Stop motion is an animated filmmaking technique. It is when objects – typically made of plasticine or clay – are physically manipulated in small increments between individually photographed frames so they appear to move when the series of frames are played back. Complex and time-consuming, the style is often overlooked by modern animators – with many jumping straight to CGI for faster results. However, speedier may not always mean more effective.
Claymation was experimented with in the early 1970s. This was by no means the start of stop motion, but it was the beginning of the true understanding of the medium’s capabilities. Will Vinton and Bob Gardiner established this with their 1974 Academy Award winning short film Closed Mondays. Up until this point, stop motion was considered less effective than the 2D technique. Few opted to try it out, outside of children’s cartoons such as Italy’s Mio Mao amongst others. Vinton went on to create Mountain Music and Martin the Cobbler, shorts which would help to promote interest in the process further.
Across the Atlantic in the UK, Aardman Animations – the company that would later smash expectations in the clay circuit – were working on Morph, a series of clay stop motion comedies named after the title character. In 1985, Nick Park joined the studio. Following this, film lovers began to see a boom in stop motion with the arrival of the cheese loving inventors Wallace and Gromit, characters who would go on to be extremely successful – starring in films, television adverts and animated shows.
In terms of the stop motion process, once the pieces are built – with pliable material surrounding the wire armature – and ready to move, the animator will photograph the scene. They will change the pose of the character ever so slightly before each subsequent photo is taken. Due to the arduous nature of this process, the animators work on twos, doubling up frames so that 24fps animation only requires 12 pictures instead of 24.
The technique produces amazing looking results, ones that often go overlooked when blended into film such as the finale face melting scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark for example. The constant development of this art form allowed for the popularity of stop motion to increase over the years, earning Oscars for clay films and giving the world popular works like Shaun the Sheep, Pingu and Chicken Run. Parody shows, meanwhile, such as Robot Chicken often deploy the technique in conjunction with action figures to create their own unique style.
Often, the design of stop motion is used in CGI to replicate the style without the labour intensive nature of the work involved. Aardman did this with their film Flushed Away due to complications rendering water with the technique. Aardman are not the only giants of stop motion, however. Laika Studios, a successor to Will Vinton Studios, have produced gorgeous films such as Coraline, Missing Link, Kubo and the Two Strings, The Boxtrolls and ParaNorman. All these movies were groundbreaking in various ways. ParaNorman even revolutionised the industry by introducing the first openly gay character in a mainstream animated film.
Another stop motion classic is The Nightmare Before Christmas. A perennial seasonal favourite, it may not have felt so drastically vibrant had it been in any other medium, its cartoonish horror rendered in a palette that screams world building.
Stop motion may have been an animation style that struck fear into the hearts of many in those earlier production years. Indeed, for many it still does. For others though, it can be the most powerful expression of their imaginations, throwing plasticine across the canvas and moulding magic for the camera.
It may be an arduous process. Yet, to create physical tangible life from little figurines – why the effort is so worth it is clay to see.