Stop-Motion or Stop-Frame has existed as a form of animation for many years, but it is only more recently, and with advances in technology, that some of the production processes have changed. Animation of any sort consists of moving an object and taking a photo (known as frames) then repeating the process, with every 24 frames equating to a second of on-screen time. This finished product then creates the Illusion of Movement.
Animation films themselves have gone through many stages prior to being split into the 3 main categories we know today: 2D/Cel Animation, Stop-Motion and 3D/Computer Generated Animation. A number of devices provided people with a way to create and view short animations with the most well-known being William Horner’s Zoetrope. However, in 1895 the Lumiere Brothers introduced the Cinematograph, the precursor to the film camera. Through physically winding film, users of the device realised they were able to control the number of frames they could shoot on. One such person was George Méliès, a stage magician who began using the camera to create films that contained simple visual effects such as people vanishing or objects changing. This was achieved by stopping the camera, altering something within the scene, then continue with filming.
Following from using this technique for his stage shows, he went on to create films such as Le Manoir du diable (1896) and Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902). Méliès was one of the first to realise the potential of stop-frame filmmaking and others began using it as a way to create animations such as J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E Smith’s The Humpty Dumpty Circus (1898), cited as the first Stop-Motion film and Ladislas Stravich’s The Beautiful Lukanida (1912), the first puppet-animated film.
The technology used to capture stop-motion has come a long way since the initial invention of the camera. Digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras can now be used to create individual high-quality images for each frame. The camera lenses can be interchanged to allow animators to capture intricate movements and fully emulate the shot types we see regularly in live-action films. This can include automated rigging that allows animators to create smooth tracking shots by adjusting the camera position in each frame. Software such as Dragonframe now allows animators to adjust the camera without physically touching it as well as quickly reviewing the frames captured and identify how many are required for a specific motion.
There are now very few companies that deal primarily with stop-motion due to the growth in CGI. One of the initial uses of stop-motion was for special effects in film, with the most famous being King Kong (1933) which was animated by Willis O’Brien.
The late Ray Harryhausen was, by far, one of the greatest influences on modern filmmakers both in live-action and animation. Many directors have credited his work as a major influence, such as Peter Jackson, Tim Burton, John Lasseter and James Cameron to name a few. Harryhausen was the first person to successfully implement stop motion into a scene through the use of a method he termed ‘Dynamation’ which consisted of using a combination of back-projection mixed with a masking technique. A good explanation of this technique can be found here.
Using this technique Harryhausen was able to create some of the most memorable moments in films such as the Skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and the Medusa scene from Clash of the Titans (1981).
George Pal began making stop-motion shorts in the 1930s and was one of the earliest adopters of stop-motion and the technique known as replacement animation. Pal would make animations, the most famous of which were Puppetoons, using a series of wooden puppets that had limited movement, but parts such as limbs and heads could be changed to create a range of emotions. This would help bring an extra dimension to the characters.
Companies such as Laika and Aardman still use replacement animation, but the process has become more streamlined, though no less time-consuming. Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) relied on this technique for the facial expressions of the main characters such as Jack and Sally. As stated in the ‘making of’, over 400 heads were used for Jack. This is because a mouth movement needs to be created for each different syllable while also ensuring there are suitable facial expressions for each of these. For example, an ‘A’ sound may have a number of faces to represent anger, happiness, sadness etc. Each of these heads was created individually and painted to match one another.
A similar technique was also used in the Henry Selick directed Coraline (2009). However, the faces consisted of two separate parts, the top section for eye expression and the bottom half for mouth movement. This meant fewer faces would need to be created. However, each face still had to be hand-painted and, again as noted in this behind-the-scenes video, the model painters discussed the difficulty of matching up Coraline’s freckles on each face. With the enhancement of technology, Laika was then able to create Paranorman (2012) using 3D printing technology in order to create faces.
This allowed the creators to design each face on the computer and print them in colour, ensuring each one matched in terms of colour and design. This technique was then continued for Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) and has been implemented by other companies.
Stop-motion is now generally combined with CGI in order to add an extra dimension to characters or settings. For example, the ghosts in Nightmare before Christmas were created in post-production and some of the effects for Paranorman’s ‘Angry Aggie’ were created using a combination of stop-motion, 2D and CGI. This can help with some of the elements that may be more difficult to physically create and can help extend sets if extra room is not available.
One of the main components of Stop-Motion is the use of an armature, a metal skeleton that allows the model to be positioned in different poses. This is also known as a ‘Ball and Socket Armature’. The use of these has not changed since the early days of stop-motion, however, the armatures themselves have become more robust and easier to create in different sizes for a variety of models. For example, in Kubo, the animators created a 16-foot skeleton with an armature in order for it to interact with the normal-sized puppets.
The process and materials differ between companies and people working with stop-motion. For example, a popular technique for creating the models is to use an injection mould that covers the armature. This creates a foam latex model which creates the main base/body of a character. By doing this, animators are able to repeat the process to create a series of puppets in case one becomes damaged. Creatures from the likes of Harryhausen’s films did not benefit from a technique such as this and therefore were handcrafted individually and consisted of a number of materials including fur to hide the metal armature.
Aardman’s main animated films and TV shows are still made using mostly plasticine, though they have worked to develop a particular type that is tougher and therefore doesn’t suffer from so many fingerprints in comparison to older plasticine models. Aardman has played a large role in the continuation of stop-motion with the most prominent creations being Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit. Through their popularity a number of shorts, feature films and series have been developed and allowed Aardman to continue as one of the few remaining stop-motion companies.
Although Wallace and Gromit have helped Aardman progress, one of their other notable works was the music video for Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer (1986). This is a complex music video that combines animation with live-action and brought along another set of key animators: The Brothers Quay. The Brothers Quay often use dolls and objects as opposed to more usual materials. Therefore their films appear darker in nature and often touch upon more adult themes that serve both an artistic and entertaining purpose. Another animator that experiments with different materials and styles is filmmaker Jan Svankmajer whose films such as Alice (1988) and Jabberwocky (1971) were clearly influential to The Brothers Quay, as well as other animators such as Terry Gilliam whose distinct paper cutout style became popular through Monty Python.
Although, as mentioned, there are reduced numbers of TV shows now using stop motion, there are still a number of films that are being created using it, such as Aardman’s Early Man (2018), Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs (2018) and a new Laika project currently in development. However, this form of animation is now used in a number of different areas such as advertising and music videos.
It is a technique that has been regaining some popularity due to increased accessibility; the introduction of simple software that can be used at home and the affordability of cameras and smartphones have played a hand in this. Although areas have changed due to these developments, fundamentally the process has remained the same and as other technologies develop, such as VR, we will undoubtedly see these being used to help with the continued production of stop-motion products.