This is an updated version of a 2009 article republished to celebrate TIFF’s upcoming Magic Motion: The Art of Stop-Motion Animation film retrospective.
When I was 10 years old my mother introduced my brother and I to the work of visual effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen. This had a profound effect on me and would eventually shape the way I looked at and thought about movies.
She’d grown up watching Jack the Giant Killer, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts and other films featuring Harryhausen’s amazing stop-motion creatures, and was eager to share the movies she had loved so much as a child with her two young boys. By this point in my life the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies were my holy grail. In fact, having just seen Jaws for the first time and Jurassic Park for perhaps the fourth or fifth time in theatres, I was pretty much fully immersed in the movie worlds of directors George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. But at the time I really had no understanding of the connection between those Harryhausen films my mother rented for us and those Lucas/Spielberg movies I so loved.
Despite living in an era that would be dominated by computer generated visual effects, I became obsessed with stop-motion animation and practical special effects. I would mold creatures out of Plasticine and build massive models and structures out of Lego, destroying them in elaborately staged scenes. Sadly, I did not have the means at my disposal to film any of these creations, but I know I would have given the opportunity. I also watched uncounted hours of the documentary series Movie Magic – a show that gave viewers a behind the scenes look at the effects that went into Hollywood blockbusters of the late 80s and early 90s.
Movie Magic taught me about the lineage of some of the great special effects pioneers, specifically those specializing in stop-motion effects. Thomas Edison, or more likely those he employed, were some of the earliest stop-motion pioneers, with early stop motion techniques appearing in Edison Company films as early as 1902. Willis O’Brien, the animator responsible for the stop-motion creature effects in 1933’s King Kong actually got his start animating movies for Edison’s company. O’Brien would in turn train and later collaborate with none other than Ray Harryhausen, the animator whose work would inspire generations of filmmakers and effects artists – not to mention a film writer or two. One such individual was Phil Tippett, who after seeing The 7th Voyage of Sinbad as a child became determined to get into the special effects business. Tippett would go on to create memorable stop-motion effects in the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies, and would eventually bring the century old craft into the digital era.
But stop-motion isn’t just about the creature effects of O’Brien, Harryhausen, and Tippett. From pinscreen animation, cut-out animation, puppet animation, and more – there are so many amazing ways in which stop-motion effects have been used over the decades.
To celebrate this great craft, we’ve assembled a list of some of the most important, impressive and interesting moments in the history of stop-motion animation.
Fun in a Bakery Shop (1902)
One of the earliest recorded uses of stop-motion animation comes from the 1902 Edison Company Film Fun in a Bakery Shop. The stop-motion technique is used to speed up the appearance of the bakers dough sculpting. Films like these would lay the foundations for later, more advanced stop-motion effects.
King Kong (1933) – The Empire State Building
Kong’s summit of the Empire State Building is without a doubt one of the most famous scenes in all of cinema. Animated by American stop-motion pioneer Willis O’Brien. O’Brien’s work on King Kong captured the imagination of the public and inspired an entire generation of stop-motion animators and future special effects pioneers. O’Brien himself mentored a young Ray Harryhausen in the years following Kong. The two would eventually collaborate on another giant gorilla movie, 1949’s Mighty Joe Young.
The precursor to the claymation classic Gumby was animator Art Clokey’s 1953 student film Gumbasia. Clokey’s claymation work was highly influential and helped create an entire animation subgenre, spawning everything from Wallace & Gromit, Clay Fighter, and Davey & Goliath.
Jason and the Argonauts (1963) – Skeleton Fight
The Argonauts’ climactic fight against the seven skeleton warriors is the reason why Ray Harryhausen is lauded as an effects genius. Never before had animated monsters interacted with human actors so convincingly or so menacingly. Remember: This was 1963 and there were no computer effects. The sequence required the actors to pretend to fight on set and took Harryhausen a total of four and a half months to complete. For the most complex shots in the sequence – when the three Argonauts and all seven skeletons are on screen – Harryhausen was only able to produce about 13 frames a day or about a half second of screen time! This one iconic scene would inspire scores of future effects craftspeople and some of today’s greatest filmmakers.
The National Film Board of Canada has long been known for its support of experimental animated films. Pinscreen animation was one such experimental technique that emerged in the 1970s. It’s a type of stop-motion that uses a screen filled with pins that can be moved by pressing an object onto the screen. Jacques Drouin’s Mindscape is just one incredible example of pinscreen animation.
The Empire Strikes Back (1980) – Battle of Hoth
If you were to ask any kid who grew up in the 80’s and early 90’s what came to mind when they thought of The Empire Strikes Back, they might very well scream “BOBA FETT!” or quote Han Solo and Princess Leia’s iconic exchange. They might also say the words “Imperial Walkers!” The Battle of Hoth is probably one the most iconic scenes from the original Star Wars Trilogy, and that’s largely due to the amazing work of ILM effects artists like Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett bringing those walkers to life.
Tim Burton’s macabre 1982 short film Vincent tells you pretty much all you need to know about the director. The spooky short, produced by Disney and narrated by the spookmeister himself Vincent Price, features all of the gothic tropes that would show up in Burton’s later work. There are heavy shades of the director’s future collaborations with animator Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas), as well as Burton’s own The Corpse Bride, which was created in an almost identical style.
RoboCop (1987) – ED-209
The ED-209 robot from Paul Verhoeven’s dystopian sci-fi satire RoboCop was brought to life using a variation of stop-motion animation called “Go motion,” co-developed by Phil Tippett (who also animated the droid in the movie). Go motion uses a variety of techniques to add a slight motion blur to the animation, which results in a more realistic looking effect. Although Tippett and Industrial Light & Magic perfected the Go motion technique, it was actually first used by animator Ladislas Starevich in the 1920s.
ED-209 represented one of the last uses of pure stop-motion effects in a major Hollywood film (save for Coneheads, also by Tippett). After 1987, computer generated effects started to become cheaper, more viable — and most importantly, more believable.
Jurassic Park (1992) – Raptor’s in the Kitchen
While this sequence wasn’t actually used in the final film, it did lay the foundations for the computer generated effects to come – and earn Phil Tippett the meme-spawning title of “Dinosaur Supervisor.”
Tippett was brought in by Steven Spielberg to test the feasibility of using stop-motion effects on Jurassic Park. With this test footage Tippett (known for his stop-motion animation work in the Star Wars films, DragonSlayer, Robocop and *sigh* Howard the Duck) proved that the dinosaur effects could be pulled off using stop-motion techniques. However, Spielberg would ultimately go with a combination of CG visual effects and animatronics for the film. Disheartened by the decision, Tippett was quoted as saying, “I’ve just become extinct” — a line Spielberg ended up using in the film. In the end though, Spielberg did use Phil Tippett’s expertise for Jurassic Park. Using a digital input armature — similar to traditional stop-motion model armatures except plugged into a computer — Tippett animated or supervised the animation of numerous sequences in the film, but Jurassic Park represented something of a death knell for traditional stop-motion animation in major Hollywood productions.
Starship Troopers (1997) – Base Defense
“Starship Troopers? Why is that on the list?” you ask no one in particular. While not technically stop-motion, the computer generated creature effects in Starship Troopers were the ultimate extension of the digital armature technique Phil Tippett helped develop for Jurassic Park. The results may have been digital, but the animation for each bug was literally done by hand, moving one frame at a time in the traditional manner and entering the data into the computer. The results, which otherwise could only be achieved by using motion capture, are more tactile and realistic. And since there were no giant sentient insects around, it’s easy to understand why the filmmakers decided to go this route.
As Ray Harryhausen’s last major work, we’d be loath to not give Clash of the Titans an honourable mention.
TIFF”s Magic Motion: The Art of Stop-Motion Animation runs from November 27 – January 3
This massive, genre-crossing retrospective explores the evolution of stop-motion animation from King Kong to Tim Burton, Jason and the Argonauts to The Terminator, the adventures of Wallace & Gromit to the mysterious worlds of Jan Svankmajer and the Quay Brothers.