What is Stop-Motion Animation? - Definition & Techniques

Instructor: Maura Valentino

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

Explore the different techniques used to create stop-motion animation and discover how stop-motion animation can be used to bring inanimate objects to life.

The Magic of Stop-Motion Animation

A couple sits in a crowded theater. They can't take their eyes off the screen as a towering dinosaur chases a screaming woman. Suddenly, a giant gorilla appears and attacks! The gorilla grabs the dinosaur's jaws and tears them apart. The young couple stares wide-eyed at the screen.

Are they enjoying the latest Jurassic Park movie? No, it's 1933, and they're watching the classic film King Kong. Long before computers brought Jurassic Park's dinosaurs to life, audiences gasped in fear at King Kong thanks to a technique called stop-motion animation.

What is Animation?

The technique of using multiple images viewed in rapid succession to suggest motion is called animation. To better understand animation, try this: Imagine yourself holding a book where each page features a photograph of a cup sitting on a table. You notice that every picture is different, as if the photographer rotated the cup slightly before capturing each image. When you flip rapidly through the pages, the cup appears to spin. This is a basic example of animation.

A basic flipbook of a spinning cup helps us understand animation.
Image of flipbook

What is Stop-Motion Animation?

There are many different types of animation. Traditional cell animation uses images drawn or painted by hand, and computer animation uses images created with computer hardware and software. Stop-motion animation uses images created with objects such as paper cutouts or clay models.

Stop-motion animation is based on a simple process. The artist places all of the objects to be animated in their initial positions. An image of the objects is then captured on film or on another media such as a memory card. Then the objects are moved to slightly different positions and another image is recorded. Typically, this process is repeated hundreds or even thousands of times.

For example, imagine you want to create a video using stop-motion animation featuring a bunch of pens that move in a circular pattern. You begin by positioning the pens in a circle and take a photograph with your digital camera. You move the pens slightly in a clockwise direction and take another photograph. Then repeat this process over and over until you have taken hundreds of photographs.

You then transfer the photographs to your computer where you use special software to create a video which rapidly displays the photographs in the order they were taken. When you watch the video, the pens move in a circle just as you imagined. You've just created your first stop-motion animation.

Objects are repositioned for the next stop-motion animation shot.
Image of stop-motion animation

Stop-Motion Animation Techniques

Stop-motion animation techniques include object animation, clay animation, puppet animation, and cutout animation. The primary difference among these techniques is the type of object used to create the animation. Stop-motion animation can also be combined with live action movie or video footage using a process called compositing.

Object animation is one of the most widely used stop-motion techniques. In this type of animation, simple objects are used to create the animation. For example, a photographer might use a child's rubber duck instead of a detailed chicken model with movable body parts.

Stop-motion animation using more complex models with detailed textures and movable parts is called puppet animation. Puppet animation derives its name from the fact that the complex models used look and move like puppets. Tim Burton's film The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) was made using stop-motion puppet animation.

Tim Burton uses complex puppet animation models in some of his films.
Image of stop-motion puppet model

Clay animation, also known as claymation, has been used to create some very memorable stop-motion animation. The objects used in clay animation are created with flexible modeling clays such as Plasticine. This allows the objects to be bent slightly or completely reshaped. Gumby is probably one of the most recognizable characters in clay animation. The character appeared in several television shows, including The Gumby Show, in the 1960s.

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