The Evolution of Stop-Motion Animation

Eadweard Muybridge Horses Running Phyrne – 1879

Animated movies are enjoyed by kids and adults alike. Whether you’re a huge Disney fan or obsessed with Studio Ghibli, there’s no shortage of options for picking a favorite. However, we owe these films to the pioneers of animation who started it all – those who created stop-motion films.

The stop-motion animation process, albeit old-fashioned, will always be uniquely enchanting. Frame by frame (with 24 frames per second in a motion picture), animators meticulously manipulate tangible objects like characters and sets on a working stage. Each frame is captured by the motion picture camera. When these thousands of frames come together sequentially, characters and environments come to life in a fluid and continuous movement. It’s the magic of handcrafted movie-making.

What is Stop Motion Animation?

stop animation workshop

Stop-motion animation is much like a flipbook-style form of animation but more sophisticated. The process involves photographing and physically manipulating objects within the frame. When these frames are played sequentially, the objects seem to move on their own. While the final result appears effortlessly simple, the smoothness of the flow lies in the meticulous attention to detail between each frame.

Despite being a comparatively low-budget technique compared to other forms of film production, stop motion animation showcases originality, form, and style that amuses audiences. For many decades, stop-go animations have become fixtures on TV and have become a widely celebrated art form.

Stop-motion animation stands out as the only art form capable of leveraging and incorporating every other known art form or technology. It uses photography methods as its capturing medium and playing back sequences of photographs to produce continuous motion on the screen. In simple terms, stop motion involves moving an object before a camera and capturing it multiple times through photography.

History of Stop Motion Animation

Alt-text: Eadweard Muybridge's stop motion animation of a galloping horse in Animal Locomotion
Eadweard Muybridges stop motion animation of a galloping horse in Animal Locomotion

Stop-motion animation is rooted in one of the oldest filmmaking methods. Eadweard Muybridge pioneered the concept by lining up a series of cameras to capture successive images, revealing the motion, path, and trajectory of an object’s movement. Although it took a while before real-time motion viewing became possible, Muybridge’s work marked the inception of the first moving picture technique.

Besides stop motion animation, Eadweard Muybridge also developed a photographic technique called “chronophotography,” which is also influential in the realm of animation. For more information on this technique, read our article, What is Chronophotography? And What are its Links to Animation?

Pioneering Animation Devices (1800s)

phenakistoscope displayed in a museum

Interestingly, the concept of animated cartoons actually predates the invention of cinema by about 50 years. Early experimenters, aiming to create engaging content for Victorian parlors or add excitement to touring magic lantern shows, stumbled upon the principle of persistence of vision. They discovered that if drawings depicting different stages of an action were displayed rapidly, the human eye would perceive them as continuous movement.

A breakthrough came in 1832 with Belgian inventor Joseph Plateau’s phenakistoscope, a spinning cardboard disk that created the illusion of movement when viewed in the mirror. Another advancement in 1834 was William George Horner’s zoetrope, a rotating drum with interchangeable pictures.

In 1876, Frenchman Charles-Émile Reynaud adapted this principle for projection before a theatrical audience. Reynaud not only became animation’s first entrepreneur but also infused personality and warmth into his animated characters with gorgeously hand-painted ribbons of celluloid conveyed to a theater screen by mirrors.

Back in 1888, Louis Le Prince secured the patent for the very first motion picture camera. It was a pretty basic camera, but it laid the foundation for what would become the motion picture.

The chronophotographic camera was introduced in 1889 by Friese-Greene. This camera captured ten images per second with perforated celluloid film. Then, in 1891, an Edison employee named William Kennedy Laurie Dickson created the Kinetographic Camera, boasting an electric motor and proving more reliable than its predecessors. Fast forward to 1894, and we have the Lumiere Domitor, crafted by Charles Moisson for the Lumiere Brothers. During this era, filmmaking was the hottest, most thrilling technology, and for those unfamiliar with the new tech, it seemed nothing short of magical.

Early Experiments (1890s)

Taking many pictures of a moving object is essentially one of the oldest filmmaking techniques. In the late 1800s, Eadweard Muybridge pioneered this method by aligning a series of cameras, capturing images in succession to demonstrate the motion, path, and trajectory of the object’s movement. This marked the very first moving picture technique. Despite this discovery, it took a while before anyone could witness the motion in real-time, and people were initially limited to reviewing the still images one by one.

Stuart Blackton was another pioneer who used sequential photographs to create the illusion of motion. Muybridge’s motion studies of animals and humans laid the groundwork for capturing movement through multiple frames.

First Stop Motion Films (1890s-1920s)

Film producer J. Stuart Blackton

In 1898, Albert E. Smith and J. Stuart Blackton co-directed The Humpty Dumpty Circus, a short film showcasing stop-motion animation with toys and miniatures. This film, which provided a glimpse into the day and life of a toy circus, is the earliest documented example of stop-motion animation. Unfortunately, no known copies of the film exist.

In this film, Smith used his daughter’s set of wooden circus performers, and its movable joints enabled him to place the toys in balanced positions. The filmmaking process was tedious, as they needed to capture each change of position through separate photographs.

The advent of sprocket-driven film stock propelled animation forward significantly. Establishing “firsts” is always a bit tricky, but it seems J. Stuart Blackton can be considered one of the earliest film-based animators. He released Humorous Phases of Funny Faces in 1906, and this film stands as the earliest surviving animated film.

Using stop motion and cutout animation techniques, Humorous Phases of Funny Faces runs at 20 frames per second. The film opens with abstract white lines that gradually form letterforms, revealing the title magically. Blackton’s hands then take center stage, drawing a character on a chalkboard. The transition from live-action to stop motion brings the hand-drawn characters to life, featuring memorable moments like a clown juggling a hat and a dog leaping through a hoop.

This marked the beginning of a successful series of animated films for New York’s Vitagraph Company. In the next year, Blackton also delved into stop-motion techniques for his short film The Haunted Hotel, where objects like furniture were photographed, re-positioned, and photographed again.

While many films around this time explored stop motion as a filmmaking technique, one standout figure emerged as the first real rockstar of stop motion —Wladyslaw Starewicz. A genius in stop motion filmmaking, he made noteworthy contributions, including his 1910 film Lucanus Cervus, where insects were used as puppets. Starewicz continued to create magical worlds with stop-motion puppets, earning credits as the director of several significant animated films throughout stop-motion history. His other notable films include The Tale of the Fox and The Mascot, which are highly recommended watches.

In 1926, German filmmaker Lotte Reiniger achieved a milestone by creating the first feature-length stop-motion animated film titled The Adventures of Prince Achmed. Using intricately cut silhouette figures filmed against backlit glass panels, Reiniger showcased the artistic potential of stop-motion animation.

The Golden Age: King Kong and other films from Willis O’Brien (1930s-1940s)

Animator Willis O’Brien played a pivotal role in bringing stop-motion animation into the mainstream film industry. His 1925 film The Lost World blended stop-motion dinosaurs with live actors. This groundbreaking work was a significant success for O’Brien. However, it was his work on King Kong in 1933 that elevated stop-motion animation to unprecedented heights.

King Kong was a classic – a pinnacle of achievement in stop-motion animation. It was so iconic that it had many iterations, making newer generations acquainted with the giant ape. You can still buy a Blu-ray copy of the movie today!

O’Brien perfected techniques he had developed for The Lost World. Through realistic expressions, smooth motion, and seamless integration with live actors, Kong became the star of the film. They used four scale-sized stop motion models – three were made of aluminum, foam rubber, rabbit fur, and latex, while another was a simpler model made of lead and fur, which was used for the famous scene of Kong falling down from the Empire State Building. The seven-week collaboration between O’Brien and his team on the Kong/T. Rex’s fight has been a lasting inspiration for both stop-motion and computer animators.

Besides King Kong, O’Brien also produced award-winning stop-motion films. He supervised the stop motion animation special effects in Mighty Joe Young (1949), which received an Oscar for Best Visual Effects in 1950. Because of his significant contributions, O’Brien is known as the father of modern stop-motion animation.

Golden Age: Ray Harryhausen and George Pal’s films (1950s-1960s)

Among O’Brien’s earliest admirers seeking mentorship was the world’s most famous animator, Ray Harryhausen. Harryhausen became O’Brien’s most significant protégé, who made a string of films that advanced the art of stop motion, and later on, he would be renowned in every other form of animation.

Ray Harryhausen spent years working solo in his garage, animating dinosaurs, crafting puppets, and exploring the medium. With just a brief demo reel, he secured a position as an animator on George Pal’s Puppetoons show. Harryhausen even brought Willis O’Brien to work on the show, albeit briefly. When O’Brien invited Ray to join him in animating the 1949 version of Mighty Joe Young, it became a pivotal opportunity for the young animator to hone his skills and expand his range.

He went on to create visual effects for numerous films, including The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), among many others.

He also popularized the use of foam rubber and metal armatures to create more flexible and expressive characters. His mastery of the medium was evident in his works like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Also, his solo works on other films like The 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) is still considered some of the finest stop-motion animations to date.

Another notable figure in Hollywood’s stop-motion history was George Pal. His work in stop-motion animation appeared in several films, the most famous being the 1953 movie The War of the Worlds, which earned an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. His replacement technique for animation remains a significant influence on today’s stop-motion filmmaking. The Puppetoons series, produced from the 1930s to the 1940s, stood out with a style and energy unmatched in its time, earning numerous Academy Awards.

Golden Age: TV’s Influence (1950s)

Besides film, television also had a pivotal role in advancing stop-motion productions because of the need for fast and budget-friendly TV show production. In 1955, The Gumby Show became a huge success. Produced and animated by Art Clokey, the show endured for many years and was a launching pad for careers in stop-motion animation. Art Clokey later created another television series, Davey and Goliath, for the Lutheran Church. This Sunday morning cartoon also significantly influenced generations of kids aspiring to work with puppets and become animators.

Eastern Europe (1940s-1960s)

It’s often overlooked that most stop-motion animation didn’t originate in the U.S.A. Puppet animation thrived in Eastern Europe during the golden era of stop-motion. Jiri Trnka, a renowned animator/director, is often credited with inventing the ball and socket armature in Eastern Europe. While this claim isn’t necessarily true, his unique ball and socket armature building method, style, and technique left a lasting impact and influenced many puppet builders.

Under his guidance, Trnka Studios became known as the “Walt Disney of Eastern Europe.” His studio produced numerous short and long-form films and feature films that achieved global success. Notable films include The Emperor’s Nightingale (1949), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1959), and The Hand (1965).

Stop Motion Becomes Prominent (1970s-1990s)

Stop motion became one of the most widely used visual effects techniques and a prominent medium for commercials by the 1970s.

It reached its peak in the 1980s through feature films, animated TV series, high-profile commercials for major brands, and music videos – a new medium at the time. The volume of stop-motion animation produced during this decade was staggering. Cable networks like MTV enlisted artists to create station IDs entirely through stop motion, and music videos for artists, including Peter Gabriel, were entirely produced using this technique. Clay and puppet animation seemed to be everywhere.

Academy Award-winner Will Vinton established an animation studio in Portland, Oregon, producing some of the most iconic characters still remembered today. Characters like The Noid and The California Raisins, originally created for clay-animated commercials, became bigger cultural phenomena than the brands they represented. Films like Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Dragon Slayer (1981), and RoboCop (1987) featured extensive stop-motion visual effects to the point that audiences could not identify which was reality and which was not.

Speaking of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back – this hit film extensively used stop motion in its animation. During the film’s production, Dennis Muren, the film’s visual effects supervisor, was uncertain about how to bring the AT-AT walkers to life. The initial idea of constructing a fully functional, moving robot was deemed too complex and costly.

Instead, Muren advocated for stop-motion. Seeing that its staccato appearance suited mechanical beings, stop motion seemed the most suitable way. Stop-motion models were meticulously crafted and manipulated frame by frame in front of paintings (as opposed to a blue screen), with a snowy landscape created using baking soda. The footage was shot at 24 frames per second, translating to about 5 seconds of footage per day of work. High-speed photography simulated explosions, photo cutouts were used for background walkers, and smaller models were strategically placed to convey scale and depth in the shots. The set featured trap doors, allowing animators to pop up, animate the model, return down, and capture a frame of film.

George Lucas founded a visual effects company called Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) and introduced a novel technique called go-motion to animate specific sequences in The Empire Strikes Back. While similar to stop-motion, go-motion differs by incorporating motion blur, capturing each frame while the model is in motion. Animators employed go-motion for the alien creatures known as “tauntauns” and certain AT-AT Walker shots.

Decline of Stop Motion (1990s)

By the early ’90s, the stop-motion animation industry faced a decline. Because desktop computers and technological advancements offered the convenience of computerized animation options, handmade animation no longer became the preferred option for commercials, visual effects, and movies.

Jurassic Park

The turning point came with Jurassic Park (1993), a film that technically falls under stop-motion animated CGI rendering. However, few on either side of the debate would attest to this. Jurassic Park employed metal armature puppets connected to a computer via wires, controlling the onscreen character generated inside the computer. Despite being an expensive technique, it created a smoother look compared to the slight jerkiness of traditional stop motion. Producers worldwide began to move away from handmade approaches, abandoning everything from hand puppets and stop-motion animation to environments and matte paintings, which had been filmmaking staples since the early days.

Meanwhile, TV production remained a stronghold for stop motion for a while, with shows like PinguBump in the NightThe PJ, and a few others keeping it alive, even as the world shifted its focus towards new technologies. Another noteworthy medium emerging in the ’90s and still thriving today is video games. Clay Fighter, released in 1993, is one of several video games that utilized the stop-motion animation technique of photography in production.

However, there were still a handful of stop-motion films that became popular in the mainstream. One example was Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Directed by Henry Selick, the film combined dark storytelling, stunning visuals, and innovative character designs, making stop motion alive in modern cinema. A true Christmas classic, you can catch it on television during the holiday season, and DVDs are still available on Amazon. Chicken Run (2000) was another hit – it became the highest-grossing stop-motion animated movie and still is until today. James and the Giant Peach (1996), a stop-motion and live-action animated film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s tale, was also a favorite among fans.

However, with PIXAR’s success from Toy Story, the entire industry, spanning music commercials, television shows, and feature films, quickly shifted away from once-beloved handmade art forms. Nobody was immune; 2D cel animation rapidly vanished, leading to challenging times for traditional animators. Many left the industry for good, but those who believed in the process persevered and eventually witnessed a positive turn.

Digital Revolution (2000s)

The stop motion industry in the 2000s was fueled by the popularity of digital cameras. It was first introduced in 1975 by Kodak, although the technology was crude and eventually abandoned. However, the concept stuck. By the late ’90s, consumer digital cameras became affordable toys for those who could afford them. In the mid-2000s, digital cameras became ubiquitous – everybody you know probably owned one. In 2005, the television series Robot Chicken was produced using these digital cameras to create a 100% stop-motion animated series for Cartoon Network. The technology had finally caught up, marking the beginning of a new era.

Before we knew it, digital technology revived stop-motion animation. The rise of digital technology brought about a revival in stop-motion animation. Visionaries like Nick Park (known for the Wallace and Gromit series) and Henry Selick (creator of Coraline) continued to innovate within the medium, seamlessly integrating digital enhancements. Laika, a production company, has also gained acclaim for its stop-motion films, skillfully blending traditional and digital techniques.

Stop Motion Animation Today

Today, stop-motion animation remains a cherished, versatile art form valued for its unique aesthetic. It still inspires both large-scale and independent animators, contributing to the ever-changing landscape of animation.

Making a stop-motion animated film today is as simple as grabbing your computer or phone camera and taking a few shots of your toys on a desk or table. The combination of user-friendly technology and the swift nature of object/puppet animation means that practically anyone with the right tools can try their hand at animation. Platforms like YouTube enable users to share whatever their creative minds conceive, replacing many traditional distribution models in filmmaking.

The Future of Stop Motion

The future we eagerly anticipate is unfolding right before us, even if it might take a bit before it becomes commonplace. Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) have emerged as potential game-changers in the entertainment landscape. Stop-motion animation seamlessly fits into this medium, as environments can be captured through 360-degree spheres or 3D scans using lasers and cameras.

In the years ahead, we’ll have the chance to immerse ourselves in intricately crafted handmade worlds designed for our enjoyment. Not only will we observe these worlds, but we’ll also actively participate in them. Through interaction, we’ll work, play, and find entertainment in these enchanting worlds, all painstakingly crafted by hand.