Monsters and Myths by Millimeters: Stop Motion Animation

By Edward Gambichler

Monsters and Myths by Millimeters

Stop Motion Animation : Is It a Lost Art Form?

     As I glance up from the keyboard to my iMac, typing up this essay, I can see nothing dangerous about it. It certainly gives all the appearance of being innocuous enough. As a matter of fact, I can’t begin to list the number of benefits owning one has given me, either as a source of entertainment, information, or social interaction. As a fan of movie special effects, however, I have to recognize that graphics generated by it has replaced a number of the specialized crafts that have flourished in the film industry. Matte painting ( the art of compositing a painted background with live action film ), miniatures ( the art of small scale model-making to convey full scale objects such as spaceships and backgrounds), and puppetry ( the art of fabricating puppets made up of  strings and levers manipulated by human operators to convey life in fantastic creatures ). Of all the crafts that I have listed, the one that has been effected by the advent of these computer generated images the most ( or CGI as they are known ) is animation. In particular, “stop motion animation”.

Stop motion animation is the art of manipulating a small scale model an inch at a time, taking a picture of each movement with one frame of film, so that when the film is played back as a whole, the object is given the illusion of Life. The “stop trick”, as it was known, was discovered accidentally by film-maker George Melies ( director of A Trip to the Moon ). One of the earliest and most popular examples of this art form is the 1933 RKO Radio Pictures film King Kong. It was animated by stop motion pioneer Willis O’ Brien whose early unfinished project, Creation, was shelved in favor of this one. Most of the sets and models for Creation were used in the Kong production. O’ Brien went on to animate its sequel Son of Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949) , another stop motion classic which garnered O’ Brien an Academy award for Best Visual Effects. His protege and assistant on that film ( and who is widely believed to be the one who handled the majority of animation for that film ) was Ray Harryhausen, another master of the craft. Harryhausen went on to animate such classics as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), One Million Years B.C. (1966), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974), Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), and his most well known film, the original Clash of the Titans (1981). It is the skeleton fight scene in Jason and the Argonauts that is considered by many ( including Harryhausen himself ) to be his masterwork.


Stop motion animation was continued through the 80’s by visual effects artist Phil Tippett ( who handled the majority of character animations in the first Star Wars trilogy in 1977, 1980, and 1983 respectively ). Using his variation of stop motion called “go motion” ( which gives the object that is being animated a realistic motion blur that is absent from regular stop motion ), Tippet went on to do the animations for the films Dragonslayer (1982), Robocop  (1987) and its sequel Robocop 2 (1990), and Willow (1988). Tippett was suppose to handle the majority of the dinosaur animations in the film, Jurassic Park (1993), until effects artist Dennis Muren showed the film’s director Steven Spielberg a test reel depicting CGI dinosaurs. Upon seeing the test reel and the advanced progress made by CGI animators, Spielberg famously replied to Tippett, “You’re out of a job”. Since then, it seems the majority of creature animation is handled by CGI.


Today, if one were to go the route of stop motion animation, the decision to do so would be ( in my opinion ) based on purely aesthetic reasons. Tim Burton is one film-maker who chooses to utilize stop motion for his animated projects, with Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) , James and the Giant Peach (1996), Corpse Bride (2005) and the upcoming Frankenweenie (2012) among his most notable contributions. Another pair of film-makers are identical twins and influential stop motion animators Stephen and Timothy, known around the world as the “Brothers Quay”( whose legendary animated film Streets of Crocodiles (1986) has been known to be a major influence for industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails’ video for their hit single, “Closer” ). As well as four time Academy award winner British stop motion animator Nick Park, creator of the Wallace and Gromit series and co-director of Chicken Run (2000).

With recent films like Coraline (2009) based on Neil Gaiman’s novel and the recent Paranorman (2012), it doesn’t look like Hollywood will be mothballing stop-motion animation anytime soon. There’s a great deal of beauty and admiration to the amount of work and detail that goes into the production of these films. A level of artistry that cannot be reached by a computer with pre-programmed graphics manipulations that can be found in software like Maya. When I compare 1933’s King Kong with its recent remake from 2005, I am impressed with the level of realism achieved with the CGI in conveying the gorilla. However, I can’t help feeling that Hollywood is defeating its own purpose by embracing the computer advancements in this field. Movies are fantasy and there should be a limit to the amount of realism conveyed on the big screen. Just ask yourself……..when was the last time you were captivated by a movie’s FX? As CGI becomes the norm, I’m afraid we and future generations will stop asking the one question that truly conveys the artistry of movie special effects……”How the hell did THEY do that”?

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