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How was stop motion animation developed?

This article will give an outline of the development, history and main principles of stop motion animation. It will make reference to pioneers and the differences of principles, conventions and techniques.

Techniques of Stop Motion

The techniques utilised in stop motion have varied over time. However, three principles still remain the focus of stop motion animation techniques.

Persistence of Vision

Persistence of vision refers to the optical illusion that occurs during movement of an object. It occurs when the visual perception of an object does not cease for some time after the rays of light proceeding from it have ceased to enter the eye.

The invention of the thaumatrope is usually credited to British physician John Ayrton Paris. The thaumatrope housed a rotating mechanism with a different picture on each side. When rotated, you saw a combined picture which is known as persistence of vision.

Stop Frame

The stop-frame or stop motion technique was first credited to the animation “The Humpty Dumpty Circus” in 1897.  It was created by Albert E. Smith and J. Stuart Blackton.

This is the method of making still objects seem as if they are moving. It is done by taking a photograph of a still object, moving it a little, then taking another photograph and so on. The photographs are played in a sequence and it gives the illusion of a moving object.

Frame rates

Frame rates are the speed of which the number of images moves per second in a sequence.

Eadweard Muybridge was the pioneer of this who set it up at Stanford’s stud farm at Palo Alto from 1877 to 1879. He set up a camera shed with 12 (later 24) cameras each with shutters attached to threads. 24 frames are a significant number as this is still used in cameras as the frame rate per second today. 

Stop Motion Development pioneers:

The best way to tell the history of stop motion is to discuss the developers over time.

Joseph Plateau (phenakistoscope)

The phenakistoscope featured spinning disks reflected in mirrors that made it seem like the pictures were moving.

In 1832, Belgian physicist Joseph Plateau and his sons introduced the phenakistoscope (“spindle viewer”). The phenakistoscope consisted of two discs mounted on the same axis.  One disc had slots around the edge, the other contained drawings of successive actions around the disc in concentric circles.

William Horner (Zoetrope)

The zoetrope was a drum that housed images on long interchangeable strips. When it spun it made the images appear to move. The zoetrope was invented in 1834 by William Horner. The zoetrope was originally called a Daedalum (“wheel of the Devil”).  It was based on Plateau’s phenakistoscope but was more convenient since it did not require a viewing mirror. It also allowed more than one person to use it at the same time.

Emile Reynaud (praxinoscope)

The praxinoscope expanded on the zoetrope, using multiple wheels to rotate images. It is considered to have shown the first prototypes of the animated cartoon. The Praxinoscope is a typical optical toy from the 19th century. It consists of a cylinder and a strip of paper showing twelve frames (a key number for FPS) for animation. As the cylinder rotates, stationary mirrors in the centre reveal a ‘single image’ in motion. The Praxinoscope was invented in 1876 by Charles-Émile Reynaud (1844-1918).

Edward Muybridge

The Zoopraxiscope was essentially a projecting version of the old Phenakistoscope or ‘spinning picture disk’ invented by Eadweard Muybridge. From his camera shed (12 cameras later 24 as previously stated), he set up threads that a horse ran through. When the horse broke a thread as it passed in front of the camera, the shutter dropped and an instant exposure was taken. The device projected sequences of images from glass discs and was devised in order to prove the authenticity of Muybridge’s galloping horse pictures. The earlier Zoogyroscope took the 16-inch discs while the latter Zoopraxiscope took the 12-inch discs.

Edison (kinetoscope)

The Kinetoscope was a forerunner of the motion-picture film projector. It was invented by Thomas A. Edison and William Dickson of the United States in 1891. In it, a strip of film was passed rapidly between a lens and an electric light bulb. The viewer then peered through a peephole. 

Behind the peephole was a spinning wheel with a narrow slit that acted as a shutter. This permitted a momentary view of each of the 46 frames passing in front of the shutter every second. The result was a lifelike representation of persons and objects in motion. At first, Edison regarded his invention as an insignificant toy. He secured a U.S. patent, but neglected to obtain patents in other countries. In 1894, when the Kinetoscope was finally publicly exhibited on Broadway, in New York City, it created an immediate sensation. Several Kinetoscopes sold in Europe which formed the basis of the first apparatus used to project motion-picture film.

Lumière brothers

The Lumiere brothers invented the cinematographe. Their Cinématographe combined a camera for recording the movement, a printer and, when connected to “a magic lantern”, a projector. About the same size of an ordinary handheld still camera, the Cinématographe differed from the Kinetoscope in many ways. notably in its size and weight. Like Edison, the Lumières used 35mm film. Unlike Edison, they opted for a film speed of 16 fps as opposed to the 46 fps.

Advancing the Techniques of Stop Motion

Once the technique was developed to create stop motion, the following became the people who took stop motion to another level.

George Pal

Born in 1908 in Cegléd, Austria-Hungary, Pal began experimenting and creating small wooden figures and filming in the early 1930s. While he was a young man in his twenties he working in Berlin with the famed UFA Studios. It was in this period that he obtained a patent for his technique. 

While at Paramount, Pal made a series of stop-action films called Puppetoons. These films were shown in movie theatres beside full-length features.

The film shorts and commercials were soon joined by feature-length films. He worked on the MGM musical fantasies Tom Thumb (1958) and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962). Both films combined live-action with stop-action puppet sequences. George Pal received many honours for his pioneering work in films. He won ten Academy Award nominations and five Oscars. He won an honorary award in 1944 for “the development of novel methods and techniques in the production of short subjects”.

Willis O’Brien

While unrealized in his lifetime, Willis “Obie” Obrien’s mastery of animation has helped inspire the mind’s eye of generations. Obie’s innovative methods caught the attention of the Edison Company, who hired him to produce several prehistorically themed shorts.  In his early pieces, Willis’ characters consisted mainly of clay. 

As both his career and skills grew, so did the intricacy of his models. Complex articulated armatures covered with rubber skins would dominate the models Willis would build and design. Some of O’Brien’s designs even included a rubber bladder that allowed his creatures to “breathe”.  By inflating and deflating the bladder, his creations could fight, move, and give the appearance of breathing. To develop his portrayal of “Kong, O’Brien frequented zoos to study the gorilla’s movements. 

Likewise, he would attend wrestling matches to observe their interactions and improve the choreography of his creatures’ battles. This attention to detail coupled with his own life experiences is what set O’Brien’s work apart. Though his method of live-action mixed with stop motion animation is a standard process today, the special effects techniques developed by Willis O’Brien was groundbreaking.  For the first time, a cellulose-acetate screen was used for rear projection. This new type of cellulose screen was flexible and stretched over a frame like a canvas.

Ray Harryhausen

Raymond Frederick “Ray” Harryhausen (June 29, 1920 – May 7, 2013) was an American-British artist, designer, visual effects creator, writer, and producer. He created a form of stop-motion model animation known as “Dynamation”.

His most memorable works include the animation on Mighty Joe Young (1949), with his mentor Willis H. O’Brien. This won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects;

Groundbreaking visual effects artist Ray Harryhausen refined and elevated stop-motion animation to an art.

His Dynamation technique of matting animated creatures into live-action settings revolutionized the use of stop-motion visual effects in feature films.

Ray Harryhausen’s creations aren’t the most realistic in the realm of special effects, but Ray’s touch is instantly recognizable. His creations are absolutely alive. In each frame, his creatures move, twitch, breathe, act with personality and pathos. Other low-budget movies of the time couldn’t match the technical competence and respect for the subject as Harryhausen’s films.

Dynamation

Also called the “split-screen” process. This is due to the way the screen appears to be split while the animation is enacted in the middle.  

The split-screen was a simple process that used mattes to block out portions of the film. The film only develops from the light that escapes through the eye of a camera. Therefore any portion that is blackened out remains undeveloped. If the film is rewound the portion that was blackened can then be used again. This technique was used as far back as the early 1900s, however, Ray Harryhausen became the master of the technique.

Dynamation used a model in between the matte and the background image to create a three-layered image. The first step in the Dynamation process was to plan out in detail the movements of the model. Then it was to film the live-action scene with the actors. A stick or stand-in crew members were used to represent the movements and position of the creature.

Jan Švankmajer

Švankmajer has gained a reputation over several decades for his distinctive use of stop-motion technique. He had an ability to make surreal, nightmarish, and yet somehow funny pictures. He continues to make films in Prague.

Švankmajer’s trademarks include very exaggerated sounds, often creating a very strange effect in all eating scenes. He often uses fast-motion sequences when people walk or interact. His movies often involve inanimate objects being brought to life through stop motion. Many of his films also include clay objects in stop motion known as claymation. Food is a favourite subject and medium.

He is a self-labelled surrealist known for his animations and features. These have greatly influenced other artists such as Terry Gilliam, the Brothers Quay, and many others.

Contemporary Artists who use Stop Motion Animation

The following stop motion artists still influence the works of stop motion and film today.

The Brothers Quay

Known for introducing subversive darkness rarely seen in animation, their works inspired the filmmakers, Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton. Street of Crocodiles is the Quay Brothers’ most recognized classic.

The short animation, washed in a blue and sepia tint, is based on the short novel of the same title written by Polish writer Bruno Schultz who was killed by a Nazi officer. 

Tim Burton

Tim Burton got his start in animation with Disney. He directed well-received short films such as “Vincent” (1982) and “Frankenweenie” (1984). He then went on to making feature-length movies. Burton was compelled to utilize stop-motion animation. This was because it could bring something purely imagined to vivid life in a way that 2-D animation couldn’t. In 1993, Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas brought stop-motion animation back to the forefront of filmmaking. Its success proved that audiences still respond to this medium even in the face of computer-animated films.

Aardman Animation

Aardman’s has an adeptness of engaging audiences with compelling stories told through animation. This has earned the company a deserved worldwide reputation. Their award-winning work produces a unique brand of independent film alongside work for broadcast and advertising spots. The studio has had ten Oscar nominations and has won four.

Peter Lord and David Sproxton began their animating partnership at school. In 1972 they registered the name Aardman Animations. After graduating, they moved to Bristol in 1976 where they produced their first professional production. They created “Morph” for the children’s programme ‘Take Hart’.

The Company has gone on to produce and make several feature-length films as well shorts for TV and created adverts for several companies. 

Their animations are very unique and can be clearly identified as an Aardman production.

Genres of Stop Motion

There are many genres and forms of which stop motion is used in media today.

TV animation

Stop motion animation has been used for full feature TV production as well as short sequences to break up programmes.

The lovable Claymation character Morph lived on Tony Hart’s desk. Morph was used to break up sections of Tony’s creative sections.

“In 2013 Morph creator Peter Lord launched a campaign to bring Morph back for a new series of adventures! Using the crowd-funding website Kick-starter, Peter appealed to fans to help Morph make a comeback in return for a host of exclusive rewards.”

Postman Pat is a well-known stop motion animation which was made originally during the 1980s. It was official release 16th September 1981 by Woodland Animations for Children’s BBC productions.

Tom Sanders has a very interesting WordPress site on Ivor Wood, one of the producers of Postman Pat. Ivor Wood has also worked on many previous stop motion animations such as The Magic Roundabout.

Channel Idents

Channel idents are used to break between programmes and adverts. Stop motion is a useful way to produce these.

Cinema

Full length feature stop motion animation is still very rare compared to other feature length productions. Stop motion was used as part of features originally but have come a long way from their initial uses.

Advertising

Aardman were probably the leaders in creating humorous adverts for TV.

Music videos

In 1986, Peter Gabriel suggested that they collaborate with director Stephen Johnson and the Brothers Quay to create a new rock video. Sledgehammer went on to collect almost every award that year. (Read more on the history of music video)

Computer games

Most computer games use digital imagery, however some games have used stop motion as part of the development of the game. Currently there is a stop motion game being produced called Harold Halibut.

Information, Communication and Technology

Images can now display animation in a similar way to stop motion. These are called GIFs and are used for different types of media as well as communicating with each other.

There are still other uses of stop motion animation that can be found but this has shown some developers of the techniques as well as contemporary works by different directors and companies. It has also highlighted how stop motion animation has been used in different forms of media. Thanks for reading.

About the Author

David Mitchell has a qualification in Creative Media Production Level 3 Diploma with “Triple Distinction”. In 2018 David was also the winner of The Best Student Award at the Golden Apple Awards in Cumbria.

Moo Man Media's Director David Mitchell can provide full music video production needs for you or your band

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