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March 27, 2012 > African folklore comes alive in stop-motion film

African folklore comes alive in stop-motion film

By Catherine Kirch

Bay-Area native Andrew Aiton's new short film, "Anansi and Turtle," presents a folktale about selfishness and sharing through colorful sets, relatable characters, and seamless stop-motion. Anansi, a spider, plays a trick on Turtle in order to keep his food for himself, but he learns an important lesson about generosity when Turtle tricks him back.

The project began with an assignment in a class at Academy of Art University in San Francisco, Aiton says. "The assignment was to create an illustration based on a myth-any folktale, from any culture." Pulling from knowledge gained in a mythology class, he chose the story of Anansi and the Turtle from West Africa. "I had a cute vision of what the spider would look like."

The illustration, however adorable, was not enough for Aiton. "I wanted to create a story-time experience, and the story wasn't coming alive enough for me. I thought, maybe if I do a stop-motion film, kids could understand the movement of the characters and really understand the story."

"Stop-motion" describes a style of animation in which objects are manipulated and photographed in small increments. When the series of photographed frames are played continuously, the objects appear to move on their own.

Ainton recalls his early experiments with stop-motion. "When I was ten, I would make my Godzilla toy walk across the driveway, and I would record it. When I played it back at full speed, it looked like it was walking." Stop-motion techniques were used in the original Star Wars trilogy to animate Tauntauns and AT-AT walkers. Other films, such as Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, were created entirely using stop-motion.

Kirsten Lepore of Southern California, roughly the same age as Aiton, created a virally successful stop-motion short film called "Sweet Dreams." The ten-minute feature has over a million hits on YouTube, and provided Aiton with the inspiration to pursue stop-motion as a medium. "Lepore took stop-motion, which is usually reserved for big studios, and showed that it was easy. You don't have to make it so expensive." With that in mind, Aiton set out to create his film.

The sets are impressively detailed and, according to Aiton, were the most fun to build. "It was a fun creative process. It was all arts and crafts." He transformed empty plastic water bottles to towering trees. He created shorelines, houses, and props from basic craft ingredients, such as Styrofoam, paper, and clay.

Aiton mentions his excitement about some of the set details that locals are sure to pick up on. "I volunteer at the Pacific Locomotive Association. There are some references to Niles Canyon Railroad in the film." There are three replications of trains running at Niles-see if you can spot all of them.

In comparison to the set, the evolution of the characters from thought to form proved difficult, to say the least. Aiton quickly learned how challenging stop-motion animation can be. Recalling the success of Nick Park's "Wallace and Gromit" series, he made an attempt at clay-mation, a form of stop-motion that uses clay figures. The clay characters were messy, however, and collapsed.

When Aiton switched to Styrofoam and pipe cleaners, he found that some of his conceptions of how the characters would look and move had to be altered. "I realized there were some things I had to change in the script because of limitations in movement. I couldn't bend Anansi at the waist; I had to change the scene where he was picking yams to placing them in a basket." Aiton had to think in detail about how each character would interact with his environment, and decided to anthropomorphize the characters-that is, have them stand on two feet like people do. After all, eight legs is a lot to keep track of. "Even Pixar struggles to animate spiders," he adds with a laugh.

Even two legs proved a challenge. In a scene where Anansi is walking along a shoreline, for example, Aiton had to meticulously move both the spider's feet and the water. "For any given frame, if I moved the feet forward and forgot to move the water, I would have to start all over again."

A month and a half and 75 man-hours later, Andrew Aiton's efforts paid off. The film flows as any good children's film should, with smooth animation and a clear message. There are moments of sympathy balanced with moments of humor and, of course, a happy ending.

He is working towards getting this and other potential projects out to the viewing public. When asked if we should look for his name in lights, Aiton shakes his head. "I don't want the fame; I want my work to get the fame. There are a lot of stories to tell."

"Anansi and Turtle" will be screened as a part of the Free Family Movie event on Saturday, March 31st at 2pm at the San Leandro Main Library. The film can also be found on YouTube.

Free Family Movie: Anansi and Turtle
Mar 31
2:00-3:30 pm
San Leandro Main Library
300 Estudillo Ave., San Leandro
(510) 577-3960

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