The Case of Stop-Motion

93939748_1550399291786850_2616081802812456960_nIn the NBC sitcom Parks and Rec, there’s an episode in which Ben Wyatt attempts to make a “clay-mation” video. He has been working on the project for weeks, meticulously moving his clay subject and capturing stills with his camera. It isn’t until he shows the video to his friend Chris that he realizes the heart-breaking truth: the project he’s been working on for weeks has only yielded a 10-second video. 

It’s moments like this that teach us that stop-motion isn’t just a technique, it’s an art. We all know that animation takes patience, but none so much as stop-motion animation. Animators spend years meticulously creating hand-built sets and characters, moving their pieces millimeters at a time for at least 24 frames every second so the audience can watch it all come to life. 

Today we are taking a look at one of the most beautiful and painstaking animation techniques, and how it’s been winning the hearts of audiences one frame at a time. 

What is Stop-motion

  • Stop-motion is an animation technique that has been around as long as drawn animation, if not longer. It consists of an animator moving a physical subject and taking photos of each new position. When the images are played in sequence, it appears that the subject is moving. 
    • In an article by Focus Features, producer Travis Knight was quoted, “It’s a process that dates back to the dawn of cinema, with a charm and a warmth and a beauty that other forms of animation – wonderful as they are – do not have. And because you effectively get one opportunity to get it right, every shot is a high-wire act. Generations of aspiring animators have, and continue to, experiment with it in their parents’ basements or garages. It is a magical moment for you when something is brought to life.”
  • Directors create stop-motion with clay, puppets, dolls, or any physical object that they can manipulate, captured by a still camera
  • Just like regular film making, it’s a marriage of different art forms to create a new and interesting product. Stop-motion is more involved than drawn animation, and takes more time. And of course, it takes even more time than computer generated animation. Just like other types of animation, each frame must be considered individually and also as part of the whole. 
  • Before we talk about the history of Stop-motion and its evolution, let’s talk about photography and the role it plays in this process 

Photography and how it relates to stop-motion

  • Important camera pioneers that helped to make Stop Motion possible
    • Edweard Muybridge
      • Although we have mentioned Edweard in past episodes he is yet again very important. In his June 1878 horse experiment he demonstrated that one is able to show movement through a series of photographs taken in quick succession.
    • Louis Le Prince
      • He is now considered the Father of Cinema because he was the first to patent a design for a motion picture camera in 1888.  This was shortly before mysteriously disappearing from a train never to be seen again. 
    • Friese-Greene was the inventor of the Chronophotographic camera which took 10 images a second using a celluloid film.
    • William Kennedy Laurie Dickson who worked under Thomas Edison would create the kinetographic camera which was more dependable than past motion cameras.
    •  Charles Moissen was working as the chief mechanic under the Lumiere Brothers and in 1894 invented the Cinématographe camera which doubled as a projector.
  • All of these early motion picture cameras were important to developing ways to film not only people, but objects. 
    • George Méliès, whom we have discussed in past episodes is responsible for the famous short A Trip to the Moon(1902.) In an article by Jonathan Crow he states that “Through his experiments, Méliès discovered that magic happened when he turned the camera off and on. People suddenly disappeared into thin air. Objects appeared out of nowhere. A famed magician, Méliès knew he was on to something. His discovery planted the seeds for just about every cinematic technique in the book — including animation.”
  • Film vs. Digital
    • The cameras we just discussed were all film and so naturally through all these years stop motion was created using film cameras. The quality in film is fantastic but for stop motion there is one major drawback… In film you cannot see the finished product until you have developed and printed it. This along with lighting, timing, etc. could go wrong. In the new digital age it is faster to see if something went wrong within the take.
      • Imagine you had spent hours and hours in order for a few minutes of stop motion film.  In the midst of capturing this someone accidentally bumped the table. The entire film sequence is ruined and it must be done again with new film.
      • Kodak digital film
        • In 1975 Eastman Kodak created the first crude digital camera.  It was the beginning of a new age for photography and new possibilities for the art to come.
        • In 2005 The Corpse Bride was the first stop motion feature film that had been filmed with a digital camera.  It was shot on the Canon EOS-1D Mark II with an adapter to use Nikon lenses on it.

Stop Motion Process

  • Techniques
    • Object Animation: An example of this would be taking a simple child’s toy car and moving it frame by frame.
    • Clay Animation: Where the characters are able to be bended and are flexible.
    • Puppet Animation: This is when you have more complex characters that have more moving parts like arms, legs, eyes, etc.
    • Cutout Animation: This is when flat characters, props and backgrounds are used, typically made from cutout paper, stiff fabric, or photographs.   
    • Compositing: The act of combining stop-motion with a live action movie.
  • Typical Tools
    • Tripod: Keeping the camera steady is one of the most important aspects to stop-motion.
      • On this same note a nice sturdy table is needed as well, preferably one that would not move if bumped.
    • Consistent Lighting: Because stop-motion takes time while you are moving the characters or objects it is easier to keep the “time” within your video consistent if you can control the lighting. It is highly suggested you work inside with your own lights instead of the sun.
    • Surface Gauge
      • A surface gauge helps determine how much an object or character has been moved or how much it needs to move.
      • It helps you measure movements so that you can make smooth transitions between each photo creating a smoother animation output.

    • Rigging Systems
      • These would be used to hold your characters up when you want to make them jump, fly, etc.
    • Smaller pieces are moved with meticulous tools like tweezers and pliers.

Stop-motion history

  • There are fewer commercially successful stop-motion films than hand-drawn and computer generated animated films, but stop-motion has been around since the dawn of film animation. 
    • The first stop-motion animated film is believed to be “The Humpty Dumpty Circus” in 1898 by J Stuart Blackton and Albert E Smith
      • *Flash back to our episode on the history of animation, when was the first hand-drawn animated short produced?*
      • J Stuart Blackton created “The Humorous Phases of Funny Faces” in 1906, 8 years later! 
    • In his book, Enchanted Drawings, Charles Soloman finds Smith and Blckton’s claim to have created the first stop-motion animated film hard to believe. Smith apparently claimed that they didn’t patent the process after making the film because Blackton felt “it wasn’t important enough.” Soloman is quick to point out that Blackton was quick to patent any other process and no one can definitively prove that “Humpty Dumpty” was pure stop motion, since no piece of it exists. 
    • Two years later, Blackton teamed up with Thomas Edison to create “The Enchanted Drawing” which used stop-motion animation alongside live-action filmmaking. This would be how stop-motion would largely be used in the coming years–as a way to achieve special effects and alongside live-action instead of in place of it
    • Blackton was interested in the possibilities of frame-by-frame filmmaking, but he focused on other projects at the Vitograph Studio, which led to other innovations in animation
  • For years to come, stop-motion animation would be used as an effect in films such as A Trip to the Moon in 1902 and 1905’s El Hotel Electrico, in which magical carpet bags zoomed around the hotel on their own
  • Another pioneer worth mentioning is Wladislaw Starewicz
    • Starewicz was a Polish photographer and entomologist who made completely stop-motion animated films about the lives of bugs! These films demonstrated a new level of mastery that none had before
    • He used wire, wax, and dead bugs to create comedies and dramas. In 1912, he produced, “The Cameraman’s revenge,” a film about a married couple of beetles having extramarital affairs. He used common film tropes found in comedies of the time to create a hilarious piece of stop-motion art
    • He also created detailed miniature sets, and the anthropomorphic movement of the insects really brought a special life to his films, just as the characteristic movements of Gertie the Dinosaur set her apart from early animation
    • Starewicz works inspired many generations of filmmakers, including Wes Anderson and Tim Burton 
  • Willis O’Brien
    • By the 1920s, stop-motion was a reliable film technique, especially in short films. But, in 1925, a the first full-length film to make heavy use of the process was released: The Lost World
    • Animator Willis O’Brien brought stop-motion creatures to life in a way the world had not seen before. Although audiences had seen dinosaurs and other such creatures in 2D animation, this stop-motion allowed audiences to envision the subjects in the 3D world that they themselves inhabited. In other words, this looked real. 
      • O’Brien had been animating with clay for a while before The Lost World, but started to add more complex rubber faces to his models. 
      • Because this was relatively new territory, O’Brien had to create new techniques for this kind of animation. These techniques would be perfected for the next big project: King Kong 
        • O’Brien took a year to create the models for King Kong, spending days at the zoo studying the movements of the gorillas
        • The models were 18” high metal skeletons with ball-in-socket joints; he also attached a rubber bladder that gave the illusion that his model was breathing when he pumped air into it
        • The metal bones were covered in foam rubber and cotton and then covered in rabbit skin
        • Only a couple scenes featured a large King Kong bust or foot, the rest were miniatures. For years, the studio kept the secret behind how the creatures were made. Even as late as 20 years later, people still believed that King Kong was a man in a gorilla suit
        • The smooth movements of his models and the seamless integration of special and visual effects with live-action actors places King Kong at the very top in terms of early stop-motion film; some believe it is still the greatest use of stop-motion in film history
      • Because of this, O’Brien is considered to be the father of modern stop-motion. For the rest of his career he continued to innovate new stop-motion effects. 
  • Ray Harryhausen
    • O’Brien’s work inspired many upcoming filmmakers, including Ray Harryhausen, an animator who would become synonymous with movie magic. He created all kinds of creatures from aliens, to mythic beasts, to the skeleton army in “Jason and the Argonauts.” 
    • His creatures were referred to as Dynamation, which meant that they were so well articulated, it was easy to insert them into live-action film. He added personality to his creatures that made them feel real, much like how the world fell in love with King Kong because of his realistic character movements
  • Claymation
    • When we talk about stop-motion, we often hear the term, “Claymation.” This term is usually the generic word for Clay Animation, although it was coined and trademarked by animator Will Vinton and was meant to describe his particular style and techniques. 
      • Animating with clay became a popular choice because it’s easy to change facial expressions; there are a lot of issues though, like dirt and fingerprints
    • Clay Animation first started in the early 1900s, after the invention of plasticine, a clay-like material. The oldest surviving use of clay animation is believed to be “The Sculptor’s Nightmare,” a short that was meant to spoof the 1908 presidential election. 
    • Although claymation (lowercase) had been used in a lot of stop-motion animation, it became more popular in the 1950s with Art Clokey’s “The Gumby Show”
      • Gumby had a more cartoon-ish style in claymation. Instead of complex creations meant to imitate hideous monsters or real creatures, this was the stop-motion version of a silly Saturday Morning Cartoon
    • Animator Will Vinton (who we mentioned previously) popularized Claymation even more with more sophisticated techniques. Some of his most famous creations would be the singing California Raisins! 
      • Even as late as the 1970s, it was still fairly rare for there to be completely stop-motion animated films. Most often, this was an animation technique used as a special effect. Will Vinton’s work in claymation helped change that
      • Vinton won an Oscar for a short film called, “Closed Mondays” in 1974. He later would create more short films such as, “Rip Van Winkle,” and “Dinosaurs” before creating “The Adventures of Mark Twain”
        • This was an adventure through the tortured mind of Mark Twain, in the form of a full-length Claymation film
      • Vinton’s successful commercial campaigns and films popularized Claymation in the 70s and 80s and the demand for the aesthetic increased
      • In the early 2000s, Vinton was pushed out of his studio which was renamed to Laika. But of course, that’s a story for a different episode. 
  • Stop-Motion in the late 20th Century
    • Although it’s still not as popular as other types of animation, stop-motion has earned its place in popular culture and more studios are creating films with the technique
    • Aardman Animations struck gold in 1989 when they brought a British inventor and his lovable dog to life in “A Grand Day Out.” In this delightful adventure, Wallace and Gromit take a trip to the moon to fill up on cheese. Even since, these characters have been a staple at Aardman. 
    • In 1993, Tim Burton produced, and Henry Selick directes, an animation feature that has received cult status over time. The Nightmare Before Christmas is the perfect use of the creepy capabilities of the medium, mixed with the unique character design and quirky movements

It had always been clear to anyone who has attempted it, that stop-motion is a labor of love. It’s an art form that creates an on-screen magic for viewers and creators. There’s a special wonder in watching an object come to life, and thanks to stop-motion, we get to enjoy that wizardry again and again. 


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