Imagine you have a small film studio, and you’ve set up a table-sized platform with an artfully-arranged miniature landscape on top. A couple figurines–maybe dinosaurs–are posed among snippets of shrubs and tree branches serving as a jungle. There’s a painted backdrop of mountains and sky, and everything is lit brightly with hot lights; your hand-cranked camera is in the exact spot you need it, ready to go. You carefully adjust the figurines, then crank the camera–only turning the handle once. You adjust the figurines again, and again crank the camera handle once. You adjust them again–but not because they don’t look right to you.
Nope, this is your peculiar, unique art form, requiring complete dedication, patience, and foresight–stop motion animation. Full work days go by as you patiently adjust the figures under the hot lights again and again, now and then stopping to repair them as their latex skins start showing signs of wear and tear. After a few weeks, you’ll have a sequence a few minutes long–and on film, the miniature scene will be full of life.
While less common than CGI nowadays, stop motion animation still has its place in the entertainment landscape. If anything, in the CGI era it seems even more impressive, being such a painstaking art that’s certainly not for the faint of heart (or anyone even approaching ADHD). Thanks to classic features like Jason and the Argonauts, the ubiquitous Rankin/Bass Christmas specials and the works of Tim Burton and Wes Anderson, its uncanny, slightly jerky style of motion has its place in all of our memories.
Like nearly any other cinematic innovation you can think of, stop motion animation has its roots in the silent era. Not everyone realizes, however, that it extends all the way back to the 1890s–or that the general process behind stop motion would be discovered long before that. It turns out that Jack Skellington owes quite a bit to Eadweard Muybridge.
Many credit Muybridge as the father of cinema due to his famous 1870s discovery of how to recreate a real-life moving image. Making hand-drawn figures move was old hat thanks to magic lantern shows, where cartoon slides could be quickly changed to create the illusion of movement. Other optical illusion toys, like zoetropes and thaumatropes, accomplished the same effect. There was even a style of photography called chronophotography that could capture separate images of, say, a man walking or a bird flying all in one frame–to beautiful effect.
Muybridge, however, was the first to recreate movement from life by using a row of cameras attached to trip wires to take photos of a running horse, and then combining them so viewers could watch the horse gallop. The same principles apply to stop motion, where objects are moved incrementally and shot on film one frame at a time, and then run at normal speed to create lifelike movement.
If we’re wondering who was the first actual filmmaker credited with discovering the stop motion process, we only need remember: everything in cinema is six degrees of separation from Georges Méliès. As he later wrote in Les Vues Cinématographiques in 1907, he stumbled upon the technique during a busy afternoon’s filming in 1896:
An obstruction of the apparatus that I used in the beginning (a rudimentary apparatus in which the film would often tear or get stuck and refuse to advance) produced an unexpected effect one day when I was prosaically filming the Place de L’Opéra; I had to stop for a minute to free the film and to get the machine going again. During this time passersby, omnibuses, cars, had all changed places, of course. When I later projected the film, reattached at the point of the rupture, I suddenly saw the Madeleine-Bastille bus changed into a hearse, and men changed into women. The trick-by-substitution, called the stop trick, had been invented and two days later I performed the first metamorphosis of men into women and the first sudden disappearances that had, at the beginning, such a great success.
Méliès basically fell in love with this magical “stop-action”–his films are stuffed with examples of the technique, from the ghosts that pop up in The Haunted Castle (1896) to that iconic moment of the rocket hitting the moon in A Trip to the Moon (1902). A former stage magician, he seemingly never tired of making objects appear, disappear and transform on that enchanting screen.
If Muybridge set the foundation for stop motion and Méliès got the ball rolling, the biggest innovator of the art may have been James Stuart Blackton, a British film pioneer who helped found Vitagraph in New York City. In 1897 he and fellow founder Albert E. Smith made the same discovery as Méliès after a days’ worth of filming on the roof of a building. When playing the footage later they discovered some unusual effects–while they were starting and stopping the camera, steam from a vent seemed to morph into different shapes. Intrigued, they experimented with the effect and soon figured out how to make objects appear to move. This resulted in The Humpty Dumpty Circus (1898), considered the first animated short (sadly its lost today). Charmingly, the “stars” were wooden toys that belonged to Blackton’s daughter.
Numerous other filmmakers began to use stop motion methods around the same time, of course, especially in America and Britain. They were mainly used for “magical” trick effects, or to catch viewers’ attention in short advertisements. One standout animator was Arthur Melbourne-Cooper, perhaps the first to see stop motion animation not just as a “trick” effect, but as a new, novel way to tell stories. He started by making an animated propaganda film called Matches Appeal (1899), which encouraged the British public to donate matches to soldiers fighting in the Boer War (if you weren’t already aware of how far back his work went). Its humble subjects were puppets made out of matchsticks who write their appeal on a black wall. The film became so popular that Melbourne-Cooper decided to create a series of little films with puppet animation–including a proto-Toy Story called Dolly’s Toys (1901). (I need to add that it’s been debated whether Matches Appeal was released in 1899 or later, but that’s a subject for a different post–at any rate, Melbourne-Cooper was still an important animator.)
One of Melbourne-Cooper’s best works is Dreams of Toyland (1908), a short that still impresses today with its level of detail. A boy dreams of a land populated by toys, and we’re shown a miniature street full of strolling, running, and transportation-riding toys. With its numerous figures, it had one of the most ambitious stop motion animation sequences yet, especially since the hand-cranked cameras didn’t leave much margin for error.
Other noteworthy early shorts include Princess Nicotine, or The Smoke Fairy (1909) with a scene showing rose petals whirling themselves into a cigar (well, that is what happens) and The “Teddy” Bears (1907), where six stuffed teddy bears are shown dancing. Another classic is The Haunted House (1908), showcasing a skilled sequence where stop motion gives the illusion of “ghosts” serving a tea. Indeed, animators starting mastering the technique surprisingly early on.
An excerpt from the 1912 book Moving Picture, How They Are Made and Worked discussed stop motion, considered quite marvelous at the time:
Another favorite artifice, with which some truly bewildering effects can be produced, is known as the “stop motion” or “one turn one picture” movement. As may be imagined from the latter explanatory title, it resolves itself into a pause between each picture, instead of continuous exposure to record sixteen pictures per second…As may be supposed, the task calls for unremitting patience and perseverance, because it is so exasperatingly slow…
The Americans have brought the “one turn one picture” movement to a high state of perfection, and have produced some astonishing pictures as a result of its application. One is introduced to a magic carpenter’s shop, where tools are manipulated without hands and where the wood springs from the floor to the bench, is planed, sawn, chiseled, and fashions itself into a box or whatever article is desired by an apparently mysterious and invisible force.
One important 1910s innovator was the Polish-Russian Ladislas Starevich (as he would eventually spell it–his named started out as Władysław Starewicz). He became interested in the craft in a decidedly unusual way. Originally the Director of the Museum of Natural History in Kaunas, Lithuania, he started making documentaries about the natural world around 1910 and wanted to film a stag beetle fight. Finding out it was impossible to capture live, battling beetles in the more primitive studio settings of yore, he created puppets using actual dead beetles and recreated the fight with stop motion. He would follow up this slightly macabre film with more slightly macabre films using dead insects and other animals–some of them, like the fanciful The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912), are considered classics today.
Stop motion wasn’t merely used for fanciful effects, but for practical ones, too. With enough care, miniature trains could convincingly simulate a full-scale train crash, and dangerous stunts could be safely accomplished using small human figures. Detailed cityscapes could be created too–a famous example being the futuristic city from Metropolis (1927).
One of the most unique animators from the 1920s–or indeed of any era–is Charley Bowers. The former head of the studio responsible for the Mutt and Jeff cartoons, he became fascinated by stop motion. In the mid-20s he starred in his own series of comedy shorts that were essentially showcases for “The Bowers Process,” as he grandly called it. His surreal, wildly imaginative visions are unmatched by any other shorts I can think of, concocting such sights as live cats growing from pussy willows, a dancing ostrich made of broomsticks, and a doll using a squirrel as a steed. It’s no wonder he was drawn to that eccentric wonder, stop motion animation.
And one of the finest artists in the genre was Lotte Reiniger, a Berlin native whose attraction to animation lead to her working at the Theatre of Max Reinhardt, designing props and costumes. She started animating around 1918, using delicately-designed, backlit silhouettes, eventually creating lauded films like The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926). While her style is considered a subgenre of cutout animation (using paper or cardboard figures on flat backgrounds) it utilized the same basic process as stop motion puppetry.
And the most significant 1920s animator of all is Willis O’Brien, the visionary behind the dinosaurs that made The Lost World (1925) such a classic. Deeply creative, as a youth he drifted from job to job, eventually ending up as a marble sculptor (it’s a long story). While fooling around with some clay models one day he thought he could make the figurines “move” using the same process as hand-drawn animation, and quickly decided to become an animator.
Being fascinated with dinosaurs, as early as 1914 he was experimenting with movable dinosaur models, hoping to bring those prehistoric creatures back to “life.” Films like The Dinosaur and the Missing Link (1915) and The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (1919) were fitting preparation for his 1925 masterwork. The Lost World was the first feature to include dinosaurs, and O’Brien put loving detail into them, including small bladders in the chest areas that appeared to make the creatures “breathe.” O’Brien would later work on the monumental King Kong, and his protege would be the legendary Ray Harryhausen, animator behind classics like Jason and the Argonauts.
Uncanny or even crude as it can be at times, stop motion has fascinated us for well over a century now. The sheer proliferation of big budget CGI scenes can often fade from memory, but stop motion scenes have an extraordinary ability to stay with us, perhaps because we’re aware that patient human hands are behind each millimeter-by-millimeter movement.
Ray Harryhausen summed up its peculiar magic when he simply explained: “If you make things too real, sometimes you bring it down to the mundane.”
My main source for this article is the wonderful book A Century of Stop Motion Animation: From Melies to Aardman by Ray Harryhausen and Tony Dalton. Trips to IMDb and viewing surviving stop motion silents on YouTube helped fill in some gaps. My other source was:
Talbot, Frederick A. Moving Pictures: How They Are Made and Worked. Philadephia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1912.