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Bringing Stop Motion Back

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MSU film student revives lost art

By Maria Munro-Schuster Explore Big Sky Contributor

BOZEMAN – In the basement of Sam Lowe-Anker’s home is an operation unlike any other. In fact, this Montana State University film student is likely the only person in Bozeman in his business.

Known as stop motion or claymation, Lowe-Anker practices a lost art that exists somewhere between cartoons and Pixar. It isn’t completely obsolete –Tim Burton’s work (Corpse Bride, The Nightmare Before Christmas) is proof. Lowe-Anker’s most recent project brought recognition, and a bit of humor, to one of the area’s most beloved haunts, Bridger Bowl.

Lowe-Anker, 21, is one of those people who’s actually doing what he wanted to do at age 14. And he has no apologies. His passion for telling stories with inanimate objects began with Legos, as it did for many in his generation; except this maverick wanted to film his Legos in action movies.

Today his models are far from the mono-expressive minifig heads. Lowe-Anker’s Plasticine (a clay that prevents melt-downs under the scorching film lights) models have a range of emotions as vast as, well, his own.

Pre-production work begins with acting out the scene in front of a mirror. He watches for the oft-overlooked intricacies of human emotion. What happens to the bags under someone’s eyes when they have been sitting at a monitor too long? Where do the pupils wander during a question? There, Lowe-Anker is a scientist on a quest for deeper comprehension into the human experience; in his studio, he’s an artist.

Long before it’s time to begin the tedious process of filming the model’s movements, he works with a flow chart, which ticks out the motions a character must perform in a given amount of time. The rule of thumb: The faster the action, the less movement a model has to make. A frustrated slap to the forehead takes fewer shots than a grandmother picking up her overweight feline.

The marketing team at Bridger Bowl approached Lowe-Anker two years ago after his successful avalanche education film, Stay Alive. The ski area had several radio ads that needed refreshing. With only the pre-recorded voices from the radio spot to work with, he began a four-month-long process to create a 30-second TV spot. Much of the time, he says, was spent on building the miniature 12-by-12 sets.

Even the finest craftsman would approve. Lowe-Anker lays his own miniature hardwood flooring. If his character needs jeans, he takes measurements and then hops over to the sewing machine. Mouse-sized kitchen whisks, tiny appliance cords and mini cork bulletin boards are all part of the package.

As obsessive as he is about the details, Lowe-Anker has learned over time how to increase his efficiency.

He pops the jaw off of the ski lift operator and pulls out a tackle box full of jaws with different mouth positions. The eyeballs stay in the model’s head, but the pupils have holes in them so that the entire eye can be moved with a pin. Nothing is overlooked.

“I work to keep the characters from getting too creepy looking,” he says. “People don’t like something that looks too much like a marionette; I want characters that are a bit more cartoony and relatable for an audience.”

As with any good artist, his work is never finished. He’ll spend four hours at the computer tweaking a one-second shot to perfection. Time is of no concern; this is where Sam Lowe-Anker wants to be. After film school he has his eyes on an internship at Laika, creators of Coraline, in Portland, Ore.

Maria Munro-Schuster grew up on the Fort Peck Reservation in northeastern Montana. She currently teaches middle school at Headwaters Academy in Bozeman.

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