For nearly 120 years, stop-motion artists have brought entertainment to the screen one click at a time.
Stop-motion animation has been around about as long as film. It used to be if a movie was going to include a dinosaur, a giant crab or an army of reanimated skeletons, stop-motion was the only way such a sight could be achieved. Now with CG, stop-motion is seldom used outside of niche films because of the time and effort required, but some are holding on to stop-motion tradition to breathe life into some of the most endearing animated creations ever seen. Here we’ll cover some of the originators of the process as well as the filmmakers today keeping the technique alive — one tweak of a model and a click of the camera at a time.
Originating in the late 1800s, the first use of stop-motion animation was in The Humpty Dumpty Circus. George Méliès, who was the equivalent of George Lucas as a special effects pioneer, used it for a few of his short films and adapted the technique to pull off some of his tricks using live actors — which now seems relatively simple: film something, stop, add or remove something to the set and begin filming again. When the film was played back, it would appear that something had magically disappeared or materialized. At the time, moviegoers weren’t as hip to camera tricks as we are now, and the visual results were mind-boggling.
By the way, if the name Méliès sounds familiar, a fictionalized version of the auteur appeared in Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Hugo played by Ben Kingsley. And without a doubt you’ve seen his Trip to the Moon short film referenced in everything from The Simpsons to one of Smashing Pumpkins’ music videos.
A Trip to the Moon, Georges Méliès
By 1907 the technique had become a little more refined and, like Méliès, James Stuart Blackton added touches of stop-motion and splicing around live actors in The Haunted Hotel.
In 1917, Helena Smith Dayton, the first known female stop-motion animator, released her claymation adaptation of Romeo & Juliet.
Stop-motion animator Willis O’Brien, who had garnered major praise for his work in the UK, brought his talents to the US shortly after the turn of the century. He would lend his expertise to The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933).
And while working on another stop-motion film about an overgrown primate, Mighty Joe Young, O’Brien took on a student of the craft — a man whose name would become synonymous with stop-motion: Ray Harryhausen.
Ray Harryhausen Myths And Legends Exhibition, Getty Images
Harryhausen would go on to become the most recognized name in stop-motion. His career spanned four decades, with titles like It Came From Beneath the Sea, Jason and the Argonauts, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and the original Clash of the Titans in 1981. His work has been cited by many contemporary directors as their inspiration to pursue a career in film — including Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, James Cameron and Guillermo del Toro. Harryhausen’s most iconic scene (you might know about it even if you haven’t seen the film itself) is the skeleton fight from Jason and the Argonauts, which took several months to take through intricate planning, creating the miniatures, filming and finally completion by coordinating the skeletons to the footage of their living, breathing costars shot months before. It remains a major feat for stop-motion and was the clear inspiration for a similar battle sequence in Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness.
Through the ’70s and ’80s stop-motion was used for many feature-length children’s films and shorts like Gumby and the Rankin Bass Christmas specials. At the same time, the technique was also beginning to develop an art house following with several European filmmakers, in small teams, spending sometimes up to several years to complete their projects — like identical twins Timothy and Stephen Quay who, under the name Quay Brothers, create nightmarish short films such as Street of Crocodiles.
And while stop-motion was underground and subversive, it was also being used for major Hollywood blockbusters to bring larger-than-life characters to the big screen — like the AT-ATs in The Empire Strikes Back and ED-209 in RoboCop.
ED-209 from RoboCop, /Orion Pictures
The ’90s brought Wallace & Gromit, created by Nick Park. Aardman Studios, the team behind Wallace & Gromit, would go on to create four short films and a feature-length release featuring the pair. The studio would later move away from exclusively using claymation but maintain the clay look of their characters with Chicken Run, Flushed Away and Shaun the Sheep. Unfortunately, in 2005 a fire destroyed the storage facility in which many of the original Aardman clay props were being kept, along with many of the awards the studio had collected over their 30 years in the business. This has not slowed Aardman Studios down, however. Another Shaun the Sheep film came out in 2015, and a caveman feature called Early Man is scheduled to release in 2018.
Tim Burton’s A Nightmare Before Christmas was released in 1993. The concept for Jack Skellington and crew was based on a poem Burton wrote in the early ’80s. Director Henry Selick would go on to make many other fantastic stop-motion features, such as James and the Giant Peach, and create the strange underwater life scene in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. In 2005 Selick would join forces with stop-motion team Laika to begin work on Coraline, based on the Neil Gaiman novel of the same name. After 18 months of shooting and two years of postproduction, Coraline was released in 2009 and won the Academy Award for best animated feature. One segment that took a particularly long time involves an entire theater audience of 248 Scottie dogs all in frame at the same time, each individually and painstakingly animated —wagging tails, lolling tongues and all.
In the mid-’90s, after two students of the University of Colorado met and quickly learned they shared a lot of the same interests and a particularly brutal sense of humor, the two began work on a short film called The Spirit of Christmas using pieces of construction paper they moved around on a plain snowy background. A few years later — after it became a viral hit on the internet — Matt Stone and Trey Parker signed a deal with Comedy Central to take their concept and develop it into a TV show. South Park would quickly abandon its construction paper approach in favor of powerful software that was used to create the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Still it retained the rough, hand-made look of their original creation. The characters now populate a feature-length movie and several successful video games.
South Park, Comedy Central
After Coraline released, Henry Selick would part ways with Laika and the team, eliminating the CG portion of their team. They began work on their next feature-length stop-motion film, ParaNorman. Even without Selick behind the helm, ParaNorman received a nomination for best animated feature. Immediately after ParaNorman’s release in 2012, Laika bought the rights to Alan Snow’s novel Here Be Monsters! and The Boxtrolls hit theaters in late 2014. The story about a boy named Eggs who lives among loveable cardboard-clothed creatures would mark Laika’s biggest commercial success, surpassing their own Coraline and becoming the second-highest opening weekend for an animated feature.
Selick, meanwhile, has begun work on another Neil Gaiman adaptation, The Graveyard Book, for Disney.
Though Selick and Burton have yet to work together again since A Nightmare Before Christmas, Tim Burton has continued to produce stop-motion features bearing his trademark vibe — inspired by German expressionism — with The Corpse Bride (a Laika coproduction) and Frankenweenie, the latter being a stop-motion remake of a live-action short he directed in 1984.
In 2013 Ray Harryhausen passed away and an outpouring of praise for the master of stop-motion hit the internet. Many never would’ve gotten into the business if not for Harryhausen. Edgar Wright (director of Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) said Ray Harryhausen “was the man who made me believe in monsters.” Though many continue using the technique, despite the ease of use and time-saving appeal of CG animation software, one has to wonder if stop-motion would still be around today and used by teams like Laika if Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen hadn’t dedicated so much time, effort and sheer love of the medium to their work.