Three-dimensional stop motion animation is one of the oldest forms of animation, taking inspiration from early sequential images that decorated ancient artwork and pottery and combining the artistry with the movement of life. Over the years, many new techniques have developed that have advanced this art form into a means of storytelling and world-building. Stop motion animation has managed to live on through the centuries due to its almost tangible feeling that is able to reach out and ‘touch’ the audience and bring them along on the visual journey. From its rudimentary beginnings in the 1800s to its present-day complexities in major motion pictures, the future of 3D stop motion animation will depend on the incorporation of new technologies, an appreciation for craftsmanship, and a love for storytelling.
Stop motion has been a form of expression and storytelling for centuries and within its first fifty years, it developed ambitiously. George Méliès, a French magician and filmmaker is credited with the creation of the stop trick, the essence of stop motion. Méliès “was filming the traffic in a busy Parisian street when his hand-cranked camera momentarily jammed, and although the celluloid had stopped, the traffic had kept moving… when he reviewed the footage, a Madeleine-Bastille bus had changed into a hearse and women had changed into men” (1933: King Kong). Fascinated with the technique, Méliès began using it in his short films such as Escamotage d’une Dame or The Vanishing Lady.
Stop motion, however, was not fully created until 1897 when,“ Albert E smith brought the stop trick to its logical conclusion with the invention of stop motion in his now lost film Humpty Dumpty’s Circus” (1933: King Kong). The only remnants of Humpty Dumpty’s Circus are pictures of the set and characters.
This advancement in filmmaking astonished audiences and filmmakers alike and brought about a period of inspiration where several new techniques evolved 3D stop motion even further.
After the creation of stop motion, filmmakers around the world were mesmerized and started incorporating this novel idea within their films, developing new methods along the way. Some techniques to come about include double exposure, shooting through the matte, the traveling matte, and glass and matte painting. Double exposure is done by “running the same film through the camera twice capturing two images on top of each other and it could be used to create ghostly apparitions,” and is used in the 1921 film, The Phantom Carriage by Victor Sjöström (1933: King Kong).
Shooting through the matte is a technique that is utilized by blacking out parts of glass and shooting through it so the film remains unexposed in that area. filmmakers are then able to reshoot a sequence within that unexposed area of the film (1933: King Kong). The traveling matte implements the same technique but allowed for a scene with more motion by filming actors against a black background and turning the actors into a silhouette by adjusting the contrast. Actors could film in the safety of a studio but then be transported in front of an oncoming train with the use of the traveling matte and overlaying the two strips of film. Glass painting and matte painting is used to do vast backgrounds without traveling to far away locations. Layers of glass are painted with ornate landscapes and then the director shoots through these pieces of glass creating a whole new world around the actors. Matte paintings are similar to painting sets except that they are miniature. This technique was used in Indiana Jones and was used more recently by Wes Anderson in his feature The Grand Budapest Hotel, (1933: King Kong).
Willis H. O’Brien, a very famous animator and filmmaker, is credited with the innovative Ghost of Slumber Mountain, the inventive The Lost World, the masterpiece King Kong, and several other films that propelled animation and special effects into the future. O’Brien’s 1918 Ghost of Slumber Mountain is the “first film to intercut stop motion with live-action footage creating the illusion that the dinosaurs on screen existed in the real world along with human beings” and enthralled audiences. O’Brien continued experimenting, using Ghost of Slumber Mountain as inspiration until he created The Lost World, a movie based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel by the same name. Years later, in 1933, O’Brien directed King Kong, filming shots that “combined effects… to create a larger-feeling, more realistic world. To create the illusion of a dense jungle, O’Brien combined layers of glass painting, physical miniature models, and matte paintings to give Skull Island incredible depth. Animating between these layers put Kong in a realistic three-dimensional world” (1933: King Kong). The King Kong puppet was able to interact with live-action actors by using projectors and several grand scale puppets of Kong’s hand and arm to make it seem as though Kong really was terrorizing the actors.
A scene that showcases these several techniques is “Kong’s lair sequence, mixing stop motion, matte paintings, miniature sets, and two separate rear screen projections of live-action actors to create one of the most elaborate special effects setups ever seen in film, giving a real sense of a fully developed world” (1933: King Kong).
Willis H. O’Brien’s unique filming style and the intricacies of each shot are what really stunned audiences and are what makes King Kong one of the most impressive uses of special effects in history and why the film continues to receive accolades today.
Where We Are Now
The sets and puppets that are required to make a stop motion feature film are just as impressive as the final result and are a culmination of endless hours, patience, and expensive materials. Nowadays, 3D stop motion movies are done on a much larger scale utilizing several sets, all more elaborate than the last, and with thousands of puppets created down to the detail. As with almost anything in the film industry, lots of planning goes into character and set design. Months are spent tackling how these elements will look in the final film by completing detailed sketches passed on to fabrication departments. Georgina Hayns, the Character Fabrication Supervisor for Chris Butler and Sam Fell’s ParaNorman describes how a stop motion puppet is crafted. “We start off with a 2D image of a character and my job is to turn that 2D image into a three-dimensional puppet, which can talk, can walk, can run, can emote.” After studying how the puppet should look, the fabrication department must “plan out how we’re going to make that puppet move. We will make an armature which is a skeleton that we create with metal ball and socket joints and sort of tiny engineered pieces which is what allows the animator to pose the puppet frame by frame” (Piercing Through).
Building stop motion sets is a task just as daunting. Professional set pieces are usually upwards of 20 feet in size and built as if an author were imagining the world their story takes place in. No detail is overlooked down to the weeds growing in a colossal city or what trash makes up different places within Trash Island in Isle of Dogs, by Wes Anderson.
Even after centuries of development, a remarkable point about films utilizing stop motion is they are just as profitable in today’s world as audiences are blown away by the intricacies of the craft. After years of development, and thousands and thousands of films, stop motion has become very diverse. Not only are directors able to achieve unique styles for the puppets and backgrounds, but the target audience has been expanded. The expansion of the target audience has allowed for 3D stop motion films to not only cater to children with films such as Shaun the Sheep, but also draw in adults with the release of Anomalisa.
Even more miraculous, is the profit these films are making. In Kim Taylor-Foster’s article, ‘Breaking the Mold: Why Stop Motion is Thriving in a CGI World,’ she discusses just how much stop motion films are making and says, “Aardman’s own Shaun the Sheep Movie (2014) [has taken in] $106m, Laika’s The Boxtrolls (from the same year) [hit] $109m, and Aardman creations Chicken Run (2000) and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005) bringing in $225m and $193m respectively” (Taylor-Foster). Three-dimensional stop motion features have also been considered for Oscars and are treated just as equally as other movies. It is noteworthy that “Wes Anderson’s 2018 sophisticated sci-fi dramedy Isle of Dogs earn[ed] itself an Oscar nomination at this year’s ceremony, putting it on a par with 2016’s My Life As a Courgette, Kubo and the Two Strings, and 2015’s Anomalisa, which were also given Oscar nods,” (Taylor-Foster). Not only is this a compliment to stop motion filmmakers, but a clear indication the stop motion industry deserves recognition.
The Future of 3D Stop Motion Animation
The stop motion industry is moving forward to bigger and better projects with the help of 3D printing, the future of stop motion animation. Morgan Hay and Kingman Gallagher, Rapid Prototyping Leads, and Brian McLean, the Creative Supervisor RP for the film ParaNorman, the first stop motion animation to utilize a color 3D printer, describe how the many faces of Norman are created. “These faces are done with a powder printer. It just lays down a really thin layer of powder until eventually, you have a three-dimensional object…you take that face and you dip it into superglue…[and] we need to make thousands and thousands of different facial expressions” (Piercing Through). Kubo and the Two Strings, an incredibly inventive movie, rich with Japanese culture, is an adventure story that takes place in many different locations and features many complex characters that would be complicated to replicate without the use of 3D printing. For example, “the Moon Beast that appears in Kubo is the first fully 3D printed puppet featuring a whopping 881 parts and is 3 and a half [feet] long” (Hill).
Another daunting character is a giant skeleton, based off of spirits called Gashadokuros in Japanese folklore. This skeleton “weighs 400 pounds, is 16 foot tall, and is believed to be the world’s largest stop motion puppet ever made. The model consists of more than 1000 unique bone shapes and has a wingspan of 20 feet” (Hill).
Recently LAIKA Studios has partnered with Stratasys, a 3D printing company, and has been “invited to be a Beta customer on the Stratasys J750, the first full-colour, multi-material 3D printer” (Javelin Technologies). Brian McLean, the director of rapid prototype at LAIKA comments on using 3D printing technology, “It’s really kind of an insane process that we’re doing, where we’re taking 3D printing and we’re fusing it with this really old technique of stop-motion and replacement animation and forcing these two technologies and techniques together to come up with some amazing performances and amazing results” (Javelin Technologies). The future of stop motion animation definitely holds great things, one of those being 3D printing.
One of the main reasons stop motion is appreciated is the amount of effort and artistic craft put in every film, which will ensure a future for stop motion production. Because stop motion is not as utilized as live-action and 3D CGI animation and each movie takes several years to craft, stop motion tends to feel more genuine. Kim Taylor-Foster compares stop motion animation to supporting a local coffee shop and says, “It’s a backlash, to an extent, against ‘evil’ corporations, and a Hollywood that for a long time has been thought to put big bucks before quality output. In other words, stop motion has become shorthand for craftsmanship, quality and charm.” Stop motion feature films focus on characters and stories that are refreshing, especially considering the process takes around 3 years to complete. The uniqueness in every film is what draws people in and makes stop motion such “a precious thing, if likely to please refined aesthetes and odd children rather than win over Pixar-sized crowds” (Newman). Stop motion movies rely on people with these qualities, who appreciate not only the finished product, but the artistic process behind each feature. Tim Allen, an animator who has worked on many critically acclaimed stop motion projects including My Life as a Courgette, Peter and the Wolf, Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie, and Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs, comments on why stop motion is so appealing. “It’s the age old tangible quality, that you feel you can touch it and you can see it’s not perfect,” Allen says (BreakThru Films). He also compares stop motion to childhood because “you can literally walk on that set and more easily imagine being in that world. We all had toys or dolls we had a close attachment to as children & perhaps puppets tap into this primal bond with our imagination” (BreakThru Films). People’s appreciation for the craftsmanship behind each picture is what allows more and more movies to be made, and is the future of stop motion animation.
The story behind each stop motion animation is a product of years of work and is what pulls viewers in. It is people’s natural fascination with the worlds created in stop motion that will allow it to be successful in the future. The union of whimsical, heart-wrenching, and playful storylines with unique and developed characters is what will continue to ensure the survival of this art form. The future of stop motion animation is the fantasy worlds that contain “things that don’t exist, which couldn’t ever possibly exist, and which still have an undeniable reality to them,” (Urbina). Stop motion opens a portal to another world like in Coraline, allows you to meet creatures that are only speculated to exist like in The Missing Link, and answer the ‘what if’ questions that lead to self-discovery like in The Nightmare Before Christmas. These movies tackle heavy topics like addiction and trauma in My Life as a Courgette, but also adventures of discovery in The Boxtrolls and The Pirates, and heartwarming tales about the meaning of life itself in Anomalisa. It is the journey these characters travel that carries stop motion along to new horizons.
Three-dimensional stop motion animation has far surpassed its humble beginnings and has now become an artistic choice for directors to connect with audiences who appreciate the up-and-coming innovations, artistic flair, and diverse stories stop motion has to offer. The charm of stop motion is its inventive nature and its use of “ the diverse array of tools at [its] disposal to tell [a] story in as many ways as possible and… can build a world that feels real” (1933: King Kong). Ultimately, people are drawn in to these movies because of their captivating world-building and characters. It is the support and passion from the audience as well as new technology that will pave the way for the future of three-dimensional stop motion animation.
Hill, Nick. “Introduction to Stop-Motion Animation Part 5 — A Summary of the Last Couple of Years, and Looking to the Future.” No Magnolia, 8 May 2017, https://nomagnolia.tv/introduction-to-stop-motion-animation-part-5-looking-to-the-future/. Accessed 8 April 2021.
Javelin Technologies. “LAIKA Use Stratasys 3D Printers to Create Customized Stop Motion Characters.” Javelin Tech, https://www.javelin-tech.com/3d/3d-printing-stop-motion-characters/. Accessed 8 April 2021.
Newman, Kim. “Corpse Bride Review.” Empire Online, https://www.empireonline.com/movies/reviews/corpse-bride-review/. Accessed 15 April 2021.
“1933: King Kong — How Early Special Effects Created the 8th Wonder of the World.” YouTube, uploaded by One Hundred Years of Cinema, 31 July 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K4ViuqIdsJg. Accessed 8 April 2021.
“Piercing Through the Veil: Go Behind the Scenes of Paranorman.” Paranorman, LAIKA / Focus Features, 2012. DVD. Accessed 8 April 2021.
Taylor-Foster, Kim. “Breaking the Mold: Why Stop Motion Is Thriving in a CGI World.” Fandom, 8 February 2019, https://www.fandom.com/articles/breaking-the-mold-stop-motion. Accessed 1 May 2021.
“Tim Allen — Interview with an Animator.” BreakThru Films, 14 May 2012, http://breakthrufilms.blogspot.com/2012/05/tim-allen-interview-with-animator.html. Accessed 1 May 2021.
Urbina, Gabriel. “What Makes Stop Motion Animation So Special?” Mxdwn, 23 September 2014, https://movies.mxdwn.com/feature/what-makes-stop-motion-animation-so-special/. Accessed 4 May 2021.