The History of Stop-Motion Animation

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  • 0:03 Introducing…
  • 0:33 Early History
  • 1:39 The Golden Age
  • 3:10 Bend it Like Vinton
  • 4:24 Stop-Motion and…
  • 5:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Maura Valentino

Maura has taught college information literacy and has a master's degree in library and information science.

Learn about the history of stop-motion animation in this lesson. You can also explore the work of important stop-motion animation filmmakers from the late 1800s to the present day.

Introducing Stop-Motion Animation

A skeleton dances in the moonlight, leaving footprints in the glistening snow. He wears a tuxedo and sings a strange song as he moves through a village decorated for Christmas. His name is Jack Skellington, and he's Halloween's answer to Santa Claus. Have you entered a strange childhood dream? No, it's a scene from the film The Nightmare Before Christmas brought to life by a technique called stop-motion animation.

Early History

Stop-motion animation is based on a simple procedure: Position an object in front of your camera and then expose one frame of film. Move the object slightly and then expose a second frame. Repeat this process until the object reaches its final location. In the final product, when the frames are played in sequence, they create the illusion of movement - in the film, the object will appear to move across the screen. To create a full movie, this process is much more complicated and time-consuming, requiring tens of thousands of small, repetitive movements and scenery changes.

The first stop-motion animation film was 1898's The Humpty Dumpty Circus, created by directors and producers J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith. The film brought wooden toys to life to depict acrobats and moving animals. Blackton continued working with and developing this technique, using a blend of live action and stop-motion in The Enchanted Drawing (1900).

The Golden Age

Stop-motion animation made its first serious entry into the mainstream film industry through the work of animator Willis O'Brien. The Lost World (1925), in which O'Brien mixed stop-motion dinosaurs with live actors, was a major hit, but it was his work on King Kong (1933) that took stop-motion animation to new heights.

For King Kong O'Brien perfected many of the techniques he had developed for The Lost World. Smooth motion, realistic expressions, and improved integration with live actors made the stop-motion Kong the film's star, and earned O'Brien his place as the father of modern stop-motion animation. The film Mighty Joe Young (1949), on which O'Brien supervised the stop-motion animation special effects, was awarded an Oscar for best visual effects in 1950.

O'Brien's greatest protege was Ray Harryhausen. Harryhausen made a string of major films that advanced the art of stop-motion animation, including The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), and Clash of the Titans (1981).

Another notable Hollywood stop-motion pioneer was George Pal. His stop motion animation work appears in numerous films, the most famous of which, 1953's The War of the Worlds, won an Academy Award for best visual effects.

Bend It Like Vinton

Another important development in the history of stop-motion animation occurred when animators began to use flexible modeling clays to create their characters. Called clay animation, or claymation, this technique was used by early animators but came to prominence in the 1950s through the work of artists such as Art Clokey. Clokey's characters Gumby and Pokey appeared in short films and in the television series The Gumby Show.

Will Vinton is another major clay animation artist. Vinton coined the term 'claymation,' and his work has appeared in numerous films, television programs, and commercials. Vinton's Closed Mondays (1974), an eight-minute film about a drunk man's adventures in an art museum, won him an Oscar for best animated short film. His other notable work includes the television series The PJs (1999-2001) featuring the voice of comedian Eddie Murphy, Saturday Night Live's Mr. Bill, and a series of holiday specials including 1987's A Claymation Christmas Celebration, which won him an Emmy Award.

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