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Immersed in Movies: Taking Adult Stop-Motion to ‘Hell & Back’

Immersed in Movies: Taking Adult Stop-Motion to 'Hell & Back'

After great success with Robot Chicken, ShadowMachine takes the feature plunge with Hell & Back, leveraging its outrageous adult humor in a more ambitious way. While it’s taken a few years to complete and release Hell & Back (through Freestyle), ShadowMachine has expanded its stop-mo TV slate with TripTank and Bojack Horseman, among others, strengthening its brand. From carnival doldrums to the lower depths of danger, Hell & Back offers a slew of misfit demons, an angel hottie, a slacker Orpheus and a horny Devil. Plus a voice cast headlined by Nick Swardson, Mila Kunis, Danny McBride, Bob Odenkirk, T.J. Miller, Rob Riggle and Susan Sarandon.

“At the end of the day, this is a rock and roll indie,” proclaimed ShadowMachine producer Corey Campodonico. “It’s for a particular audience and certainly an audience that we’ve served in the television space for quite some time. And the last few years have really been exciting…it’s the wild west and I absolutely see [Netflix and Amazon] getting involved in features. We’ve been working with Guillermo del Toro on Pinocchio for a while now and that’s gonna get it’s day here shortly and part of it is figuring out what the models are for a film like that. Where the VOD market heads and the economics change, it’s an interesting time. We’re in touch with the Millennials and the generation after that and how that consumption is going.”

Directed by Ross Shuman (Robot Chicken) and Tom Gianas (TripTank), Hell & Back is certainly a step up from ShadowMachine’s TV work: Old-school with digital dabbling where helpful. “We use digital cameras, we use Dragonframe software, we use motion control, but we haven’t put any new spin on it.,” Shuman explained. “The thing we were able to do is do some things in the computer — models we sculpted in ZBrush and sets we build in Rhino — and previs a lot of the shots in Cinema 4D. And if everything worked out, we knew we’d only need a set that was so big and so deep to achieve these shots. And then we’d bring that data over to the shop.

“Sometimes it would parlay straight into laser cutting or rapid prototyping. Or sometimes that information would be handed to a builder. It was computer meets hand-made but mostly hand-made. They can live together in a virtual space as a prep tool until we build the whole thing.”

Hell & Back is constructed on contrast and extreme, bracketed by the craziness of Odenkirk’s Devil and McBride’s Orpheus. “We’re specifically saying, ‘Keep the kids at home — they’ll see it when they’re in high school.’ Bring like-minded adults to this and laugh,” continued Shuman.

“I grew up on those holiday specials and there’s an opportunity here to look and move the same way and yet they’re behaving and using a language that’s a funny juxtaposition,” added Gianas. “Steeped in our DNA is that warm and sentimental stop-mo that you grew up on. Much like the visual aesthetic turns our expectations of hell on its head (it’s steampunk, it’s aquatic), I feel the characters in this movie do the same thing for what our expectations of stop-mo is.”

Visually, Shuman wanted a softer focus and shallower depth of field for the carnival opening, whereas the world of hell “is very vibrant and in your face.” You can only do this in a movie “and have to get your chops really good because you’re just cranking it. But to really get into a story, you need the time and the budget [of a feature]. 

“The big difference is that we could design this world, really get in there and figure out all the intricacies of what this world might be, theories that we had that you wouldn’t necessarily see but that would help us understand. And you always want that kind of time because that’s where you get into the nuance.”

Or, as Gianas simply stated, “Whether you like it or not, you can’t say it’s like any other movie.”

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