Stop motion (pop. frame-by-frame) is a generic general term for an animation technique which makes static objects appear to move. The object is moved by very small amounts between individual frames, producing the effect of motion when the film is played back, as in conventional drawn and painted animation.See the list of stop-motion films for a list of films which use this technique.
Stop motion comes in many forms, often erroneously used interchangeably, causing much confusion of terms in animation literature syntax. Confusing the issue further is the fact that many stop-motion films use more than one technique, such as in Disney’s Noah’s Ark (1959), the work of Mike Jittlov, and the TV series Robot Chicken.
Below are the many forms of stop motion animation:
It is central to the techniques used on popular children’s shows such as Gumby and most of the films of Claymation producer Will Vinton and his associates. Clay animation can take the style of “freeform” clay animation 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 Subgenius co-founder Rev. Ivan Stang‘s animated films, or it can be “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 revived and highly refined in the mid-90s by David Daniels, an associate of Will Vinton, in his mind-numbing 16-minute short film Buzz Box.
A final 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 mentioned below) 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. Gratz has also collaborated with other animators such as Portland, Oregon’s Joanna Priestly to produce films that animated 3-D objects on the flat animation table. An example is Priestly’s Candy Jam film, also from the mid-90s, which can also be defined as object animation (defined below).
Stop Motion is the process used for puppet animation in such well-known films as (Tim Burton’s) The Nightmare Before Christmas (Henry Selick, 1993), James and the Giant Peach (Henry Selik, 1996), Chicken Run (DreamWorks/Aardman Animations, 2000) Corpse Bride (Tim Burton, 2005), all of the Wallace And Gromit films, and George Pal’s Puppetoon series of short films made during the 30s and 40s.
Stop motion animation is essential for model animation which is the process of animating realistic-looking articulated models designed to be combined with live action footage to create the illusion of a a real-world fantasy sequence. Examples of model animation are Willis O’Brien’s animation work in the original King Kong (1933) and the films of Ray Harryhausen, Jim Danforth, and David Allen.
Stop motion is used to produce the animated movements of ANY non-drawn objects, such as toys, blocks, dolls, etc. (See object animation.) An example is the Cartoon Network Adult Swim TV series, Robot Chicken.
Stop motion is also the means for producing pixilation, the animation of a living human being or animal, seen in whole or in part. Examples are the films of Mike Jittlov such as his The Wizard of Speed and Time short film (1980) and feature film of the same name (1987-9), and some of the work of Scottish pioneer animator Norman McLaren.
Probably the most unusual (and certainly an exacting and laborious) stop motion technique is called pinscreen animation, first developed in Europe in the 1920s and refined in later decades by various animators working for the National Film Board of Canada. Pinscreen animation consists of thousands (or even millions) of pins evenly placed on a screen, able to be pushed and/or pulled through the screen, from both sides of the screen. Using a system of rollers, brayers, and other tools, various pins are pushed in and/or out of the screen to varying decrees, all carefully controlled. With lights set up at 90 degree angles to the screen, the shadows of extended pins fall on the heads of more retracted pins, creating a variety of silhouetted images that are animated frame-by-frame as various pins are carefully pushed in and/or out of the screen. An example of this is the 1976 NGB film, Mindscape.
A variation of stop motion (and possibly more conceptually associated with traditional flat cel animation and paper drawing animation, but still technically qualifying as stop motion) is graphic animation which is the animation of photographs (in whole or in parts) and other non-drawn flat visual graphic material. Examples are Frank Mouris’ 1973 Oscar-winning short film Frank Film and Charles Braverman’s Braverman’s Condensed Cream of Beatles (1972).
A simplified variation of graphic animation is called direct manipulation animation which involves the frame-by-frame altering (or adding to) a single graphic image, as close as the stop motion process gets to the process of simply animating a series of drawings, which most people associate with the generic “animation’ term. Examples of direct-maipulation-animation are parts of J. Stuart Blackton’s 1906 Humorous Phases of Funny Faces the chalk animation opening sequence of Will Vinton’s Dinosaur (1980), and parts of Mike Jittlov’s 1977 short film, Animato.
Mere pieces of paper, sometimes with images drawn upon them, can be animated with stop motion, and is called cutout animation when lit from the camera side of the artwork (or to the sides of the artwork) so as to show the details of the paper such as color, textures, etc. The most prevalent use of cutout animation has been in Eastern Europe, where it has been a popular technique since the 1940s, being used in award-winning films such as Tale of Tales. In the West, cutout animation is probably better known for having been used to produce the demo pilot for Comedy Central‘s South Park series (then later simulated via computer animation for the main series).
When backlighted, cutout animation becomes simplified dark (black) images and is referred to as silhouette animation. It was used by German animation pioneer Lotte Reiniger for many short films as well as The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), the oldest-surviving feature-length animated film.
Probably the most passive form of stop motion is time lapse animation in which a stop motion camera is simply clicked (manually or via an intermittent control device called an intervalometer) to take a frame of film as each period of time lapses, as natural objects of nature and mankind move of their own accord, non-interfered with by the animator. The most common uses for time lapse stop-motion animation movie photography are moving clouds, seen daily during weather forecasts in moving satellite imagery, the speeding up of the growth of plants, and stars as they appear to “rotate” around the Earth. Although a few film makers experimented with time-lapse movie photography as far back as the silent film days, the main pioneer of the technique was Dr. John Ott, of Sarasota Florida, USA, who also developed auto-time-lapse systems for also moving the cameras as they photographed growing plants. Ott even broke the ‘rule” of non-manipulation by changing his lights’ color-temperatures with various filters and watering (or not watering) his plants to cause them to “dance” up and down in sync to a pre-recorded musical track. Ott did work for the Disney studio in the 50s before evolving into studies of the color-temperature of lights on the health of plants, then animals, and then humans. His “ott-Lights”, which produce light specifically designed to stimulate better health in the user, are currently sold at select lighting stores throughout the world. Other time-lapse refiners are Ron Fricke and Geoffery Reggio in films such as Koyaanisqatsi (1983) Baraka (1992), and Chronos (1994); the Oxford Film Labs in Oxford, England, and Dan Ackerman of Portland, Oregon, USA.
All animation, including all stop motion, requires a camera, either motion picture or digital, that can expose single frames. It works by shooting a single frame of an object, then moving the object slightly, then shooting another frame. When the film runs continuously at 24 frames per second, the illusion of fluid motion is created and the objects appear to move by themselves. This is similar to the animation of cartoons, but using real objects instead of drawings.
Stop motion animation is almost as old as film-making itself. The first instance of the technique can be credited to Albert E. Smith and J. Stuart Blackton for The Humpty Dumpty Circus (1898), in which a toy circus of acrobats and animals comes to life. In 1902, the film, Fun in a Bakery Shop used clay for a stop-motion “lightning sculpting” sequence. French trick film maestro Georges MÃ©liÃ¨s used it to produce moving title-card letters for one of his short films, but never exploited the process for any of his other films. The Haunted Hotel (1907) is another stop motion film by James Stuart Blackton, and was a resounding success when released. Segundo de Chomons (1871-1929), from Spain, released Hotel Electrico later that same year, and used similar techniques as the Blackton film. In 1908, A Sculptor’s Welsh Rarebit Nightmare was released, as was The Sculptor’s Nightmare, a film by Billy Bitzer. French animator Emil Cole impressed audiences with his object animation tour-de-force, The Automatic Moving Company in 1910.
One of the earliest clay animation films was Modelling Extraordinary, which dazzled audiences in 1912. December of 1916, brought the first of Willie Hopkin’s 54 episodes of “Miracles in Mud” to the big screen. Also in December of 1916, the first woman animator, Helena Smith Dayton, began experimenting with clay stop motion. She would release her first film in 1917, Romeo and Juliet.
The great European stop motion pioneer was Ladyslaw Starewicz (1892-1965), who animated The Beautiful Lukanida (1910), The Battle of the Stag Beetles (1910), The Ant and the Grasshopper (1911), Voyage to the Moon (1913), On the Warsaw Highway (1916), Frogland (1922), The Magic Clock (1926), The Mascot, (aka, The Devil’s Ball) (1934), In the Land of the Vampires (1935), and the feature film The Tale of the Fox (1937), to name but a few of his over fifty animated films.
Starewicz was the first filmmaker to use stop-action animation and puppets to tell consistently coherent stories. He began by producing insect documentaries which, in turn, led to experiments with the stop-action animation of insects and beetles. Initially he wired the legs to the insects’ bodies, but he improved this substantially in the ensuing years by creating leather and felt-covered puppets with technically advanced ball & socket armatures. One of his innovations was the use of motion blur which he achieved, most likely, by the use of hidden wires, which, because they were moving, didn’t register on film.
His techniques took hold among the avant-garde in Eastern Europe in the 1920s and ’30s, growing out of a strong cultural tradition of puppetry. One such artist was Russian/Ukrainian filmmaker Alexander Ptushko, whose first major work, The New Gulliver (Russian: ÐÐ¾Ð²Ñ‹Ð¹ Ð“ÑƒÐ»Ð»Ð¸Ð²ÐµÑ€, Novyy Gullivyer) (1935), was the first feature film to use 3-D stop motion animation (Lotte Reiniger‘s feature film The Adventures of Prince Achmed had used 2-D stop motion in 1926) and the first to combine stop-motion with live action footage. Ptushko built 1,500 separate puppets for this remarkable film. Each of the puppets had a detachable head, which made them capable of a wide range of expressions and personality.
Other notable artists include the influential Czech animator JiÅ™Ã Trnka. The aesthetic tradition of the puppet film was continued by Bretislav Pojar, Kihachiro Kawamoto, Ivo Caprino, Jan Å vankmajer, Jiri Barta, Stephen and Timothy Quay (Brothers Quay), the Bolex Brothers, and Galina Beda.
A notable stop motion object animator was Germany’s Oskar Fischinger who animated anything he could get his hands on in a series of impressive short abstract art films during the 20s and 30s. The best example is his 1934 film, Composition in Blue. Fischinger was hired by Disney to animate the “rolling hills” footage used in the opening “Toccata & Fugue” sequence of Fantasia (1940).
The great pioneer of American stop motion was Willis O’Brien (1886-1963). In 1914, O’Brien began animating a series of short subjects set in prehistoric times. He animated his early creations by covering wooden armatures with clay, a technique he further perfected by using ball & socket armatures covered with foam, foam latex, animal hair and fur. Birth of a Flivver (1915), Morpheus Mike (1915), The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy (1916), R.F.D. 10,000 B.C.: A Mannikin Comedy (1917/18), The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (1919), The Lost World (1925), King Kong (1933), The Son of Kong (1933), and, with the assistance of a young Ray Harryhausen, Mighty Joe Young (1949), yet these were but a few of the many films he animated. O’Brien’s Nippy’s Nightmare (1916) was first film to combine live actors with stop-motion characters. His partnership with the great Mexican-American model makers/craftsmen/special effects artists/background painters/set builders, Marcel Delgado, Victor Delgado and Mario Larrinaga, led to some of the most memorable and remarkable stop-motion moments in film history.
O’Brienâ€™s imaginative use of stop-motion, and his ambitious and inventive filmmaking, has inspired generations of film greats such as Ray Harryhausen, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, Jim Danforth, Art Clokey, Pete Kleinow, Tim Burton, David Allen, Phil Tippett and Will Vinton, as well as thousands of lesser known animators, both professional and amateur. Many leading Science-Fiction and Fantasy writers also credit him as a great source of inspiration.
One of the more idiosyncratic early users of stop-motion techniques was the American comedian and cartoonist Charles Bowers who employed stop-motion techniques (which he called the “Bowers Process”) in his series of silent short comedies in the 1920s and early 1930s. In his 1926 film Now You Tell One, he skillfully uses stop-motion to create such effects as a straw hat growing on a man’s head, cats growing out of a plant, and a mouse firing a gun. 
Puppeteer Lou Bunin created one of the first stop motion puppets using wire armatures and his own rubber formula. The short, satiric film about WWII entitled Bury the Axis debuted in the 1939 New York World’s Fair. in a Bunin went on to produce a feature-length film version of Alice in Wonderland with a live-action Alice and stop-motion puppets portraying all the rest of the characters. Bunin was blacklisted in the 1950s but still managed to create numerous TV commercials using stop motion techniques, as well as a number of children’s short films.
Willis O’Brien’s student Ray Harryhausen made many movies using model animation techniques; most famously, the skeleton scene from The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958). But America and Britain were slower to embrace the stop-motion film, and so its use grew out of other sources.
One acclaimed European puppet animation producer to break out in America was Hungarian animator George Pal, who, partially working in The Netherlands, produced a series of films in Europe during the 30s before coming to Hollywood to create more shorts in the 40s, now called Puppetoons under the Paramount banner, seven of which were nominated for Academy Awards for best animated film. In the late 40s, Pal evolved into feature film production, incorporating puppet animation into a live action setting in such films as The Great Rupert (1949), Tom Thumb (1958), and “The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1963). Pal used model-animation in two other feature films, The Time Machine (1960) and The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao (1964). Pal’s work is documented in two feature films by Arnold Lebovitt, released in the mid-80s, The Puppetoon Movie and “The Fantastic World of George Palare available on DVD.
Dominating children’s TV stop-motion programming for three decades in America was Art Clokey’s Gumby series, which lasted into the 70s, and spawned a feature film, Gumby I in 1994. Using both freeform and character clay animation, the series also used much object animation as Gumby and his clay pals interacted with various toys. Clokey started his adventures in clay with a 1953 freeform clay short film called Gumbasia which shortly thereafter propelled him into his more structured Gumby TV series.
The Walt Disney studio dabbled with puppet-object animation in 1959 with the release of a 21-minute experimental short, Noah’s Arc, nominated for an animated film Oscar for that year.
American children’s television in the 1950s had often used string-puppets (also called marionettes), such as those in The Howdy Doody Show, and in Britain the glove-puppet had been part of popular culture from the days of Punch and Judy.
In November 1959 the first episode of SandmÃ¤nnchen was shown on East German television, a children’s show that had cold war propaganda as its primary function. New episodes are still being produced in Germany, making it one of the longest running animated series in the world. However, the show’s purpose today has changed to pure entertainment.
In the 1960s, the French animator Serge Danot created the well-known The Magic Roundabout (from 1965) which played for many years on the BBC. Another French/Polish stop-motion animated series was Colargol (Barnaby the Bear in the UK, Jeremy in Canada), by Olga Pouchine and Tadeusz Wilkosz.
A British TV-series The Clangers (1969) became popular on television. The British artists Brian Cosgrove and Mark Hall (Cosgrove Hall Films) produced a full-length film The Wind in the Willows (1983) and later a TV-series The Wind in the Willows based on Kenneth Grahame‘s children’s classic book The Wind in the Willows. They also produced a documentary of their production techniques, Making Frog and Toad.
Disney once again experimented with several stop-motion techniques by hiring independent animator-director Mike Jittlov to do the first stop motion animation of Mickey Mouse toys even produced for a short sequence called Mouse Mania, part of a TV special commemorating Mickey Mouse’s 50th Anniversary called Mickey’s 50th in 1978.
Jittlov again produced some impressive multi-technique stop-motion animation a year later for a 1979 Disney special promoting their release of the feature film The Black Hole. Titled Major Effects, Jittlov’s work stood out as the best past of the special. Jittlov released his footage the following year to 16 mm film collectors as a short film titled The Wizard of Speed and Time, along with four of his other short multi-technique animated films, most of which eventually evolved into his own feature-length film of the same title. Effectively demonstrating almost all animation techniques, as well as how he produced them, the film was released to theaters in 1987 and to video in 1989.
A stop-motion animated series of Tove Jansson’s “The Moomins” (from 1979), produced by Film Polski and Jupiter Films was also a European production, made in different countries like Poland and Austria. This stop-motion was rather primitive, sometimes the puppets “moved” by a series of stills instead of showing actual movements.
In North America, Jules Bass produced a series of popular Christmas specials such as Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (using ‘Animagic‘ stop motion puppets) (1964). The specials were animated in Japan by Japanese stop-motion pioneer Tadahito Mochinaga. Another clay-animated children’s TV series Davey and Goliath lasted from 1960 to 1977.
A puppet animation feature-length film directed by Marc Paul Chinoy and based on the famous “Pogo” comic strip was produced in 1980. Titled I go Pogo, it was aired a few times on American cable channels but never released to video…
Aardman also produced commercials and music videos, notably the video for Peter Gabriel‘s “Sledgehammer”, which uses most of the animation techniques outlined above, including pixilation which involved Gabriel holding a pose while each frame was shot and moving between exposures, effectively becoming a human puppet. More recently Aardman used this technique on a series of short films for BBC Three entitled Angry Kid, which starred a live actor wearing a mask. The actor’s pose and the mask’s expression had to be altered slightly for each exposure.
Another more complicated variation on stop motion is go motion, co-developed by Phil Tippett and first used extensively on the film Dragonslayer (1981), which involves moving programming a computer to move parts of a model slightly during each exposure to produce a more realistic motion blurring effect. A lo-tech, manual version of this technique was originally pioneered by Wladyslaw Starewicz in the silent era, and was used in his feature film The Tale of the Fox (1931).
Although nowadays the almost universal use of CGI (computer generated imagery) has effectively rendered stop motion obsolete as a serious special effects tool in feature film, its low entry price means it is still used on children’s programming, commercials, and comic shows such as Robot Chicken. The argument that the textures achieved with CGI cannot match the way real textures are captured by stop motion also makes it valuable for a handful of movie-makers, notably Tim Burton, whose puppet-animated film Corpse Bride was released in 2005.
The internet is also home to hundreds, and possibly thousands, of short digital films known as Brickfilms. Brickfilms films are, for the most part, object animation stop motion films featuring LEGO minifigures as a vital component. The limited flexibility of Lego’s minifigs make for both ease of use and less than realistic action, which might be said to constitute a vital part of their appeal.
Another craze on the internet are youths purely animating with clay figures on public video sites such as Google video. They are often extremely simple, bordering on “freeform”, but effective. Some barely have a face, but the comedic or violence proportions exceeding those of conventional clay puppets, with grisly crime scenes riddled by clay gunfire and hapless victims falling in a sniper’s cross hairs. The comedy helps the viewer enjoy the animation without noticing the simpleness of the clay puppet. Many younger people begin their experiments in movie making with stop motion.
In the 60s and 70s, independent clay animator Eliot Noyes Jr. refined the technique of “free-form” clay animation with his Oscar-nominated 1965 film Clay or the Origin of Species and He Man and She Bar (1972). Noyes also used stop motion to animate sand laying on glass for his musical animated film Sandman (1975). Sand-coated puppet animation was used in the Oscar-winning 1997 film Sandcastle, produced by Canadian animator, Co Hoedeman.
Hoedeman is one of dozens of animators sheltered by the National Film Board of Canada, a Canadian government film arts agency that had supported animators for decades. A pioneer of refined multiple stop-motion films under the NFB banner was Norman McLaren who brought in many other animators to create their own creatively-controlled films. Notable among these are the pinscreen-animation films of Jacques Drouin, Alexeiff Parker, and Gaston Sarault such as Mindscape (1976).
Corky Quakenbush created three dozen stop motion animated films for Fox network’s Mad TV in the late 1990’s that helped fuel a movement of comic stop-motion for adults. Parodying famous features, the shorts drew their humor from the mixing of the innocence of puppets and the profanity of violence in mainstream movies. One example is “Raging Rudolph,” written by Spencer Green and Mary Vilano, a re-telling of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reideer” as if directed by Martin Scorcese. Quakenbush also created “reality animation” to mimic handheld documentary newsgathering for “Clops,” written by Blaine Capatch, a parody of the groundbreaking reality show, “Cops” in which puppet policement bust famous stop-motion characters.
Even amateurs can try stop motion with most ordinary video cameras with a few simple steps:
- Use a tripod, a chair or something else to secure the camera;
- Toggle recording modes until you find the appropriate mode;
- Start shooting clay models, LEGO, action figures, or any other desired object.