Animator brings stop motion to life at puppet forum series

In Barnes and Noble, Michael Bannon talks about stop motion animation for the Spring Puppet Forum Series on Wednesday, Match 8,2017. Michael Bannon is the director of advertising production for Bob's Discount Furniture. (Charlotte Lao/The Daily Campus)

Stop motion animation may seem archaic in the age of digital effects and computer-generated characters, but anyone in the Connecticut area who grew up with Bob’s Discount Furniture TV commercials will disagree. The stop-motion character ‘Little Bob’ has captured the hearts and wallets of thousands, which stop-motion fabricator and animator Michael Bannon can attest to.

Bannon, who is the director of advertising production for Bob’s Discount Furniture and the artist behind ‘Little Bob,’ revealed his process and journey to becoming a self-taught stop-motion artist, as well as the techniques behind stop motion, Wednesday night at the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry Spring Puppet Forum series. Joining him were University of Connecticut alumni Tom Getchell and Nicole Horsman, who work with Bannon on the Bob’s furniture commercials as stop motion animators.

“I have to work hard to find the people who want to pay me to do what I love,” Bannon said. “It’s easier to sell what people want to buy, than what you want to do.”

Stop motion animation is filmed by using flexible puppets and moving each body part in miniscule segments, taking a photograph for each movement and splicing the photos together, much like a flipbook. Stop motion puppets can be made from clay, resin, latex and other moveable materials, Bannon said, which he demonstrated with several models he had brought with him from his previous works.

Bannon is currently in charge of the stop-motion Bob’s Discount Furniture commercials. Previously, Bannon said, he created stop-motion commercials and shorts for multiple companies and productions, including Mountain Dew, Gillette, Fisher-Price and the David Letterman Show, through his stop-motion studio Reckless Abandon. Bannon has also pitched and filmed several TV specials and stop-motion movies such as ‘Vultureville’ and ‘A Freezerburnt Christmas.’

Bannon started small, he said, working for $2 an hour unloading furniture at several stores after graduating with a BA in in art history from Plymouth University. At night, he taught himself stop-motion, inspired by stop-motion shows and specials such as ‘Davey and Goliath’ and Rankin & Bass’ ‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.’ Eventually, he said, he pitched the idea of using stop-motion furniture in a TV advertisement for the store that employed him.

“I’ve tricked a bunch of businessmen into seeing great art makes great business sense,” Bannon said. “We live in an age of skipping ads. It’s hard to get [people] to watch an ad.”

One of the appeals of stop-motion, Bannon said, is that it’s a form of animation, while still being three-dimensional.

“When you watch stop motion, you give up very few of the laws of visual reality,” Bannon said. “It looks different from everything else. It [looks] real.”

Bannon showed several videos of animations he had worked on in the past, including an advertisement for Gillette based on the fairytale ‘The Three Little Pigs’.  The set and the puppets were all in miniature, and it took about 24 frames of animation in order to get one second of footage-- meaning that a thirty-second ad can take weeks to months, not counting for storyboarding, set design and model creation.

Despite the labor-intensive nature of stop-motion, it’s a labor of love for the animators, Bannon said.

“It’s got to be in your blood. You have to want it so bad,” Bannon said. “It’s a magician's trade. It really comes down to the skills of the artists doing it.”

Those words hold true for Horsman, who graduated in 2015 and has been working with Bannon for nearly two years as a stop-motion artist.

“I love it. It’s awesome,” Horsman said. “[I love] the access to a lot of knowledge I wouldn’t otherwise have access to.”

For those who attended the forum, it was informative and a fascinating insight into the world behind stop-motion.

“I think the puppets are really beautiful,” Will Boyd, a second-semester chemical engineering major, said. “One of the things that fascinated me was the number of movies that use stop-motion, and the variety of things you could do with stop-motion.”

Other attendees said that it was encouraging to see students from UConn work in the industry.

“I thought it was really awesome to see students from UConn do their dream jobs,” Aaron Kane, a fourth-semester digital media and design major who intends to go into stop-motion as a career, said. “It’s really inspiring to see that coming from UConn.”


Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.