The world of animation can feel exactly like magic, and it’s long attracted its fair share of die-hards. I put myself in that category, entranced from a young age by the artistry of Pixar, Miyazaki, and the lesser known, yet just as brilliant, The Thief and the Cobbler by Richard Williams. Stop motion animation always particularly tickled my fancy, with my adolescent mind beguiled by Aardman Animations classics like Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run. And I know I’m not alone.
Stop motion lays bare the fundamentals of animation by underlining the frame-by-frame mechanics central to creating the illusion of movement. Of course, this also blows viewers’ minds. The form’s handmade quality and crafty spirit is also infused with an inherent warmth and humanity that other animation styles so often lack. Stop motion is alive and well in the modern era, with one artist in particular rising to the top of the pack.
Victor Haegelin is a preeminent stop motion animator and director living and working just outside of Paris. This self-taught creator grew up in the south of France and studied film in Bordeaux, Britney, and Prague, before he eventually found his calling in stop motion.
“At cinema school, I started from zero because I was studying physics before,” he tells me. “I wanted to be a pilot, so I thought that being a scientist would be the best way to become one. But then I preferred partying to studying.” Haegelin’s girlfriend at the time was studying architecture, and she encouraged him to aim for a more artistic field. “But I think science gave me a way of being rational; to keep my feet on the ground.”
Haegelin was captivated by stop motion well before he tried his own hand at animation. “I’ve always been fascinated by stop motion,” he says. “When I was pretty young, there was a TV show where people would send in funny videos, and one guy sent in a video of two slippers going to the corner of the living room and turning on the TV. It was very cheap and very bad, but I understood how he did it, and I thought that that was exactly what I wanted to do.”
This piqued Haegelin’s curiosity, and he bought himself a camera right away. However, he didn’t really start making stop motion videos until 10 years later, when the technology had advanced to an extent that made it easier to create. “I had seen some architecture students making stop motion videos with clay— a hand working with it, and then suddenly it exploded. It was just a five-second animation, but I was like, Wow! This is exactly what I want to do!”
At this point, Haegelin had more of a game plan for making his dream a reality. Once he’d acquired the proper tools, like a computer and a better camera, he dove in.
Despite its technical requirements, stop motion has a low barrier to entry. “It’s easy to start a stop motion. Just grab a piece of clay, a little camera, and you can start telling stories,” says Haegelin. “It’s much easier than starting to make a short film with a full crew, with a good DP, and good actors. It’s easy and quick to have something that you can show with stop motion, to have a finished product. Even if you don’t have a lot of equipment and lighting stuff. Today I have a lot of equipment, so it’s much easier to have something clean. I’m more of a perfectionist.”
With this in mind, anyone with a camera and a ball of clay has the ability to become a stop motion extraordinaire. But Haegelin’s work has reached a new level of complexity, and he now creates projects enormous enough to require a team. At minimum, his crew consists of a DP, a sound engineer, and his trusted model maker, Coralli Grieu. “Ever since I found her, I can’t let her go!” he says. “She has many good ideas, and we have the same way of having fun.”
Now that this “AnimaDirector” has a full crew to wrangle, this means he has to delegate the actual animating as well. “I love being an animator, but sometimes as a director, during the production and shoot, I don’t have the time,” he says. “I’m dealing with the clients with urgency, with the props department, and so on. I’d be animating, and then suddenly someone’s asking, ‘Hey Victor, do you have some opinion on this…’ so I go back to the setup. I cannot be animating and directing at the same time.”
Haegelin has clearly honed his craft over the years, and work has become progressively more polished and smooth in turn. Moreover, he is still intent on retaining the hand-made spirit central to the medium in his work. “I’m more of a perfectionist now than before, but I still have my own level of perfection, and that level is changing throughout my career,” he says. “Sometimes I’m very happy with something that other people wouldn’t be happy with at all. But I think imperfection is part of stop motion— otherwise it looks like CGI. When people say, ‘Don’t make it jerky,’ I say, ‘If you want it very smooth, go for CGI. That’s not what I do.’”
Haegelin points to Wes Anderson’s 2009 stop motion feature Fantastic Mr. Fox as a beacon of the form. “You need to feel the stop motion. You need to feel the texture. You need to feel the hairs of the puppets. I think he does exactly, for me, what stop motion is supposed to be.” He mentions the stop motion studio LAIKA as losing some of those qualities. “They produce films that are so polished that I’m pretty sure half of the people who are watching it don’t even know it’s stop motion. I like their films, but I think they are losing the charm.”
Haegelin has noted that the precise, intricate detail of his work has led some of his viewers to doubt that it is, in fact, stop motion. “I saw in the feedback that people were not understanding that it was stop motion. They thought it was CGI or something.” He started sharing process videos on his Instagram to let his audience into his practice, and to prove that what he’s doing isn’t sorcery.
These process videos are usually split-screen displays played in sync with the finished product, to offer a direct visual comparison. They provide an added dimension of audience engagement and enjoyment that is particularly rewarding when it comes to stop motion. It so often leaves viewers wondering, “How the hell did they do that?” But Haegelin isn’t keen on keeping that “how” a mystery, and actively invites his viewers to peer behind the curtain.
“First, I like to show the finished product, because we make films to be seen, not to keep in a drawer,” he says. “Once I’ve shown the finished product, I want to show people how I did it, because it’s not magic— it’s just a lot of tricks. I want to show that it’s possible for everybody to do the same thing.”