Stop Motion Animation: A Brief History

Central Rappahannock Regional Library is sponsoring a Teen Stop Motion Video Contest, September 1-22, where teens can compete to win prizes. Did you also know that stop motion animation, or the art of animating objects by moving them in small increments between individual photographic frames, is actually the oldest style of animation on film? It has a long history, featuring many different types of objects and figurines. Before you start on your own stop motion film, read about the history of the art form and the milestones in the development of this style of animation. You may find it useful to create a Kanopy account through the library's website, as many of the films mentioned in this article are available only there. 

The Early Days of Stop Motion

The history of stop motion animation is almost as long as that of film itself. The very first stop motion film produced was 1898’s The Humpty Dumpty Circus, a short film made using dolls with jointed limbs to simulate the movements of circus acrobats. Sadly, this is a lost film, and no verified stills or parts of the film have been recovered. One of the earliest surviving films to use stop motion is 1902’s Fun in a Bakery Shop, which uses a “lightning sketch” version of claymation to animate a face made out of dough. One influential early stop motion artist was Wladyslaw Starewicz, whose early stop motion works, such as Battle of the Stag Beetles and The Ant and the Grasshopper, featured dead insects with wireframe skeletons acting out dramatic plots. Although stop motion shorts such as these were popular throughout the 1910s, it would take until the early 1920s for what would today be considered feature-length stop motion pictures to be produced.  

Stop Motion and Live Action Film

The first feature-length film to make extensive use of stop motion animation was 1925’s The Lost World. An adaptation of the Arthur Conan Doyle adventure story about explorers finding a dinosaur-filled plateau in South America, The Lost World was notable for the fact that it made extensive use of stop animated models to create the most lifelike dinosaurs seen on film at the time. The dinosaurs made such an impression on audiences that their creator, Willis O’Brien, survived the transition to sound films and worked on another landmark movie, 1933’s King Kong. This film set the template of every giant monster movie to follow, but its wonderful stop motion Kong was the thing that stayed in the public imagination, inspiring many young talents to go into the field of stop motion animation.

One of these new animators was Ray Harryhausen, a stop motion animator who had a decades-long career and worked on some of the most notable stop motion science fiction films.  Kanopy offers a documentary that summarizes his career. Starting with Mighty Joe Young in 1949, Harryhausen worked on many popular science fiction films, creating aliens, prehistoric creatures, and mythic beasts in numerous films. He finally retired after completing work on 1981’s Clash of the Titans. Harryhausen’s creatures were noted for their incredible articulation, called Dynamation, that allowed them to blend well with live action footage and quirky behaviors that made them seem more like real beings than disposable special effects.  

Make Your Own Stop Motion Movie!

Stop motion has been a major part of the beauty of film animation for decades. Its development over this time has seen great strides made in innovation, model quality, subject matter, and scripting. To help you keep up to date and stay competitive in this contest, CRRL has selected several videos on the art of stop motion production to help contest competitors and anyone wanting to learn more about stop motion animation. Lynda.com features instructional videos on learning stop motion animation and utilizing after effects. There are also a number of websites that may prove useful to you. Tinkerlab’s Easy Stop Motion page provides a basic description of how stop motion works, with an easy exercise to create a short film. Wistia’s site offers a more elaborate description of how lighting and camera work should be utilized in filming. Instructables details how to create stop motion videos using a smartphone rather than a traditional camera. You may also find Makerspace and Stop Motion Central’s websites helpful in learning about stop motion techniques. The Stop Motion Studio app, available for iOS and Android, may be of use if you want to work on stop motion on a smartphone or tablet.

Stop motion’s history dates back to the dawn of film and continues to be innovated into the modern age with films such as Coraline, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Stop motion will continue to be a vital art form for decades to come as long as new artists continue to enter into the medium and experiment with it. 

Teens, why not try your own hand in our contest? During the month of September, CRRL staff at The Cage and our regularly scheduled MakerLab sessions will be available to help with questions and will have CRRL iPads available for teens to use while attending our MakerLab and The Cage sessions. Participants are welcome to film in library spaces!