Kathrin Albers and Jim Lacy
The company Kathrin Albers and Jim Lacy founded in 2001 in Hamburg as platform for making animated films is named after the technology they use: Stoptrick.
Stop trick is one of the original methods used for making animated films. With its help it is possible to make clay or Lego figurines and every other imaginable object seem to move as if by magic. Both “King Kong” (the 1930s original) and Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” relied on stop trick technology for their special effects. Today, stop trick is no longer much in evidence in the classic cinema film, with computer animation having largely outstripped this antiquated technique. One exception is the films produced by Aardman Studios, such as “Chicken Run” or “Wallace and Gromit”, along with the short films made by the small Stoptrick studio in Hamburg Altona.
Similar to the principle of the flip-book, in stop trick thousands of individual images are “shot”, with each successively altered, detail for detail. Played back in rapid sequence, these discrete images give the impression of fluid movement due to the natural sluggishness of our visual faculties – at least they do when the filmmakers know their craft and are prepared to invest a great deal of time in perfecting their work. It takes at least 1,400 images to make just one minute of a stop trick film. Even though there is of course no standard benchmark, Jim Lacy says that the production of each film minute takes at least a month. Working with stop trick hence calls for both great dexterity and a good deal of money (as is the case with so many animation techniques).
For their current film, a puppet animation called “Die Schiefe Bahn” (“The Rat Train Robbery”, 2008), which recounts with ironic humour the unfortunate way the German railway system, Deutsche Bahn, has tried to come to terms with privatization, the duo Lacy/Albers needed a good year just for production alone. And then on top of it there’s the preparation time needed to develop the idea, write the screenplay and the grant proposals and refine the design. Admittedly, the satire about the former state-run railway that for years now has been trying by hook or by crook to transform itself into a modern, profit-oriented transport enterprise was an unusually arduous task. Any resemblance to actual events, e.g. Deutsche Bahn’s continually postponed initial public offering, is purely coincidental, as Kathrin Albers, in charge at Stoptrick of designing and creating the figures, smilingly assures us.
Unlike the German Railway, whose IPO is still pending (as of November 2008), “Die Schiefe Bahn” has now achieved its goal of making it onto the big screen, and was promptly rewarded with several prizes, including the Short Film Award at the Schleswig-Holstein Film Festival and the Audience Award at the Short Film Festival in Hamburg. The Filmbewertungsstelle (German Film Quality Assessment Board – FBW), which awarded the film the distinction “Especially Valuable”, wrote in its assessment: “With plenty of irony, wit and an incredible variety of forms, Kathrin Albers and Jim Lacy poke fun at the metamorphosis of the state-run operation into a public company interested only in turning a profit. A political theme that is humorously exaggerated and outstandingly conveyed on film – one that has deservedly already picked up several awards.”
For Kathrin Albers, “Die Schiefe Bahn” is a very special project. At almost 10 minutes, it is her longest film to date, and, what’s more, it has taken an unusually long time to go from initial idea to premiere. The Hamburg Film Promotion Agency (FFHSH) already granted funding for the project, marking its official kick-off, back in 2003. But the film didn’t celebrate its premiere until 2008, at the Schleswig-Holstein Film Festival. Even for a “handmade” animated film, this is a relatively long production span, but it is readily understandable when we realize that the Stoptrick studio was simultaneously producing various other short films and advertising trailers.
The studio website, www.stoptrick.com, provides a good overview of the filmmakers’ output, along with clips of their works. As its name indicates, the studio works almost exclusively with stop trick. Computer animation is (almost) unheard of for Jim Lacy and Kathrin Albers. There are too many animation studios anyway, and they often find themselves constantly chasing new and better digital refinements, competing for clients and funding. The Stoptrick studio would rather concentrate on the classic core components of animated film, and this has allowed it to occupy a special niche in Germany. The Hamburg filmmakers certainly show a pragmatic attitude when it comes to using computers, though. Editing, for which the director duo enlists the help of Georg Krefeld, is of course long since done with the help of a computer, and digital retouching of backgrounds saves the filmmakers a great deal of time. Nevertheless, the animation is still largely done by hand, and the individual scenes must therefore be planned as exactly as possible already at the screenplay stage, to ensure that the handmade backdrops are adequate for all of the necessary tracking shots, with no room for linkage errors.
Kathrin Albers now says in retrospect that she would never have been able to handle a film as elaborate and technically complex as “Die Schiefe Bahn” back in 2003, so it was a good thing that she was able to gather experience on other films before completing this challenging large-scale project, which with its myriad sets and rapid tracking shots does not look at all like a hand-animated stop trick production.
In addition to commercials (for Reno, Freenet and even the Hamburg Film Promotion Agency), a wonderful music video for the Hamburg band “Blumfeld” and trailers (e.g. for the Hamburg Short Film Festival), this period also witnessed “Spelunkers” (2002), a delicious satire on the Green Dot recycling programme, a hotly debated issue at the time. Shot in trashy B-movie horror flick style using clay figures, the short film takes a humorous look at the Germans’ endless debates on the dilemma of what to do with deposit bottles. Like the studio’s other productions, it was recognized with several prizes. Despite their off-the-wall humour, Stoptrick’s productions always display a strong penchant for social criticism directed at the latest issues.
This hardly comes as a surprise since Jim Lacy, responsible for the screenplays, studied political science. Born in Texas, he was already making animated films in his youth using his parents’ Super 8 camera. He later became a classic career-changer, and is in great demand today as a specialist in the field of motion control cameras. Advertising producers in particular like to draw on his services as cameraman. Without contracting out its services for jobs of this kind, the Stoptrick studio would have a hard time financing its own projects. Man does not live on short film alone, remarks Lacy laconically.
Unfortunately, this is still true in Germany for practically all forms of artistically demanding short film (except for commercials, which can certainly be artworks sometimes, but ultimately serve the purpose of advertising). Short animated films, such as those produced by Lacy/Albers, which with their political themes and their explicit, ironic humour are clearly addressed at an adult audience and are normally not suitable for children, by nature do not have an easy time competing for public funds. It was thus a stroke of luck that the director duo was granted financing for their film “Peters Prinzip” (“Peter Principle”, 2007) as winners in the contest “Mach doch was Du willst” (“Do what you want”) held by the German Federal Culture Foundation and the Hamburg Short Film Agency.
The contest was looking for film concepts exhibiting original ideas and visions on the future of our working world. With competition growing tougher for rare jobs, US-born Lacy immediately thought here of the Peter Principle, according to which every employee in a hierarchy tends to rise to his level of incompetence. In the USA the Peter Principle is as well known as Murphy’s Law is here in Germany, and Lacy was therefore quite surprised that hardly anyone in Germany had heard of this theory, despite the plenitude of telling examples in politics, business and public administration.
The two filmmakers thus went about changing things, launching into work on “Peters Prinzip”, which was released on the DVD of “Mach doch was Du willst” winners as well as being screened successfully at festivals. As the contest entailed a very tight schedule, the filmmakers simply turned their attention first to “Peters Prinzip” before finishing “Die Schiefe Bahn”. Sensitized by the long-drawn-out and complicated shooting of the railway film, and due to their limited budget, they took a decidedly pragmatic approach this time around. They limited the characters to a small “cast” of four figures (Elephant, Crocodile, Cat and Mouse), sculpted out of clay. Instead of wild travelling shots, the comedy was conveyed this time through the off-camera commentary, and the backdrops (and thus the number of sets, which each had to be built separately) were drastically limited. As it turned out, this pragmatism bore fruit. The film was finished in just three months, and yet does not betray its comparatively frugal production technique. “Peters Prinzip” appears to have been cast from single mould, making abstract theoretical arguments tangible in a strikingly comical and entertaining fashion. By the end we are convinced that anyone who is lazy, evil and incapable enough is sure to go far. Bosses apparently go looking for the most incompetent employees possible – because they are the ones least likely to replace their supervisors.
The two films were released in rapid succession, and “Peters Prinzip” likewise received various awards, including the Short Film Award from the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation and the 2007 award bestowed by the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology on a film with an economics theme. With their wide disparity in terms of how they came about and also their aesthetic approach, the two films are excellent examples of the broad spectrum covered by Stoptrick studio.
The difficult balancing act between pragmatism and faithfulness to principle, between profitability and creative insanity, is one that Kathrin Albers and Jim Lacy have mastered admirably to date. Now that both major projects are in the can, the filmmakers are basking in their success and assisting neighbouring production companies with advertising film projects – for example, with their practiced hands setting candy boxes in motion. They are already dreaming of their next big project, which – at least until now – has not been dimmed the least by the demands of pragmatism. Kathrin Albers gives away only the fact that she would like to try her hand next at a feature film. Remembering the rule of thumb by which 1 minute = 1 month, the sheer dimensions of such a project suddenly become clear. When asked cautiously what the subject is, Albers replies with a laugh: oh, nothing complicated, I would like to do pure genre cinema ” perhaps a film about a motor rally?