Stop motion is go!

In this age of computer graphics and Flash webtoons, one of the oldest animation techniques is more popular than ever. Stop-motion animation, a technique that dates back to the origin of film, is not only holding its own against the flashiest...
December 1, 2000

In this age of computer graphics and Flash webtoons, one of the oldest animation techniques is more popular than ever. Stop-motion animation, a technique that dates back to the origin of film, is not only holding its own against the flashiest CGI, but is gaining in popularity in programming for kids and adults.

Stop motion (also known as `stop frame’) is the live-action photographic animation technique in which a puppet or model-usually in clay, plastic or wood-is animated frame by frame in front of an animation camera. The technique has been a kids TV staple since the earliest days of Art Clokey’s Gumby and Davey & Goliath and Rankin-Bass’s Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer. The technique was abandoned in the `70s and `80s as the networks relied on the less time-consuming and cheaper cel-animated programming.

‘Stop motion has been growing since I started my career,’ says veteran clay animator Will Vinton. ‘Clay animation was practically unknown, unused and dismissed when I first started. I think stop motion has been pronounced dead by the entertainment media about six times in the 25 years I’ve been in the business.’

But in this past decade, the technique has been revived with great success in movies (The Nightmare Before Christmas and more recently Chicken Run), shorts (Wallace & Gromit) and series (ABC’s Bump in the Night). And today’s TV programmers, faced with a glut of look-alike cel-animated series, are turning to stop frame for its unique look, in hopes of standing out from the crowd.

In terms of cost, Vinton says stop motion is comparable to traditional cel animation. ‘You can do very, very expensive-as we do in commercials-and very high-end stop motion that’s enormously exacting and certainly comparable to the high-end cel animation done in feature films. But you can also do very simple crude but effective animation in stop motion. It’s been kind of remarkable to do a TV show at all in this country with U.S. wages and so on.’

Vinton-a clay animation pioneer-and his Portland-based company Will Vinton Studios have been focusing on prime-time series, namely The PJs (which currently in its second season on the WB) and a new comedy series called Gary & Mike, originally set for Fox and now set to debut on the UPN net in January.

‘That it’s comparable to what can be done with cel animation has been a huge breakthrough for us,’ says Vinton. ‘We have a staff of 100 to 120 people. We have anywhere from four to seven episodes being produced at one time, and each episode has its own director and animation crew. There are things about stop motion that make it cost effective: On The PJs, we have 15 standing sets. Some are duplicates, so we can animate different scenes simultaneously. So you have a lot of sets you can reuse. With The PJs, we can do the animation production in 10 to 12 weeks, then you add on storyboarding, animatic cutting and post-production and it comes out to four to five months time. Gary & Mike is a different challenge because every episode takes place in a new location: Thirty new characters and 30 new sets in every episode.’

There’s an organic appeal to stop motion, as opposed to the mechanical slickness of computer graphics, and the audience can feel it. Vinton agrees: ‘Yeah, I think that’s right. Even in our computer animation, we strive for that hand-made quality. Ultimately it has to do with the artistry of the animator.’

‘We’ve come along way from the Fireman Sams and the Postman Pats,’ says Dorian Langdon, president of HIT Entertainment USA and a great proponent of stop-frame shows. ‘It’s extremely time-consuming. On a good day, you may find you’ve only put three or four seconds in the can. It’s painstaking. There can be 35,000 movements per 26 minutes. But the animators are truly artisans and craftsmen.’

‘Bob the Builder is the current number-one preschool show in the United Kingdom, Japan and Germany,’ he boasts. ‘The look of Bob The Builder, for a child, literally becomes a three-dimensional world they can get into.’ In January, Bob premieres on Nick Jr. in the U.S. ‘I think stop frame is going into a new era of acceptance,’ says Langdon.

Convinced that stop motion is here to stay, HIT put together its own studio-HOT Animation in Manchester-to develop and produce stop-frame properties. Langdon explains how the studio came about: ‘We acquired a wonderful series of books-Brambley Hedge, a contemporary Beatrix Potter written by Jill Barklem. Because of the way they are illustrated, it would have been too difficult to do in traditional cel animation. As a consequence, we did them in stop frame. We put together a talented team, headed up by Jackie Cockrell, most of which came from Cosgrove Hall. As we looked at the episodes we recognized the opportunity to open a studio.’

Langdon considers the eight half hours of Brambley Hedge the crown jewels of the HIT library. HIT is currently developing

Plug for 2002. (a.k.a. Splish Splash Splosh, the series is about a group of characters that live in a bathroom.)

The U.K. has particularly embraced stop-frame programming and has become its center of high-end production. Aardman Animations, with clay-based Wallace & Gromit, Rex the Runt, Chicken Run and award-winning commercials, has brought the technique before a broad public audience. The U.K.’s Cosgrove Hall-currently launching preschool show Fetch the Vet-is a long-time player in the field of stop-frame children’s programming. Within the past year, the studio scored an international hit with Rotten Ralph.

‘We didn’t just want to do traditional cel animation,’ says Fox Family’s VP of programming Joel Andryc on the decision to pick up Rotten Ralph and other non-traditional animation. ‘If kids are surfing through 100 channels, we wanted something that would pop out at them.’

Indeed, there are a wide variety of visual styles competing for those young eyes, including a few CGI-produced shows that mimic the stop-motion technique. Angela Anaconda, as well as South Park, look like stop-frame cut-outs, but are produced via computer animation. Rolie Polie Olie and the forthcoming Make Way For Noddy might have been produced via stop motion a few years ago, but are instead animated by experienced stop-frame animators using CGI.

But CGI has proven no threat to traditional stop motion, as new studios and new productions abound this year, each with their own unique vision. A survey of forthcoming programs finds a strong mix of subject matter appealing to a preschool-to-adult spectrum of sensibilities.

Under construction

Hamilton Mattress is highly anticipated. It’s a half-hour special being created for the BBC by Harvest Films. Created by British advertising guru John Webster and directed by Oscar-nominated stop-motion animator Barry Purves, there is a lot of hope of creating a new Wallace & Gromit-like success.

Hamilton Mattress follows an aardvark with low self-esteem as he goes through a journey of self-discovery. ‘The joy of the story is that it appeals to so many levels,’ says producer Chris Moll (The Wrong Trousers). ‘It’s about people who spend all their time doing something and don’t recognize it’s a talent. They spend all their time looking down rather than looking up. Hopefully it hits all the buttons, but does so in a light and entertaining way.’

London-based Entertainment Rights is aggressively marketing stop-motion properties, including Molly’s Gang-the zany adventures of a group of bizarre aliens-from producer Martin Gates and ITV. Next up is Dr. Otter-a riverbank animal adventure created by Red Balloo Productions and Ealing Animation for 2001-and creator Keith Littler’s Merlin the Magical Puppy (previously Magical Mystical Merlin), about a dog with a magical collar.

An up-and-coming U.S. animator, Wreckless Abandon Studios located in Hartford, Connecticut, has a clay-animated special called The Mouse with Many Rooms in co-production with U.K.-based Animus Entertainment. Mouse tells the tale of a rodent’s effect on the down-and-out residents of a rooming house in the depressing days before Christmas.

Frankfurt, Germany-based stop-frame production studio Clay Art has six ambitious series on tap. There’s a superhero spoof called Tough Guys; a boy and his dog show called Max & Ko; a zany preschool sci-fi series called Robomania; a tween lifestyle comedy called The Mo Gang; the insect world of Dr. D.D. Trambo; and the outrageous Hellbunch about a family of devils.

The stop-motion trend is not only preschool-based. In addition to Vinton’s work in the U.S., MTV has found success with its stop-motion Celebrity Deathmatch, and Locomotion is delighted with Crapston Villas. Spitting Images brings Gogs, a caveman comedy co-produced by Japan’s Kodansha and Scotland’s F4C.

Stop-motion animation, 100-years-young, enters a new century more popular than ever with kids, adults, animators and international network executives. Charles Falzon, president of Gullane Entertainment, sums up stop motion’s intrinsic appeal to programmers. ‘We believe you can use the different tapestries to tell your stories, and in a world of clutter, that distinctiveness really helps.’

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