Every second counts when you work in stop-motion animation.
The process essentially consists of taking a photo of an object and then moving it slightly to take another one until the assembled sequence of these frames creates the illusion of movement. One second of footage requires 24 painstakingly labored shots.
That’s the cinematic wizardry that Mark Gustafson, the Oscar- and Emmy-winning animation expert who died on Thursday at 64, mastered over four decades of turning inanimate figurines into physicality and emotion — one frame at a time.
"It's like playing with toys — very expensive toys — with all your friends," Gustafson told A.frame, the digital magazine for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. "And five years later, you've got a movie.”
A sentient nut, groovy raisins, a mischievous fox and a wooden boy were among the numerous creatures that Gustafson shepherded into enthralling on-screen performances, either by his own hand or via a directorial position. Even if he didn't get top billing on most projects, his contributions were never less than integral.
Connecting with The Times over email this weekend, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro called Gustafson “a faithful storyteller who had much to add to a medium in need of true believers.”
Del Toro and Gustafson co-directed the 2022 stop-motion feature “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” for which they received the animated feature Academy Award last March.
It was the skeleton fight scene in the 1963 fantasy movie “Jason and the Argonauts” that first sparked Gustafson’s curiosity for what would become his vocation.
“I couldn’t tell what I was looking at," he said, recalling a childhood viewing of the movie on his family's black-and-white TV during a Q&A for the California Film Institute in late 2022. "I knew human hands had touched this somehow. Years later I found out this guy Ray Harryhausen had done it all himself — just one guy.”
That appreciation for the craft of stop motion, inevitably susceptible to human excellence and error, propelled Gustafson throughout his career.
At first, he studied graphic design, but soon lost interest and instead made 8mm films with friends in the late 1970s. His journey into animation began to take shape in the early 1980s, just after graduating with an art degree from the Pacific Northwest College of Art.
A Portland, Ore., native, Gustafson was a beneficiary of good timing: The city became an epicenter for stop-motion animation just as he was coming of age.
Hired as a production assistant at the pioneering Will Vinton Studios — the headquarters of stop-motion legend Will Vinton, creator of the singing and dancing California Raisins — Gustafson ran errands and swept floors until he got the opportunity to try his hand at building sets.
Later he discovered an ability for sculpting figures, and eventually animating them. On 1985's “The Adventures of Mark Twain,” Vinton’s ambitious feature, Gustafson served as lead animator for the character of Huck Finn, in charge of expressive facial gestures.
“If I’m talking to an animator about a shot, the first thing I talk about is the eyes and then it cascades out from there,” Gustafson told Collider in 2022. “When you see a character thinking, they’re alive."
Popular TV specials “Meet the Raisins!” and “Claymation Easter,” for which Gustafson won an Emmy, followed, as well as a slew of memorable commercials for brands like Planters (revamping Mr. Peanut) and Nissan (using Barbie-like dolls).
But it wasn't until the 1994 short film “Mr. Resistor” that Gustafson finally told a story of his own. “Mr. Resistor” follows a creature whose body is made up of discarded pieces of antique technology as he spontaneously comes to life. It allowed Gustafson to step away from clay and experiment with other materials.
A wordless short, "Mr. Resistor" reflects the mordant humor that characterized Gustafson himself. That aspect of his personality becomes instantly evident when watching any of the dozens of Q&A conversations filmed during the awards campaign for “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio.”
For all his success, Gustafson expressed only cautious optimism for stop-motion, especially before Laika, the company that replaced Will Vinton Studios, had established itself.
In a 1999 interview with Animation World Network about the making of “The PJs,” an Emmy-nominated adult animated sitcom centered on Black characters, Gustafson, the supervising director on the show, pondered the future of his practice.
"I don't think stop motion will ever be as big as cel or computers,” he said. "I'm sure stop-motion will always have its niche. However, I have my doubts whether it will grow to be the dominant art form in animation."
Beloved idiosyncratic auteur Wes Anderson brought Gustafson on as animation director on “Fantastic Mr. Fox” in the early 2000s, based on the recommendation of another stop-motion legend, Henry Selick, the director of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Coraline.”
Gustafson’s name was synonymous with a high standard, one that necessitated enormous reservoirs of patience and discipline. Speaking again to Animation World Network in 2009 about working on "Fantastic Mr. Fox," Gustafson called the technique of stop-motion “inherently miserable."
"There's a certain masochistic element," he added, "but it's also quite satisfying when you're animating a scene that really works when the characters come alive.”
When the long-developing “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” finally went into production, Gustafson had collected decades of invaluable experience. Their darkly whimsical reinterpretation of Carlo Collodi's 19th century fable enlisted animators in Portland and Guadalajara, Mexico.
Del Toro recalls that Gustafson “knew how to pace and encourage a team” and inspired every animator who met him.
“When we interacted at every step of the production stages, he was unwavering and inventive,” Del Toro told The Times. “His resourcefulness will have no parallel — ever.”
At the podium making his acceptance speech at the Oscars last year, Gustafson said, “It’s so good to know that this art form that we love so much, stop-motion, is very much alive and well.”
For a moment, it seemed that any fear over what would happen to this mind-bogglingly demanding technique had vanished.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.