People often use the term ‘Stop Motion’ to describe a form of animation, but they are probably only referring to one specific type of stop motion. So what are these different types? …and how and why do we define them?
What is Stop Motion?
‘Stop motion’ is simply the process of making a moving image frame by frame by altering a physical scene, photographing each frame, and playing it as a sequence. But it’s the kind of physical scene you make and the way you alter it that lends it’s name to the type of stop motion that it is.
You may not even know it by the name “Stop Motion”, you may have come across it as “Claymation” or “Stop Action Movies”. There are lots of terms used to describe stop motion, but they all follow the same principal. That is of photographing a series of images, where something has been changed in each frame. You could be photographing a puppet, or a person, a collage or anything that you can move in order to create the illusion of movement. This is the key – you are creating the illusion of movement by your physical actions, by how you move an object or material in front of the camera.
The key defining factor is that you are working in the physical world, not the digital world. Even though most stop motion animators will use some form of digital post production to enhance or alter the image further nowadays, and many will mix and merge different types too.
How to define these types
Each technique or type is generally named after the material used to make the animation (movement). For example clay animation is animating any clay like substance. Sand animation is animated any grain like substance, usually sand. Its pretty self explanatory really!
Many people may assume that there are only 6 types, but I am arguing that there are many more. Exactly how many types of stop motion there are is a mute point, since you can animate just about anything. I have listed 11 different types in this article, and offered some great examples to illustrate them too.
The key thing is that by separating out different ‘types’ of stop motion, we can see how far animators can push just one material. This helps us to develop what we are doing, get ideas to try and expand our own animation practice. We can animate anything, but do we? Sometimes by seeing and amazing animated film, we are inspired to try something completely new, or to just alter something we are currently doing to make it better. Looking at ‘types’ is about raising our awareness.
What is not stop motion?
Most animation that we watch online is made with digitally produced images, that doesn’t mean that its not made frame by frame, it might still be. Or it might be some combination of keyframes, and digital ‘tweening’. In my article What is Animation I offer an introduction to the different forms of animation, this is where you can see where stop motion animation sits in the bigger picture of animation.
As techniques overlap and adaptations are made, sometimes it’s not that clear how something has been made. Often many forms of animation will come together to make one film. That’s part of the fun of animation, to play with techniques and leave people wondering how on earth a film was made.
There is one more method of animation that involves animating the physical world, but its not in the category of stop motion. This is what I’m calling mechanical animation and includes the persistence of vision toys (Zoetropes, Praxinoscopes, flip books, spinners). It also includes the Direct Method, which is drawing and painting directly onto film stock, then projecting the result through a mechanical projector.
So, now you know what stop motion is, how we define the different types, and also what is not stop motion.
1. Clay animation
For beginners, this is possibly the most popular, well known and versatile form. Moving a character made of clay, Plasticine or similar material. You may have heard the term ‘claymation’ well this is actually a term created and used by the late Will Vinton for his brand of clay animation, Vinton Studios copyrighted the term, so technically we should use the term ‘clay animation’ just to be on the safe side (I was just reminded this by Michael Cusack, thanks for the correction).
Aardman Animation may be the most famous studio for claymation, as they have made several feature films using stop motion clay (here’s a video showing how they do it) . This technique can give very fluid movement, as these materials will move into and stay in any shape you put them. It gives you full control of movement, so is great for very bouncy or flowing movements, characters do not need to have fixed limb shapes they can metamorphose into anything. That’s what was so charming about Aardman’s Morph character, he regularly transforms into an entirely different shape. Here is a great example of Morph who first came to our TV screens in 1977, this is one of those early shows.
One of the downsides to clay however, is that it’s heavy, and consequently a character wants to fall down, smaller characters work better, Morph is about the perfect size, any smaller would be hard to manipulate, unless you have tiny fingers. One of the ways to over-come this is to use a wire frame inside the character, but this can then get in the way of fluid metamorphoses. Another way to overcome this apparent downside is to work directly with this characteristic by working on a horizontal plane. Working with gravity you now have a plane of material that can be manipulated into any shape you can imagine, making the tiniest or largest alterations according to the timing needed. This is a great way to make Free-form clay animation. Just put the clay on a flat surface and move it around letting your imagination flow.
Here’s a promotional film that really shows the versatility of this material.
2. Brickfilms (Legofilms)
Another very popular form for beginners and Lego fans. Sometimes called ‘Lego movies’, ‘stop motion Lego™’ or ‘Brickfilms’. Made using brick based toys like Lego™ or Mega Construx™ characters and constructions. (The Lego Movie feature films are actually made as 3D CGI, so don’t get confused as to why your Lego movies don’t look like that! This video explains how these Lego feature films were made).
Animating lego has some restrictions, sometimes the limbs don’t hold their positions, sometimes you can knock over a prop whilst moving a character, they are quite small and fiddly to animate at times. But the simplicity of the figures gives you less to animate and keep a track of, and that adds to their charm. There are lots of props, and building materials to work with, and you can make just about any genre of film with these.
Here is an example of a Lego film, possibly the first ever made, by Lindsay Fleay in 1989.
Another variation would be to just animate any articulated toys, it doesn’t have to be restricted to Lego. A particularly good recent example of this is from Reflective Films with their film Bored Games (2017) Steve Whittle explains the process, “working with pre-existing objects creates its own set of challenges as they were never made to be animated. The rubric cube for one kept falling apart on takes!”:
3. Puppet or Model animation
This is the most popular form of it for professional animation. The character is a puppet made of ball and socket joints or aluminium wire, and usually dressed with foam latex and cloth. Sometimes the face is carved in wood, clay, or made with replacement parts that have been 3D printed. The puppets in Kubo and the Two Strings have 3D printed faces, which allows for the fluid change of facial expressions. There may be hundreds of replacement faces, and facial elements that are replaced frame by frame. Even some TV series that look like they are made in clay are actually puppets, this is because they can last longer than clay characters, and clay has the habit of retaining figure prints which can get distracting.
There are some fantastic examples of stop motion puppet films made recently. Yet when 3D digital animation became sophisticated enough, many people assumed that it would be the death of puppet animation. But it is still a medium of choice for many studios making high grossing features. Instead of dying out, the sophistication of puppet animation has multiplied. Now it involves as much technology as a CGI film, but in the form of mechanised rigs and physical technologies, like 3D printing. Liaka Studios are pushing the limits of this art form, here’s a little promo that gives you some insight into puppet animation today.
Puppet feature films are even getting more popular, maybe part of their attraction is that the audience appreciate how they are made. Most children in primary school have had a go at stop motion animation, and there are free apps to give it a go on your smart phone. But the professional films are far removed from that, just the work that goes into the puppet building is extraordinary enough (have a look at the puppet making in Isle of Dogs as an example). The biggest recent successes are: Isle of Dogs (2018); Early Man (2018); Kubo and the Two Strings (2016); Anomalisa (2015); Shaun the Sheep (2015); The Boxtrolls (2014); ParaNorman (2012). In fact there have been 17 feature length puppet films in just the last 5 years and many of these have been high grossing box office hits. Stop motion puppet animation is most definitely not dead!
You may have seen these blockbuster features. However I want to leave you with some gems that you may not have seen. East Europe and Russia have had a very rich tradition of puppet theatre, so unsurprisingly some of the earliest jewels of puppet animation come from there. Ladislas Starevich is credited with the first of these (The Beautiful Lukanida in 1912). Here is The Tempest from 1992, directed by Stanislav Sokolov for S4C’s animated Shakespeare series, he won an Emmy for this work. At that time puppet animation was not as high tech as it is now. This is made with just the puppet, the animator and a 35mm camera on a manual rig. There wasn’t even a video assist in those days. I visited this studio in 1996 and saw the puppets, and met many of the animators and puppet makers.
Here is a puppet film I made back in 1996, its called House on a Frozen Lake you can see that the puppets are made of chicken bones and ball and socket joints. It was shot on 35mm with no video assist. I completely fell in love with animating puppets!
4. Cutout animation
This technique has a surprisingly wide application for beginners, but in the professional sphere it does seem to have been overtaken by digital methods. That’s because it doesn’t have the same tactile look that puppets have, so it can be done more effectively with software. Peppa Pig is an example of a successful TV series that uses software to recreate cut out style animation. But for amateurs, hobbyists and beginners there are some very interesting variations and applications for this technique. Essentially it starts with animating cut out paper or card in a horizontal surface. But of course its so much more than this! Even at this level you can have various levels of glass on a ‘multiplane stand’ so that you have a background at the lowest level, mid-ground elements on the middle layer of glass, and foreground elements on the top layers of glass. This gives you a depth of field to play with, and characters can move through an environment. One of the most accomplished animators in this technique was the pioneer of it, Lotte Rieniger. Here is a clip from one of her feature films The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926):
But there is something else about this technique that I love. It can be incredibly simple, and therefore hugely effective for teaching stop motion animation to large classrooms of children. I call it wall collage animation, essentially by putting cut out animation on the wall, using blutack to hold the moving elements, everyone can see what’s going on, and you can work bigger, so more people can animate at once (but more of that on another post!).
Cut out animation usually uses a card puppet that is joined at the limb joints with tread or a paper fastener. My favourite show as a kid was Crystal Tips and Alistair, a girl and her dog made of cut out card puppets. But I want to show you one of the most sophisticated uses of cut out I have ever seen. Yuri Norstien, a Russian animator, uses many, many cut out elements to make each of his characters. They are not joined, so he has more freedom of movement. They are made of little pieces of clear celluloid which are scratched and or painted on to create the different elements needed, an eye, and eye brow, a bit of cheek, a jaw line and so on, these are all replaceable and moveable to create movement and changing expressions. It’s so well done that you can’t see this technique in action. The best example of this technique is in The Overcoat, an unfinished film started in 1981, about 25 minutes were completed by 2004. His best known film is probably Hedgehog in the Fog (1975), but The Overcoat takes this technique to a whole new level. He also uses a multiplane to build up the layers and depth of field, and the top level has Vaseline to create diffusion in certain parts of the frame. It’s the most beautiful use of cut out animation I have ever seen:
5. Sand animation
Sand is a wonderful medium to animate with. I love the limitations! You have to work on a horizontal plane, and its full beauty is revealed by backlighting. This category could include animated rice, sugar, or flour etc, each will give a different look and feel. Even building sand is a different material then refined or coloured sand, the former retaining various sized grains, the later being fine and even. The strength of this medium is the fluid nature and willingness to metamorphose, as well as the graphic nature of the backlit sand.
Within this type of stop motion there are again different methods, and one popular method is not actually stop motion, although it often goes by the name of ‘sand animation’. In fact it’s not animation at all, but it’s very nice to watch all the same. Its more in the realm of ‘quickdraw films’ (the arty equivalent of a ‘whiteboard animation’). You can see a great example by Kseniya Simonova on the ‘Ukrain’s got Tallent’ show in 2009, for the King of Thailand. The correct name for this kind of thing is ‘Sand Art’. So now I have clarified that for you, let’s move on to stop motion sand animation which is somewhat different.
Caroline Leaf was one of the pioneers of sand animation, she worked in many different animation techniques, but she made a few in sand. You can see a lovely one from 1974 called The Owl Who Married a Goose.
Sand is still quite a popular technique, and Cesar Diaz is currently doing some of the best sand animation I’ve seen. In Zepo (2014), you can see the use of different types of sand, different textures, and colours to make a richer visual experience. In No Corras Tanto (2009) you can see a fantastic range of playful ways to use the technique:
Finally, there is a completely different way of using sand, and that is animating sculpted sand. You can use damp sand to hold a shape better or dry sand to draw in. I don’t know what category to put this in, but since we are naming stop motion by the medium used to animate, it’s here. One of the earliest notables in this technique was The Sand Castle by Co Hoedeman in 1977, winning an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film. A more recent piece here is a lovely way of using sand, and its beautifully made, its Eatliz – Lose This Child (2011).
I also made a sand film too, From the Wasteland, in 2013. I used backlit building sand to give me graphic effect with the texture of different sizes of sand grains. I added some colour using coloured gels on the lower levels of a multiplane and added more in postproduction.
6. Paint animation
To a greater or lesser degree this is sometimes replicated in software such as TV Paint. It’s not the same result, they each have their own look. Paint animation is achieved by using oil paint on backlit glass. Like cutout animation there is usually a multiplane set up, to give variable focus and depth of field to an image. Oil paint is a must as it will stay wet long enough to be manipulated for animation, especially under lights, which nowadays don’t need to give off heat, LED types being fine. There are a number of added liquids that can give interesting effects, glycerine being one for liquid, water and tears. Vaseline for diffusion, mediums to slow down drying. Also its important to note that oil paint comes in two different types – translucent and opaque. This is based on the nature of the pigment used to create the colour. You have to test out the oil paint by smearing the colours on backlit glass and seeing which let the colours glow through. That will limit the kinds of colours you can use.
The true master and pioneer of paint on glass has to be Aleksandr Petrov from the Yekaterinburg Film Studios in Russia. I had the incredible good fortune of making my own paint on glass film there in 1996-7 Bird Becomes Bird, working in the same studios learning from the people who worked with him. He had moved to Canada by this time. A phenomenal example is The Mermaid, 1997 (made in Canada). In these films paint is pushed and manipulated for each frame, so there is a fluid feel to the medium.
Another way of making paint animation is by top lighting the paint, and simply painting each frame as a separate painting, as was done with the feature film Loving Vincent, 2017. There is an interesting introduction to how this film was made. Actors were filmed, then Rotoscoped, each frame of live action projected onto a canvas and reconstructed as an oil painting in the same technique as Van Gogh. It creates a fantastic look. Although this film has vast amounts of postproduction adjustments, the starting point is basically stop motion with replacement paintings for each frame. Here’s the trailer:
7. Object animation
Animating found objects. This is a favourite for beginners, and also for professional commercials and ‘how to’ videos. Ikea has a number of animated object promos, as do other furniture and office supply stores. It’s often combined with Pixilation (discussed next), as you will agree they have a close affinity. Here is an example of this used in advertising made by Dougal Wilson for John Lewis in 2013. Its made in the stop motion technique as Dougal explains (he also made the Ikea Teeshirts commercial, which relies on Visual Effects by MPC, these teeshirts are CGI). So, have a look at this which is a great example of stop motion objects for a commercial.
Essentially this technique involves finding objects placing them in a scene, and then moving each object that needs to animate one frame at a time. It gets tricky when you want an object to do something unnatural, like bounce, or fly. But rigging can be used to hold the object in place, then that rigging needs to be painted out frame by frame after shooting. This would be called a ‘postproduction clean up’, and it would be used extensively in a commercial stop motion film. Rigging could be anything from a special ball and socket armature or aluminium wire, or hanging wire. If you are trying this out for the first time you can try using fishing line. The overall effect of this technique is to make the real world seem somehow ‘super real’ or odd.
One of the most famous early examples of this was made by the surrealist artist, Jan Švankmajer, in 1982, it’s called Dimensions of Dialogue here is a clip of the film:
Specifically this is animating people, one frame at a time. It works well combined with live action, object animation, timelapse and hyperlapse. It’s great for working with large groups of children or young people too! There are also plenty of commercial applications were this technique is used. A particularly good one using lots of people is the Orange commercial, Rock Corps.
The most famous early example is from Norman McLaren in 1952 with his Oscar winning short film Neighbours. You can see a combination of live action and pixilation, which like object animation is used to highlight activities and peculiarities. Here is a more recent short film by Vicky Mather in 2010 called Stanley Pickle:
Another way to approach Pixilation is to have your actors lying on a floor, which makes it easier for them to hold positions and fly or swim about. This commercial for Target colours, from 2009, is made in this pixilation technique.
9. Pinscreen/Pinboard animation
Animators are amazing people! If you can create a picture with something, they can animate it! The Pinboard technique was pioneered by Alexander Alexeieff and his wife Claire Parker. Here is a film to explain the technique and how it’s done, from 1960.
This technique was subsequently taken on by Jacques Drouin at the National Filmboard of Canada who developed the technique further. His film Mindscape from 1976 is a stunning example of this.
You can still buy mini pinboards today from novelty or gift shops, and kids love them. Place the pinboard on its side, light it from the side, and then start making patterns and pictures in the pins, see if you can make some animation this way.
10. Destructive animation
This technique is called ‘destructive animation’ because one image is destroyed in the process of making the next image. The point of this is to leave the remains of the old image in the frame, so that the animation leaves a kind of trail, but not always an obvious one. It offers a particular type of challenge to the animator, and so creates a very specific type of aesthetic. Some of the most interesting animation work has been made in this way.
In many ways oil paint on glass and sand animation will be made in this technique. But I’ve given them each their own section because they are popular in their own right and there is so much more that can be done with those mediums.
William Kentridge made ten films in the 1990’s using a technique he developed and perfected that involved making successive charcoal drawings on a single sheet of paper. Each drawing would be photographed, and then altered with more charcoal lines and some rubbing out, then the new result would be photographed and so on. He talks about his process so you can see how it’s done and why too. To see the end result in one of his films, here is Felix in Exile, from 1994.
Another artist to work in the destructive technique is Piotr Dumala, who developed a very unique process. He creates a flat block of plaster, and using sandpaper, sands gently in different directions to create a textured surface on this plaster block. He then paints this surface with dark oil paint and lets it dry. Then to make each image he uses a small knife to gently scrape away the oil paint where he wants the light to be, if you want a strong light area, then scrape more away, if you want shading then scrape less. The overall effect can be seen here in his film Franz Kafka (1991), it gives a beautiful textured image, like an etching, with a light shadow of the previous frames.
More recently an extraordinary artist by the name of BLU, makes destructive method animation on an incredible scale. He paints over entire buildings, its stop motion it its most extreme and most extraordinary. This is BIG BANG BIG BOOM (2010):
11. Animated Light and Shadow
Finally we come to animated light and shadow. This could have been a derivative of cut out animation, had there not been so many fascinating films experimenting with it. So it has a section on its own.
This is a film from Aardman Animation (they don’t just do clay animation), Humdrum (1998).
There are some other incredible examples of films, on was made with light reflected from a mirror. As the shape on the mirror was animated so the reflected light could project an animated shape onto a scene.
This more recent film from Blue Zoo, shows a combination of techniques, the animation was made digitally, but it was then projected frame by frame onto a set and re-filmed. Is it stop motion, not exactly!
Techniques Related to Stop Motion
The following two techniques are not stop motion animation, but they are made frame by frame. The key difference is that in ‘stop motion animation’ you are making the motion, you create the illusion. In time-lapse you are recording what is happening in front of the camera in a frame by frame manor, you are not altering the environment, you are simply altering the way it is filmed. Many stop motion apps will also offer time-lapse, and because of the similarities, you can also use this technique in your films alongside other stop motion techniques.
This is automatically taking a photo at regular intervals, in order to watch a speeded up version of that scene. This is usually of a landscape, sky, or something that is changing slowly, and that you don’t have to change your self, as you are a passive viewer. A great example might be a seedling growing, sunsets and sunrises, the tide coming in. It has a flickery feel to it when it is created outdoors because the lighting will be constantly changing, but in a controlled environment with constant lighting it can look very smooth. Here is a great example of a seedling growing, shot in a studio environment. Things reveal so much character and personality when they are shot in time-lapse!
This is essentially time-lapse, but incorporating a camera move too. So each time you take a frame you move the camera a little in the same direction. You can then do an animated pan across a scene or travel into or out of a scene. This short video shows you how easy it is to combine pixilation ideas with hyperlaspse and time-lapse. You can see the main character sliding along the path as the camera tracks towards him.
So in conclusion we have 10 stop motion techniques.
2. Brickfilms (Legofilms)
3. Puppet or Model animation
4. Cutout animation
5. Sand animation
6. Paint animation
7. Object animation
9. Pinscreen/Pinboard animation
10. Destructive animation
11. Animated Light and Shadow
You may, or may not, be surprised that most are still used today in commercials, feature films, and independent films. Having seen these amazing examples of what can be done with this simple technique of making a moving image frame by frame, what have you been inspired most by?
Leave a comment to share which technique you felt most moved or entertained by. Maybe you’d like to give it a try?