Throughout the 60s and 70s, Ray Harryhausen pioneered techniques for creating stop motion. He made monsters for a number of films, which showed creatures big enough to destroy cities in a way they’d never seen. While a lot of stop motion doesn’t age too well, Harryhausen’s work is still impressive. He did many of his animations by eye, meaning he was just keeping track of the movements himself and moving his miniature menaces inch by inch, snapping a frame, and so on. This is a process that, even on modern day productions, takes an insane amount of time and effort to produce.
Apart from monsters and dinosaur effects, films that take the time on their production to be completely stop motion animated are truly uncanny works of art. Disney’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is still an essential film for a lot of people. This imaginative story and world that was created resonates with audiences old and young. It’s halloween imagery and slightly unsettling spookiness was balanced by whimsical animation and a lot of heart. The film became a Holiday go-to. The Wallace and Gromit shorts made by Aardman Animations, as well as their many feature releases are hilariously written, and meticulously put together. Chicken Run, Pirates!, and Flushed Away were all efforts of Aardman, and delivered a big eyed cartoonish world with the flare of British humor.
In the realm of animation, stop motion is a stand out method. It brings physical characters and sets into a place where we can see inanimate things move and interact. It gives life to a clay molded character or a miniature figurine. Seeing this animation early on as a child, I think it’s at akin to seeing what you imagine when you’re playing with toys. You’re seeing a small figurine that can move/talk/roar/etc. without a visible pair of hands that has to make this happen. You’re removing the human element to show a real character made of fake material.
In 2015, the Charlie Kaufman film Anomalisa used painstakingly crafted miniatures to create a stop motion feature. The interesting difference from other stop motion features is it’s a drama. It takes place in very dull, mundane real world setting. Still, thousands of work hours, intricate sets, individual small wardrobe for the miniature characters, all were essential in crafting the film.
Major advances in stop motion have been made by Laika studios. They’re work on Coraline saw new uses of technology to create the character’s facial expressions. For the first time, 3D printing was utilized to create more detail and variety.* This method ended up being a great choice and has since been used by Laika for Paranorman, The Boxtrolls, and the upcoming Kubo and the Two Strings. Laika has achieved stop motion that is so smooth, it can make you doubt the authenticity.
One could wonder: Is stop motion still a relevant and valid form of animation, or is it’s appeal mainly based on the hard work that goes into it, making audiences give these films a pass just because of how much hard work it took?
In other words, is it necessary to make the filmmaking process this difficult?
No, it isn’t. But these films weren’t made because the director/producer/creator thought it would be easy. By embracing the use of tactile miniature design, you strive to create a world that is honestly other-worldly. Even with a film like Anomalisa, which could’ve been shot like a straight forward drama, starring regular life size actors, is a film that moves like real life never could. I think that this form of animation will stay relevant for many more years, and with the embrace of some modern technology to aid the cloth and clay and creativity of old, stop motion will continue to fascinate people with stories from beyond the real world.