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Our Favorite Stop-Motion Animated Films...and Why They Blew Us Away
More than just clay: Stop Motion Films pioneered our modern view of animation, and these ten films show us why!
No matter the medium, the principles of animation remain the same. Whether you're sculpting with clay, Zbrush, or in virtual reality, there is something remarkable about hand-made characters. In the past, we've talked about our favorite animated films and how their styles wow us to this day. Now, we want to look at an old-school method that, thankfully, never went out of fashion.
Stop Motion Animation has been around for over a century, since Blackton and Smith's The Humpty Dumpty Circus (1898) used dolls and wires to ignite their audience's imagination. If you relax the definition a little, you can even find the origins of the style in Chronophotography from the Victorian Era, where a number of still images were rapidly cycled to create the illusion of movement.
During the silent film era in the early 1900s, revolutionary filmmakers experimented with their cameras, using the "stop trick" to dazzle movie-goers with impossible magic. Take the 1908 film Hôtel életrique, showing off effects that still impress to this day.
With modern technology, stop motion animation is capable of so much more than just spectacle. We recently had a chance to sit down with an incredible creator and director, Cat Solen, to talk about her new Adult Swim project "The Shivering Truth." Combining traditional animation style with a truly unique and dark sense of humor, the show is a perfect example of an artist demonstrating their voice.
In short, this is a style that we love to see, and the following films (and shorts, and music videos) highlight why.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
The movie that made Hot Topic a household name. It’s certainly peak Tim Burton when it comes to it’s combination of bleak-meets-charm character and world design. You can't deny that this film is DRIPPING with Burton-esque style.
But the true mastermind behind the modern classic that pushed the medium forward—and perhaps saved it for mainstream audiences—was it’s director, Henry Selick.
With wild colors, incredible art and character design, and humor for all ages, this is a classic that demonstrates the versatility of the medium.
Plus, even years later, this music slaps.
If you're not humming that in the shower later today, check your pulse.
Lord and Park honed their style with the wonderfully British Wallace and Gromit, a series that is less "a man and his dog" and more "a dog and his man." Taking their short film sensibilities and translating them to a feature was no small task, and the end result was a remarkable—and impressively mature—tale.
Unlike Nightmare, Chicken Run's cast all have very similar features, both human and chicken. Despite this, you'll easily be able to tell the cast apart based on their impeccable animation.
It has to be seen if only for it’s Great Escape influenced finale.
Now if we could just get a sequel going...
Kubo and the Two Strings
Laika’s tour de force anime-inspired family film pushed all the boundaries of stop-motion, even stretching the definition of what can be called stop-mo these days. Utilizing advances in 3D printing, crafting rigs of incredibly intricate detail and monstrous scales, and informed by modern CG animation and modeling techniques, the only thing that matches the film itself are the amazing behind-the-scenes videos showing how far Laika has pushed the industry. Of particular interest is this time lapse showing the creation of the insanely ambitious fight scene aboard a boat being rocked by waves, the monstrous giant-sized skeleton spirit, and 3D-printing every face.
Laika is one of our favorite studios, and their one-of-a-kind style creates a truly memorable movie experience.
Somehow, stop-motion films have a gravitational pull for arthouse directors looking for a new creative outlet. Not unlike Wes Anderson’s forays into the technique, Charlie Kaufman uses surreal, lifelike puppets to explore similar territory as Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind. And, if you’re a Community fan? Dan Harmon and Dino Stamatopoulos had their hands in the creation of this one.
Far from just a gimmick, the use of stop motion compliments the storytelling, keeping the audience feeling uneasy during even the most mundane scenes. It is a great demonstration of how style can enhance substance.
No matter what your style, never accept limitations. If a 30-second commercial can make you cry, anything is possible.
CONTENT WARNING: Robocop 2 is very violent. Viewer discretion is advised.
Released three years before Jurassic Park changed the VFX industry forever, Phil Tippet and his team realized what is perhaps the most impressive (and complicated) puppet to show up on-screen in a live-action film – ROBOCAIN.
Designed as a response to the first film’s relatively simple (and iconic) ED-209 robot, Tippet Studios' masterpiece has to be seen to be believed.
The mixture of live-action and stop motion may seem like a bit of a throwback, but when done right it is oh-so-satisfying.
Wait, wasn’t Jurassic Park the movie that ushered in CGI to modern movie-going audiences and, as Phil Tippet would later say, “the the shot in the head that killed stop motion”? You wouldn’t be wrong to think that—but did you know that originally the Star-Wars-special-effects-veteran was planning on producing all the dino effects with a cutting edge go-motion technique that allowed for in-camera motion blur? For ages, these effects tests were urban legend, but thanks to the magic of Youtube, you can see almost all of the work Tippet Studios put into proving that they could craft believable and frightening dinosaurs for Spielberg’s mega-blockbuster.
One curious wrinkle: Tippet and team pioneered the use of the DID, or the Dinosaur-Input-Device while working up tests for JP, which allowed for animators to create all of the movement for a shot before a frame of film was recorded. Animators would use devices that allowed them to pose and record movement that would later be played back, ushering in the way forward for how all of us animate characters today.
Bruce Lee VS Iron Man
Extreme camera movement, shallow depth of field, tons of lighting effects—all on display here in this 59-second film from Canadian animator Patrick Boivin that’s racked up 20 MILLION VIEWS over the last decade. It’s a perfect example of what’s possible these days with modern filmmaking tools that we all have access to—not to mention some amazingly detailed and articulated action figures to boot! Low cost DSLR’s, accessible motion control hardware, and the emergence of Dragonframe as the go-to software for animators everywhere has brought stop-motion to the masses.
Now stop reading and start watching! We guarantee you won't see this twist coming.
All those years playing with action figures can finally pay off!
Spongebob Squarepants: The Legend of Boo-kini Bottom
Proving itself to be perhaps the most malleable animated character of all-time, Spongebob and crew were born in traditional cel animation but have faithfully been recreated in videogame pixel art, eye-popping CG feature animation, vinyl toys, and even within Minecraft—but this Halloween stop-motion short is the most deliciously tactile version of the little yellow square dude to date.
What is most impressive is how the animators translated every single detail and quirk from the original style into this new medium.
Your inner child just smiled a little wider. Though, given what's up next, they might want to look away.
"Sober" — Tool
It’s one thing to be part of arguably the most influential rock band of a generation, but to also be the stop-motion artist on the band’s groundbreaking and award-winning music videos too? Well, that’s exactly what Adam Jones did. Having previously worked on special effects for movies like Jurassic Park and Terminator 2, Adam directed and designed Tool’s creepy and freaky works of art.
With minuscule figures and a looming, oppressive perspective, Sober perfectly fits the style of Tool's iconic sound.
Now from a master of a few arts to a legend of one.
We would be rightfully flayed if we failed to mention Ray Harryhausen, the undisputed king of feature film stop-motion animation. If you haven’t seen Jason and the Argonauts, it’s worthy of your time—not only to understand how influential Ray Harryhausen still is on the art form, but just to revel in how, despite his out-sized talent, the amount of work he put into his characters is truly his lasting mark on the industry.
As artists, we strive to perfect our craft and stand out from the pack. Well, in order to be the best, even before you beat the best, you should meet the best. Ray, the gold standard everyone aims for.
Here at School of Motion, we are fans of every type of animation, from hand-drawn cels to virtually crafted worlds. We've found that when looking toward the future, it's always a good idea to get some perspective from the past.
Bring Your Own Characters to Life
If you're like us, the first thing you did after finishing this article was grab a lump of clay and a camera. What, was that just us? Really? Well, if you’ve ever tried to animate a character in After Effects, you know how difficult it can be. That's why we put together Character Animation Bootcamp.
In this course, you'll learn key character animation techniques in After Effects. From simple movements to complex scenes, you'll be confident in your character animation skills by the end of this course.