Clay animation is one of many forms of stop motion animation; specifically, it is the form where each animated piece, either character or background, is “deformable“, i.e. a malleable substance, usually plasticine clay.
The term “Claymation” is also used to describe clay animation. Though a registered trademark created by Will Vinton in 1978 to describe his clay animated films; the portmanteau claymation has entered the English language as a common term, called a genericized trademark.
All animation is produced in a similar fashion, whether done through traditional cel animation, stop-motion, or CGI. Each frame, or still picture, is recorded on film or digital media and then played back in rapid succession. When played back at a frame rate greater than 10-12 frames per second, a fairly convincing illusion of continuous motion is achieved.
A clay animation scene from a Finnish TV commercial. The process is explained here.
In clay animation, which is one of the many forms of stop motion animation, each object is sculpted in clay or a similarly pliable material such as Plasticine, usually around a wire skeleton called an armature. As in other forms of object animation, the object is arranged on the set (background), a film frame is taken and the object or character is then moved slightly by hand. Another frame is taken and the object moved slightly again. This cycle is repeated until the animator has achieved the desired amount of film. The human mind processes the series of slightly changing, rapidly playing images as motion, hence making it appear that the object is moving by itself. To achieve the best results, a consistent shooting environment is needed to maintain the illusion of continuity. This means paying special attention to maintaining consistent lighting and object placement and working in a calm environment.
Producing a stop motion animation using clay is extremely laborious. Normal film runs at 24 frames per second (FPS). With the standard practice of “doubles” or “twos” (double-framing â€” exposing 2 frames for each shot), 12 changes are usually made for one second of film movement, (the odd extra frame being unnoticeable when projected at normal speed). For a 30-minute movie, there would be approximately 21,600 stops to change the figures for the frames. For a full length (90 min) movie, there would be approximately 64,800 stops and possibly far more if parts were shot with “singles” or “ones” (one frame exposed for each shot). Great care must be taken to ensure the object is not altered by accident, by even slight smudges, dirt, hair, or even dust. For feature-length productions, the use of clay has generally been supplanted by rubber silicone and resin-cast components. One foam-rubber process has been coined as Foamation by Will Vinton. However, clay remains a viable animation material where a particular aesthetic is desired.
Clay animation can take several forms:
“Freeform” clay animation is an informal term where the shape of the clay changes radically as the animation progresses, such as in the work of Eliot Noyes Jr and Church of the Sub-Genius co-founder Ivan Stang‘s animated films. Or clay can take the form of “character” clay animation where the clay maintains a recognizable character throughout a shot, as in Art Clokey’s and Will Vinton’s films.
One variation of clay animation is strata-cut animation in which a long bread-like loaf of clay, internally packed tight and loaded with varying imagery, is sliced into thin sheets, with the camera taking a frame of the end of the loaf for each cut, eventually revealing the movement of the internal images within. Pioneered in both clay and blocks of wax by German animator Oskar Fischinger during the 1920s and 30s, the technique was revivied and highly refined in the mid-90s by David Daniels, an associate of Will Vinton, in his 16-minute short film Buzz Box.
Another clay animation technique, and blurring the distinction between stop motion and traditional flat animation, is called clay painting (which is also a variation of the direct manipulation animation process) where clay is placed on a flat surface and moved like wet oil paints as on a traditional artistic canvas to produce any style of images, but with a clay ‘look’ to them.
Pioneering this technique was one-time Vinton animator Joan Gratz, first in her Oscar-nominated film The Creation (1980) and then in her Oscar-winning Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase filmed in 1992.
A variation of this technique was developed by another Vinton animator, Craig Bartlett, for his series of “Arnold” short films, also made during the 90s, in which he not only used clay painting, but sometimes built up clay images that rose off the plane of the flat support platform, toward the camera lens, to give a more 3-D stop-motion look to his films.
A sub-variation of clay animation can be informally called “clay melting”. Any kind of heat source can be applied on or near (or below) clay to cause it to melt while an animation camera on a time-lapse setting slowly films the process. An example of this can be seen in Vinton’s early short clay-animated film, Closed Mondays, (co-produced by animator Bob Gardiner) at the end of the computer sequence.
Some of the best known clay animated works include the Gumby series of television shows created by Art Clokey and the advertisements made for the California Raisin Advisory Board by the Will Vinton studio. Clay animation has also been used in Academy-Award-winning short films such as Closed Mondays (Will Vinton and Bob Gardiner, 1974), Creature Comforts (Aardman, 1989), all three Wallace & Gromit short films, created by Nick Park of Aardman Animation. Aardman also created The Presentators (a series of one-minute clay animation short films aired on Nicktoons). Some clay animations have been popular online, on such sites as Newgrounds.
Other relatively recent films or television shows produced with clay animation
- Klay World: Off the Table (Robert (Knox) Benfer, 2005)
- Clay or the Origin of Species (Eliot Noyes Jr., 1965)
- He Man and She Bar (Eliot Noyes Jr., 1972)
- Plastiphobia (Fred O’Neal & Val Federoff, New Zealand, 1973)
- Morph (Peter Lord and Dave Sproxton, 1976)
- Mountain Music (Will Vinton and Bob Gardiner, 1976)
- Martin the Cobbler (Will Vinton Studio, 1977)
- Rip Van Winkle (Will Vinton Studio, 1978)
- Claymation (Will Vinton Studio, production documentary film, 1978)
- Legacy (Will Vinton Studio, 1979)
- The Little Prince (Will Vinton Studio, 1979)
- Baby Snakes (Karl Kogstad, for Frank Zappa, 1979)
- The Christmas Gift (Will Vinton Studio, a long-form Paul Stokey music video, 1980)
- Creation (Will Vinton Studio, featuring Joan Gratz, 1980)
- The Great Cognito (Will Vinton Studio, featuring Barry Bruce, 1982)
- The Trap Door (Terry Brain and Charlie Mills, 1984)
- Arnold Escapes From Church (Will Vinton Studio, featuring Craig Bartlett, 1986)
- A Claymation Christmas Celebration (Will Vinton Studio, TV special, 1987)
- Vanz Kant Danz (Will Vinton Studio a John Fogarty music video, 1987)
- Return to Oz (Will Vinton studio, 1988) (Knome King scenes)
- Meet the Raisins (Will Vinton Studio, TV special, 1988)
- Speed Demon (Will Vinton Studio, for Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker film, 1989)
- Claymation Comedy of Horrors (Will Vinton Studio), TV special 1989)
- A Claymation Easter (Will Vinton Studio, TV special 1989)
- The Raisins: Sold Out (Will Vinton Studio, TV special, 1990)
- The Creature Comforts series (Aardman Studios, starting in 1990)
- The Arnold Waltz (Will Vinton Studio], featuring Craig Bartlett, 1990)
- Arnold Rides a Chair (Will Vinton Studio], featuring Craig Bartlett, 1991)
- The Wallace and Gromit short film series (Aardman Studios, starting in 1992)
- Rex the Runt (television series, Richard Goleszowski, 1998 UK)
- Celebrity Deathmatch (television series, Eric Fogel, 1998 USA)
- The PJs television series (Will Vinton Studio, 1999)
- Chicken Run (Aardman Studio, Nick Park & crew]], 2000)
- Gary and Mike (Will Vinton Studio, television series, 2001)
- Robot Chicken (Television series, Seth Green, Adult Swim, 2005)
- Off The Rails (Short Film, Darcy Prendergast, DP Productions, 2005)
- Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (Aardman, Nick Park, 2005)
- Live Freaky! Die Freaky! (John Roecker, 2006)
- RON THE ZOOKEEPER (Short Film, Darcy Prendergast, DP Productions, 2007)
- Moral Orel
Several computer games have also been produced using clay animation, including The Neverhood, Dark Oberon, Platypus and Primal Rage. Television commercials have also utilized the clay animation, such as the Chevron Cars ads, produced by Aardman Studios. Besides commercials, clay animation has also been popularized in recent years by children’s shows such as Bob the Builder and The Koala Brothers, as well as adult-oriented shows on Cartoon Network‘s Adult Swim lineup, including Robot Chicken (which uses clay animation and action figures as stop-motion puppets in conjunction) and Moral Orel.