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Business of Film: Business Model – Have Passion

In a classic case study of wanting to do something and then sticking to it until it happened, Screen Novelties also shows the value of sticking to your passions along the way.

By Tom Inglesby

On screen, the characters in Elf: Buddy’s Musical Christmas come to life because of the work done behind the scenes.

On screen, the characters in Elf: Buddy’s Musical Christmas come to life because of the work done behind the scenes.

Seamus Walsh and Mark Caballero met at school. “We both realized we had a common love for stop motion. So we thought it would be cool to just start making our own little short films,” recalls Caballero. It was the late ‘90s and there wasn’t a lot of stop-motion animation around. “We took our tuition money and started making films that way,” he says. “Our first film, The Old Man & the Goblins got us some attention around the film festival circuit. Because of that we landed jobs as animators for MTV’s Celebrity Deathmatch”

He adds, “That’s where we met our third partner, Chris Finnegan. Seamus and I soon left MTV to work with Ray Harryhausen and complete his final film, The Tortoise and the Hare. Working with Ray was the highlight of our careers. No matter what projects we get, it just won’t compare to that experience. Soon after, Chris moved to LA and we started getting calls for work.”

Seamus Walsh of Screen Novelties makes an adjustment to one of the animated characters.

Seamus Walsh of Screen Novelties makes an adjustment to one of the animated characters.

Success showed the three that there was a market for what some had considered “old movie technology.” It also pointed out the disadvantages of not having a company structure. “When people started calling us, we decided that it might be a good idea to have the checks made out to a company as opposed to individuals,” Walsh admits. “That’s when we came up with Screen Novelties, so we could start functioning as a stop-motion company. It was never our intention to start a company, we just wanted to make our own films. Suddenly, we started getting calls… the good folks at SpongeBob, Cartoon Network and Disney were all asking us to tackle projects for them.”

Screen Novelties developed a style of animation that they wanted to try. Walsh explains, “It mixes 2-D animation sensibilities with stop motion. We felt like we hadn’t seen that form very much; it was something that not many studios were open to doing. We couldn’t really convince anyone else to pursue that style, so the only way we were going to be able to do it is if we made something, put it out there and see what the audience thought.”

Regardless of technology, stop-motion seems to carry a nostalgic look. “Yeah, that is one of the things that attracted us to it,” claims Walsh. “I remember when I was growing up, there weren’t really very many other kids that were crazy about stop-motion like I was. I guess it’s always going to be a niche thing. That’s actually what I like about it, it’s not ubiquitous. It’s not something that you’re bombarded with on the airwaves every day. So I hope that stop-motion is always just this niche art because then it somehow keeps it a little bit more special.”

He quickly adds, “Stop-motion is a weird thing that you either really, really, really love, or it doesn’t really matter to you. One of the things I love about it is that, because it’s not usually striving to look photoreal, it somehow works on a different plane of your imagination. It has an otherworldly feeling.”

The early days, going back into the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, stop-motion was basically a case of shooting a single frame at a time and moving the “animated” object ever so slightly to create movement in the final product. Today, we have digital cameras and all these wonderful computer capabilities. “It’s funny because the basic process hasn’t changed,” acknowledges Walsh. “You are still moving a puppet and taking a frame, and moving a puppet and taking a frame. It’s just that the way we capture those frames and deal with them has changed. The core process itself is still exactly the same as it has been for the last one-hundred years.”

Walsh’s partner, Mark Caballero, populates one of the sets used in Elf: Buddy’s Musical Christmas.

Walsh’s partner, Mark Caballero, populates one of the sets used in Elf: Buddy’s Musical Christmas.

 agrees, saying, “The only difference is we utilize modern technology such as 3D printing for puppet fabrication and digital cameras for animation. But the cool thing about the stop motion process is we’re not that different from how our predecessors did it. And that’s both amazing and humbling. Those guys were absolute masters of their craft.”

One of the things that computerization has added to the mix is the ability to apply a smoothing algorithm to compensate for any obvious digitized movement of the animated object. Walsh, however, doesn’t think that’s the right approach. “We don’t use any smoothing software or algorithms. For us, part of the charm of it is that it has a slight bit of clunkiness. Our particular style relies heavily on 2-D tricks, like smears, squash, and stretch, things that you’d normally see in classic Warner Brothers’ cartoons. That actually does help give a sense of pliability and flexibility to the characters that you may not have seen in some of the older films.”

“That’s the endearing part of it,” boasts Caballero, “because you can see a little fur chatter here, or the movement isn’t as smooth and perfect as it could be. We embrace that because we’re manipulating puppets, and puppets sometimes have a mind of their own— when things are too perfect, they tend to lose a little bit of their personality. There’s something unpretentious and fun when you see little imperfections happen. It just means that a human hand made it, and that affects you on this subconscious level.”

“When people watch our work, I want them to feel the fun we had making it.” chimes in Walsh. “I don’t want them to feel the arduousness of it. And it is; it’s an insane process of building a film frame-by-frame. But we try to have our work feel like it’s not been too labored over, and that is our style.”

 Caballero works on a set under the gaze of two of the characters who will act there.


Caballero works on a set under the gaze of two of the characters
who will act there.

Screen Novelties latest work is a mashup of the feature film Elf and the Broadway show Elf: The Musical for NBC called Elf: Buddy’s Musical Christmas. Starting in early 2014, Screen Novelties set to work designing the cartoonish world of Elf, including characters, sets and props. The team, comprised of up to 60 crew members at its peak, shot the show frame-by-frame over the course of four months, producing a whimsical and handmade miniature world. Multiple exact copies of each puppet were created to allow concurrent shooting on multiple environments and stages. Walsh recalls, “When we are working with puppets, we get to become the ‘actors’ ourselves. We are in control of the expressions, emotions, and dynamism of the puppet characters as they perform in each scene of the show.”

Screen Novelties was started because the founders had a passion for an older art form, stop-motion animation. They just wanted to make films. As success came along, so did offers of help. As Caballero says, “We were chugging along, learning how to do all this, and we would meet old pros who were amused by our endeavors to revive this old form of animation. They loved what we were doing and they would start contributing some of their old equipment to our cause. ‘Hey, you want some lights? Here are some lights.’ ‘You want to borrow this? Go for it.’ And it was great because we would get tips from them, and little tricks of animation and how to build certain things. It just grew and grew, and each paying job brought in new equipment, to the point now we’re up to our ears in film gear. Enough to have multiple stages running at the same time.”

Walsh joins in saying, “We were so passionate about this particular aspect of animation that we went out of our way to see as much as we could that had been done in this particular medium. The more we saw, the more we’d be able to figure out what our contribution was going to be. We felt like there’s no point in just retreading what people have already done so well years ago. ‘We’ve got to take what we can learn from our predecessors and add the new technologies that are available, and smoosh those all together to come up with our own style.’ Hopefully, that’s what we’ve done.”

A cluttered workbench is common at Screen Novelties. Walsh is seen here adding to a character’s wardrobe.

A cluttered workbench is common at Screen Novelties. Walsh is seen here adding to a character’s wardrobe.

Are studios banging on their door to get more-more-more stop-motion animation? “We get a lot of calls for work but we still have to remind ourselves that it’s always going to be a niche thing,” admits Walsh. “It’s risky, and certainly not a career choice that’s stable or easy. You only do this kind of thing if you’re ultra-passionate about it. It’s a labor-intensive job that we do. It really is. You have to have patience to do it; it’s about having the drive to get a project finished. It takes a while to get things made, get things animated, get things finished and wrapped up. In many ways, it’s like saying ‘I’m going to clean out the garage today.’ But it actually takes six weeks of hard work, not one day.”

Caballero laughs, “In stop-motion, you always have to clean the garage out first. You have to clean out the leftovers from the last project to make room for the next. On Elf, we had to rent a bigger space because we had to get it done fast, so we had to create more stages and more everything. We just recently moved everything back to our regular home base, and now it’s packed. It looks the set from that old 70’s show Sanford & Son. But we’re getting things reorganized, and taking a short breather. We don’t want to take too long though, we’re anxious to move on to the next project.”


February 9, 2015