industry – that would be my own personal favorite form of the art… realistic stop motion animation in the form of special effects. This is the form of the art created by the legendary Ray Harryhausen. His long list of memorable films inspired a generation of animators who wished to follow in his footsteps. That art did continue for years after Mr. Harryhausen retired, with the stop motion works of such animators as Phil Tippet, Randy Cook and Jim Danforth who brought amazing works to the screen with films like The Empire Strikes Back, The Gate, Ghost Busters and Cave Man. But when Jurassic Park made it’s debut, the industry sadly turned on a dime in favor of computer animation for all special effects thereafter.

The term Ray Harryhausen coined for this style of realistic stop motion mixed with live action film was ‘Dynamation’ and that style of animation is one I’ve personally hoped and dreamed of seeing the return of… against those who doubt and sneer, believing it can never compete with the ‘miracle’ of computer animation. Well, stay tuned, because Sinbad: The 5th Voyage will be the first in too many years to bring this form of stop motion special effects to audiences. If I have anything to say about it, it will be the first of many more to come! 🙂

You can pick up a copy of Ron Cole’s In the Fall of Gravity on DVD from CreateSpace and help to reward a true artist. Special thanks to Greg McQueen for interviewing Ron about his wonderful art.