How did people who lived centuries ago on remote Easter Island (Rapa Nui) move the multi-ton statues they created? It’s one of the isolated island’s persistent mysteries, and the focus of fierce academic debate and popular disagreement. Last July, National Geographic Magazine published a cover story highlighting recent research on Easter Island’s archaeology.
One theory suggests that moving the ancient stone behemoths, known as moai, may have required fewer people than commonly believed—and contrary to popular understanding, none of the island’s scarce trees. With support from National Geographic’s Expeditions Council, archaeologists and a small team of volunteers tested the theory successfully in experiments with a 10-foot-tall, five-ton moai replica.
To bring to life this and earlier theories as to how the statues may have been moved, Hans Weise, National Geographic Magazine’s senior video producer, conceived a stop-motion animation for the magazine’s iPad edition. He enlisted the help of senior graphics editor Fernando Baptista, producer Spencer Milsap, and researcher Fanna Gebreyesus. Shot with a Canon 5D Mark II digital SLR camera, the video, “Walking with Giants,” features a cast of ingenious islanders, three moai (the biggest is six inches tall) and a rugged island landscape. It has been nominated for an Emmy in the category of New Approaches: Art, Lifestyle and Culture–the fourth Emmy nomination for a video associated with National Geographic Magazine.
How did you first come up with the idea for this video?
Hans Weise: I saw the art Fernando was working on for the story and thought it would be really cool to physically show the different theories and how they worked. I wanted to take it from a line drawing to something three-dimensional. You ask about inspiration—I was actually watching Robot Chicken. It was a holiday weekend and I took some Star Wars figures to see if I could make them move a toy Santa. I did this ten-second test to see if it would work, and it did.
Fernando Baptista: You know, we both love the movies, so we talked several times, we both like this world of stop motion. I love anything by Tim Burton. And with this we tried something different for National Geographic. The goal was to try something different, but at the same time be accurate.
How did you create the characters in the video?
HW: The action figures were created from two boxes of World Wrestling Federation figures I bought at Toys R Us. What I really wanted were action figures with no clothing, because they usually come with crazy costumes, like Star Wars. In the World Wrestling aisle, they wore just shorts and gloves. So I knew that could work. They had very cut muscles and everything. Once we’d decided on the size of the figures, then we knew the size of the set. We couldn’t build a huge set. It was about a meter by a meter-and-a-half [roughly 3 1/2 feet by 5 feet]. From there it was just a matter of getting everything built and trying it. Some things like the palm trees came from model railroad kits.
FB: When you see the clouds moving, that was cotton. I made three moai from clay. The dirt came from Alexandria [Virginia]. The grass [which was ordered by mail] came from Spain.
How did you transform World Wrestling figures into Easter Islanders with distinct personalities?
FB: When you paint, you slowly change a bit the face. It took a couple of hours for each character. We removed all the clothes and I painted on tattoos. For loincloths we used real clothing. I used three or four layers of different colors for skin. I modified the muscles a bit [to make them look more realistic] and put on hair and beards, and topknots. We had already done months of research for the art in the magazine. We used all the material from the magazine to make the video. Without it, we couldn’t do anything.
What was the hardest part of making the video?
HW: The hardest thing to convey was the sense of size, weight, and the strength needed to move the moai. Action figures are not designed for stop-motion photography. They kept falling over. We had to nail some of their feet to the table. The moai kept falling over forward on the sandy surface. It took a lot of practice to get the moai to sway and move forward. It helped to watch the scientific footage and see how real people moved. Then you have to translate that motion into three-and-three-quarter-inch figures. For the climactic scene [of moai moving], it took about a week to get it right. We used wire inside the ropes. Without it, we ended up with loops and dips and slack in the rope. But once the wire was in, then the figures hang on and they’re all moving at the same time.
The sound design was very challenging, too. It had to convey at least half the sense of weight and struggle for the figures. To do that I had to record several of my colleagues grunting and groaning. Also, the sound of stretching rope was hard to get just right. It was ultimately done by twisting an old leather glove under the microphone.
FB: Each time you have a problem, you try to find the solution.
Stop-motion video is new territory for National Geographic Magazine. Why try that new medium?
FB: To see something different and not the usual style of the Geographic, that is for me the cool thing. You can be serious and still have fun. I think that is the key.
HW: It was a big challenge. It was a way to illustrate an idea in the magazine that we’d never done before, using live-action animation. My hope was that by using action figures to animate years of theories about Easter Island’s moai, we could tell a complicated story in a new way that would invite readers in and get them to look twice. I think it brought to life the years of research that people had put into this. Using moving-line drawings would have been more academic in a way. By having to build and move 3-D models you do get a sense of the weight and movement, the way the theories worked and how it actually would have felt. You can see in miniature where the problems might have been in real life.
Did it give you extra respect for the ancient islanders who had to make this happen in real life?
HW: Yes, it’s one thing to do this in an air-conditioned studio and another to do it with a 10-ton statue 600 years ago.