A Brief History of Stop-Motion
(l to r.) Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Alvin (voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse) find more than they bargain for in Blithe Hollow’s town cemetery in ParaNorman, the new 3D stop-motion comedy thriller.
One frame at a time, a stop-motion movie comes to life.
Producer Arianne Sutner notes that it is an art form wherein “the characters are tangibly real, the sets surrounding them are hand-built, and you are envisioning everything in three dimensions.”
Producer Travis Knight adds, “It’s a process that dates back to the dawn of cinema, with a charm and a warmth and a beauty that other forms of animation – wonderful as they are – do not have. And because you effectively get one opportunity to get it right, every shot is a high-wire act.
“Generations of aspiring animators have, and continue to, experiment with it in their parents’ basements or garages. It is a magical moment for you when something is brought to life.”
Animation supervisor Brad Schiff observes, “There is a soul to the stop-motion process that is special. That comes from the tactility of what you are working with.”
For audiences and artisans alike, the stop-motion animation process was, is, and always will be uniquely enthralling. Single frame by single frame (and there are 24 frames per second in a motion picture), animators subtly and painstakingly manipulate tangible objects (characters, props, sets, etc.) on a working stage. Each frame is photographed for the motion picture camera. When the thousands of photographed frames are projected together sequentially, the characters and environment are animated in fluid and continuous movement. It is movie magic crafted by hand.
ParaNorman’s characters are brought to life through a unique art form. A stop-motion feature can be compared to a live-action feature in that there are physical sets that must be built and dressed; and players who need to be coiffed, clothed, properly lit – and directed.
But the entire world of the movie springs from the imagination, particularly from the creative minds of the animators, who move the cast members by a matter of millimeters for each individual frame. It is in this movement that the one-of-a-kind nature of the art form takes shape.
The very first example of cinematic stop-motion is cited as the 1898 short The Humpty Dumpty Circus, in which British émigrés Albert E. Smith and James Stuart Blackton used the pioneering technique to bring a toy circus of animals and acrobats to life.
European animators were the first to use puppets and other objects to relate a coherent narrative, but it was California’s Willis Harold O’Brien who made it more of an art form over decades of refinement. O’Brien’s career spanned short films, the 1925 feature The Lost World, and (with sculptor Marcel Delgado) the original King Kong (1933). The ball-and-socket metal armatures created for the latter set a template that is still used today. O’Brien was honored with an Oscar for his work on Mighty Joe Young (1949).
One of O’Brien’s apprentices on the latter film was Ray Harryhausen, who would build upon his mentor’s techniques and whose “Dynamation” would inspire generations of animators. Harryhausen masterfully combined live-action and stop-motion animation to get humans and creatures interacting in such fantastical films as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), and Jason and the Argonauts (1963).
Hungarian animator George Pal (György Pál Marczincsák) had arrived in Hollywood in the early 1940s, where he produced a series of “Puppetoon” short films for Paramount Pictures. Unlike O’Brien and Harryhausen’s techniques, Pal’s team used replacement animation, which required up to 9,000 individually hand-carved wooden puppets or parts, each slightly different, to be filmed frame-by-frame to convey the illusion of movement.
Several of Pal’s short films were nominated for Academy Awards, and Pal himself received an honorary Oscar in 1944. The director/producer continued to use puppet animation in such feature-length productions as The Great Rupert (1950), tom thumb (1958), and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962).
Millions of adults and children from two generations are well-acquainted with the work of Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass. Using a stop-motion puppet process they dubbed “Animagic,” Rankin/Bass gifted television viewers with such classic holiday specials as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) and Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970). Bass directed the team’s feature films, The Daydreamer (1966) and Mad Monster Party? (1967), which utilized the same process.
A few years later, the U.K.’s Aardman Animations was founded by Peter Lord and David Sproxton. Joined by Nick Park, the company would go on to set new standards with its Oscar-winning stop-motion/“claymation” animated short films, such as Creature Comforts and the Wallace & Gromit-toplined A Close Shave and The Wrong Trousers, before expanding into features to continuing success.
In 1982, Disney conceptual artist Tim Burton made the short film Vincent with Disney animator Rick Heinrichs. Shot in expressionist black-and-white and narrated by Vincent Price, the picture was done in stop-motion.
A decade later, Burton hand-picked a team of artists and animators to create what would become the groundbreaking stop-motion musical The Nightmare Before Christmas, from his original story, tapping his onetime California Institute of the Arts (a.k.a. CalArts) classmate and Disney colleague Henry Selick to direct the feature-length film.
The 21st century saw the founding of LAIKA, Inc., formed to present the artistry of award-winning filmmakers, designers, and animators in the field of animated entertainment and commercials. LAIKA is 550 people strong and has been acclaimed for its skill in storytelling and character performance in a variety of animation media, including 2D, CG, and stop-motion.
While LAIKA earlier had a hand in the Oscar-nominated stop-motion feature Corpse Bride (2005), directed by Tim Burton and Mike Johnson, which was made in the U.K., the company is U.S.-based in Oregon. It was there that LAIKA broke new ground with Coraline. Directed by Henry Selick, the stop-motion feature was the first one to be conceived and photographed in stereoscopic 3D, and as such was unlike anything moviegoers had ever experienced before. Sparking a stop-motion resurgence in moviemaking, Coraline was the first feature to be made at LAIKA’s Hillsboro, Oregon studios; ParaNorman is the second.
LAIKA CEO Travis Knight, who is also producer and lead animator on ParaNorman, comments, “Stop-motion is a very simple process, but to do it well is one of the hardest things to achieve. Every other form of animation is iterative, but stop-motion is progressive: you start at one place, and end in another.”
ParaNorman producer Arianne Sutner says, “It feels that now, in the 21st century, stop-motion is more prevalent than it has ever been. With our ability to now make these movies from start to finish in 3D, audiences can truly be drawn in.”
ParaNorman director Sam Fell reports that “on one of the movies that I directed prior, I wanted very much to make it in stop-motion but was obliged to make it computer-generated [CG] instead. The tools I had hoped for then are now a reality at LAIKA, where new technology has been woven into the traditional stop-motion process.”
“With this movie, LAIKA has stepped further outside the realm of what you would think of as traditional stop-motion animation,” remarks ParaNorman director Chris Butler. “Yet, one of the reasons to do this as stop-motion in the first place was because of the tradition established by Ray Harryhausen years ago; he had his monsters, and we have our zombies.”