The History of Stop Motion – In A Nut Shell
Stop Motion Animation is the only art form in the world that can take advantage of and use every other art form or technology known to humanity. The reality is that stop motion is a technique which utilizes photographic methods as its capturing medium and playing back those sequences of photographs to produce a continuous motion on the screen. In the most simplest terms, stop motion is a photographic film making technique where an object is moved in front of a camera and photographed many times.
Essentially the the use of taking many pictures of a moving object is in essence one of the oldest filmmaking techniques. Eadweard Muybridge was the first to discover that by lining up a series of cameras and having one take a picture right after the other one in succession, that the result would demonstrate the motion, path, and trajectory of the objects movement. This was the very first moving picture technique. Though it was awhile before anyone could action see the motion in realtime and were subject to just reviewing the still images one by one. The history of stop motion animation is a very rich one which we hope to cover a little bit of here. In 1888 Louis Le Prince patented the design for the very first motion picture camera. This of course was a very crude camera but demonstrated the basic principle of the motion picture. In 1889, Friese-Greene patented a motion picture camera called a Chronophotographic camera where it would take 10 images a secong using perforated celluloid film. Later in 1891 and employee of Thomas Edison named William Kennedy Laurie Dickson would design and build the Kinetographic Camera. This camera had an electric motor and proved more reliable then its predecessors. Jump forward to 1894 and we find the Lumiere Domitor which was created by Charles Moisson for the the Lumiere Brothers. At this point in history film making is very much considered hot, exciting technology and for those unaware of the new tech it’s considered magic.
The very first documented stop motion animated film is credited to J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith for Vitagraph’s The Humpty Dumpty Circus which was released in 1898. There is a lot of speculation as to when the technique was discovered but we atleast know that the first commercial release was with this film. The Humpty Dumpty Circus was an animated film showing the day and the life in a toy circus. In 1907 a film titled The Haunted Hotel produced by J. Stuart Blackton became a huge hit. It showed moving furniture and demonstrated the basic technique of object animation. Now there were many more films produced around this time that demonstrated stop motion as a film making technique, but we can credit one of the worlds pioneers of animation as stop motions first real rockstar. Wladyslaw Starewicz was a genious when it came to developing a stop motion narrative. He produced many films but one of his first films that is note worthy is his first narrative short film titled Lucanus Cervus which was made in 1910 and used insects as puppets. He went on to create magical worlds filled with stop motion puppets and is credited with as director for many big animated films through out stop motion history. If interested it is suggested that the reader of this article look into watching the films The Tale of The Fox, along with The Mascott which are both considered classic works by this master artist.
Probably one of the most famous animators at this time is the legendary Willis O’Brien. His work on the film The Lost World (1925) was mind blowing for its time. He later produced the animation for one of film makings biggest productions King Kong (1933). This propelled him into super stardom and would massively influence generations upon generation of stop motion animators throughout the world. One of his earliest fans who sought out O’Brien and be mentored by him was the world most famous animator of all time Ray Harryhausen. Not only is Harryhausen famous in the stop motion world but also every other form of animation out there.
Ray Harryhausen was for many years that lone animator who toiled away in his garage animating dinosaurs, building puppets, and just basically exploring the medium. Using only his very short demo reel he was able to get a position as an animator on the George Pal’s Puppetoons show. He was also able to invite Willis O’Brien to work on the show which O’Brien would only work for a very short time. When Willis O’Brien invited Ray to join him in animating on the 1949 version of Mighty Joe Young, this allowed the young Harryhausen to develop his skill and range as an animator. He would go on to produce visual effects for many films such as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), along with a ton of others. His work on The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1957), Mysterious Island (1961), First Men in the Moon (1964), The Valley of Gwangi (1969), The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974), and Clash of the Titans (1981) are considered some of the best stop motion animated work in the world to this day. Having in most cases animated the entirety of the visual effects by himself.
Though we skipped over George Pal in this article, we can’t ignore his contribution to the art form since his replacement technique for animation was and still is a huge influence on todays stop motion film making techniques. Puppetoons would be produced from the 1930’s to the 1940’s as a series. It’s style and energy was like nothing else of its time and it won numerous Academy Awards.
One thing to consider here is that most stop motion animation was not produced in the U.S.A. In fact puppet animation was very much alive and thriving in Eastern Europe at the time. One of the very most famous animator/directors of the time was Jiri Trnka. He has been single handedly created in Eastern Europe as the inventor of the Ball and Socket Armature. Though this is not necessarily true, it is however of note that his ball and socket armature building method, style, and technique is all his own and would later influence many puppet builders. Jiri Trnka is often called the Walt Disney of Eastern Europe since his studio Trnka Studios would produce many short and long form films and would also produce feature films that would become a huge success world wide. Films of note would be The Emporers Nightingale (1949), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1959), and The Hand (1965).
Television was a huge influence on stop motion productions since tv shows needed to be produced fast and with a very tight budget. In 1955 The Gumby Show would be produced and animated by Art Clokey and would go on to be a huge success. With its little green clay animated main character Gumby, the show would go on for many years and be the doorway to many careers in stop motion animation for artists in the industry. Art Clokey would go on to make a 2nd television series called Davey and Goliath for the Lutheran Church. This Sunday Morning cartoon would also be a huge influence on many generations of kids wanting to push puppets and someday be animators.
By the 1970’s, stop motion had hit a fever pitch by being one of the most utilized visual effects techniques, as well as a medium for commercials. By the 1980’s stop motion had hit its peak with feature films, animated television series, highly profiled commercials for major brands, and the newest of mediums the music video. The 80’s were truly a golden age of stop motion world wide. The amount of animation produced during this time is mind boggling. Cable television networks like Mtv would hire artists to make their station ID’s completely out of stop motion and music videos for artists like Peter Gabriel would have their music videos completely produced in stop motion. Soon it looked like clay and puppet animation was everywhere. Will Vinton who won an Academy Award for Closed Mondays opened up an animation studio in Portland Oregon that would produce some of the most iconic characters to this day. The Noid and The California Raisins would be two huge clay animated commercial characters that would later become bigger then the brands they were trying to promote. Films such as Starwars, Empire Strikes Back, Dragon Slayer, and Robo Cop would be filled with stop motion visual effects to the point that the lines between reality and the imagined were so well blurred, many people thought it just couldn’t get any clearer.
By the early 90’s things started to fall apart in the stop motion animation industry. With the growth of desktop computers and the advancement of technology, handmade animation was quickly disapearing as the preferred medium of choice for commercials, vfx, and movies. The one film that put the nail in the coffin was Jurassic Park. Now technically Jurassic Park is a stop motion animated cgi rendered film, but you won’t hear many people on either side of the isle attest to this. Jurassic Park used metal armature puppets connected to a computer through wires to control the onscreen character generated inside the computer. It was a very expensive technique but the look it created had been way slicker then the slight jumpyness of stop motion. Producers all over started to abandon handmade everything from hand puppets and stop motion animation, all the way up to environments and matte paintings which had been a staple for filmmaking since the early days.
The 90’s were a really weird time since the hand animated films like The Nightmare Before Christmas, Chicken Run, and James and the Giant Peach were hits and fan favorites, but because of PIXAR’s success with their first feature film Toy Story, the whole industry from music commercials, television shows, to feature films quickly abandoned the once loved handmade art forms. No one was immune, 2D cel animation quickly disappeard as well and this brought about dark times for those traditional animators. Many left the industry completely to never return, but for the lucky few that believed and stayed on things would get better.
Television production seemed to be the only place that would keep the flame alive for stopmo for more then 10 years. Shows like Pingu, Bump in the Night, the Pj’s and a few others allowed for stop motion to have a place of residency while the world looked away towards technology. One new medium that should be noted that took hold in the 90’s and is very much alive today is video games. Clay Fighter which was released in 1993 was one of many video games which took use of the stop motion animation technique of photography to use in the production of these games.
In 1975 Kodak would build the very first digital camera. The technology was crude and eventually abandoned, but the concept was there. By the late 1990’s the first consumer digital cameras would be affordable enough as a fun toy for those that could afford it. In the mid 2000’s this would change and digital cameras would be everywhere. In 2005 the television series Robot Chicken would be produced using these digital cameras to produce a 100% stop motion animated series for Cartoon Network. The technology had finally caught up and this would mark the beginning of a whole new era.
Because of the advancement of computers and the speed at which they could operate. Television and filming techniques would be moved from dark rooms for processing film which often meant long hours before anyone could see the outcome of their efforts, to quick production turn around times using computers to edit, composite, and even produce music and sound effects. The very first affordable system was called the Video Toaster which allowed television production to edit and produce content video using the Amiga2000 computer. The speed at which this new way of making films and tv shows had made the film industry jump light years forward.Now if we add to the fact that the digital cameras finally caught up to the technology and you had a magical recipe for producing handmade animation again. Because the largest cost for producing productions at a low budget became that of the labor involved with making sets, props, and puppets. The overall cost of actually producing a stop motion film once again became cheaper then its CGI counterpart. Computers required a lot of power to produce one CGI frame, but stop motion required a fraction of that to produce a 1 minute clip.
Once frame grabbing software was brought into the mix and animators could instantly see their animation, the gloves came off and the new Renaissance of Stop Motion Animation had arrived. The very first frame grabber that I personally know of was created at Will Vinton Studios using a tape machine to capture on video cassette and a few frames of animation could be played back. The very first software framegrabber is a little bit of a debate but officially Adobe’s Premier would allow you to framegrab from a camera and play back the animation. This is most likely the first commercial release of a software capable of doing this. Later softwares like Frame Thief and Monkey Jam would be released to hobbiests interested in animating at home. Next would come Stop Motion Pro which was used by Aardman for many years as their framgrabber, along with AnimatorDV which later became AnimatorHD. But the software that became the industry standard in the US would become DragonFrame. Originally called Dragon, DragonFrame would for the first time be an affordable software that was available on the Mac OS and Windows operating systems, along with offering highend features and stability only found in the more expensive counterparts. DragonFrame literally changed the game for everyone in the field of animation and made all its competitors stand up and take notice.
In todays stop motion age making an animated film is as easy as turning on a computer or phone camera and snapping a few photographs of your toys on a desktop or table. This ease of use and quick accessibility paired with the quick nature of object/puppet animation allows for anyone with the right technology to be an animator. YouTube, one of the worlds first online streaming services allows users to upload anything that their minds can create and this has now replaced many of the past distribution models of filmmaking. What we look forward to in the future is actually happening right now but probably has a little while before its common place. Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality have been looked at as the future of the entertainment model. Stop Motion Animation can definitely fit into this new medium since environments can be photographed in either 360 degree spheres or 3d scanned by lasers and cameras. In the future we will be able to immerse ourselves into the wonderful handmade worlds built for our viewing enjoyments and not only will we be observers in these worlds, but we will also be able to be a part of them. By interacting with them like we do with video games, we will be able to work, play, and be entertained in these magical worlds all build by hand.