The Advanced Art of Stop-Motion Animation: History of Stop-Motion Feature Films: Part 1
Most of the stop-motion animation produced in the past century of which most audiences are has been done for either short formats or special effects. The earliest stop-motion films were merely experiments in moving objects before the camera, like Bewitched Matches (1913) and The Automatic Moving Company (1912). The former was actually a stop-motion sequence for a live-action short. American puppet films lasting only 7 to 12 minutes were produced by Kinex Studios for home viewing and by George Pal for theatrical distribution, while the Czech movement of puppet film shorts began overseas in Eastern Europe. At the same time, stop-motion effects for creature sequences in live-action fantasy films began with the innovations of Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen, moving onto Star Wars and countless other films of the 1980s. Independent short films such as Will Vinton’s Closed Mondays and Co Hoedeman’s Sandcastle would also gain recognition in festivals and win Best Animated Short Film at the Academy Awards. Another vessel for stop-motion in short format worldwide was television, which brought us Gumby, Morph, Colargol, the California Raisins, and many other characters, series, parodies, and commercials.
Whether it was for a short film or a brief fantasy sequence in a feature, these stop-motion efforts were designed to hold the audience’s attention only for a brief moment, a mere bridge getting them from one feature of entertainment to another. The short format for stop-motion is a double-edged sword in the opportunity it has lavished on the medium. For the most well-executed stop-motion sequences, such as Harryhausen’s 5-minute skeleton fight in 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts, the shorter format provided a solid frame to place as much quality as possible into them. Often there was not enough time or budget to create the same amount of animation for more than what any feature film required, so all available resources were applied to creating these short moments of beautiful entertainment.
At the same time, the jerky quality inherent in many of the early examples of stop-motion photography made it difficult for audiences to sit through more than a few minutes. If the technique distracted the audience from the story or character development, stop-motion could not be utilized as much more than a novelty.
Combining quality stop-motion animation with a format long enough to truly involve an audience on an emotional level, through a longer story arc of about 70 to 120 minutes, proved to be a very difficult task to pull off in its early development. The number of stop-motion features produced would often have several years of dormancy between them, depending on the country. The time-consuming nature of stop-motion in general, combined with the extra effort needed to produce more than 1 hour of it, has partly contributed to this sporadic output. The commercial success or failure of these films would also have an impact on how often they would arrive since it was also difficult to finance projects of this magnitude.
Feature-length projects, which are simultaneously the most expensive and profitable form of filmmaking, often set the bar for success of any medium in the animation field, regardless of their popularity in shorter formats. In 1937, Walt Disney took the world by storm with the phenomenal success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It was not the first animated feature ever made (chronologically), but it was the first to set the standard for what the animation medium could achieve in a feature-length format. For decades afterward, the Disney studio was far ahead of what others tried to achieve in producing animated features, in terms of artistic innovation and commercial success. For a time, there were other features such as Yellow Submarine (1968), Ralph Bakshi’s Fritz the Cat (1972), and Don Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH (1982), which went into artistic directions that Disney was failing to delve into at the time. However, few of these films, as fun as they are, reached the same level of mass commercial appeal as the timeless classics of Disney animation’s golden age.
It would be company branches owned by Disney that would help to bring the animated feature back in vogue, through landmarks like Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Pixar’s Toy Story (1995), and even Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Nightmare, of course, was a major turning point for stop-motion as the medium’s first feature-length project to receive worldwide distribution and a huge following for years after its initial release. Meanwhile, in the years following, CG features by Disney/Pixar (Finding Nemo, WALL-E), DreamWorks SKG (Shrek, Madagascar), Blue Sky (Ice Age, Horton Hears a Who!), and others grew to dominate and saturate the feature market. The CG boom of the past decade expanded to the point of prompting rumors of the extinction of more traditional techniques of hand-drawn and stop-motion, partly fueled by Disney’s misguided decision to abandon the hand-drawn medium for features. Yet this rumored extinction was not necessarily the case; these traditional features were simply coming from different places. Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli kept hand-drawn features alive in Japan, and the critically acclaimed Persepolis took the medium into a much more personal realm of expression. In 2005, two stop-motion features, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, were brought to the screen within 2 weeks of each other.
The year 2009 provided a unique renaissance for all media of feature animation, including successful CG releases like Up and Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, Disney’s return to hand-drawn animation with The Princess and the Frog, and a fresh approach to the medium by the brilliant The Secret of Kells from Ireland. Also having an equally strong voice in 2009 was an unprecedented run of five stop-motion features to be released, each differing greatly in style, technique, and distribution. The two mainstream releases were Henry Selick’s Coraline and Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, both appealing to family audiences. The festival circuit welcomed the more adult sensibilities of Adam Elliott’s Mary and Max, Tatia Rosenthal’s $9.99, and A Town Called Panic by Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar. The variety in personal styles within these films and the timing of their releases within the same year are unprecedented for the medium of stop-motion. The fact that more features using stop-motion are already following in their wake indicates an exciting trend that the stop-motion feature film has truly come of age. It could be that the art form finally has an opportunity for the presence it deserves, amidst the vast canon of cinema that is brought to audiences worldwide each year.
Features made with two-dimensional cut-outs or that use stop-motion as a special effect within live action have a history of their own, and their influence is still felt by today’s filmmakers. King Kong alone inspired an entire genre of fantasy filmmaking, and has rightly had several books and articles written about its influence. The history of the feature-length stop-motion puppet film is also an interesting story to unravel, and it is worth investigating to see exactly why it has taken nearly a full century for this format to reach the potential it is now enjoying. To clarify the focus of the films I am referring to, this is specifically a look at films that fit into the following categories:
A running time of anywhere from approximately 61 to 120 minutes
A theatrical release (actual or intended) into festivals or cinemas
The exclusive use of three-dimensional puppets, models, or clay figures throughout the entire film.
A few films are also included that combine puppets and live action but focus on a whole cast of puppets through most of the film’s running time. For the sake of beginning to document this history in the limited space of a single chapter, here is a look at how these puppet features have evolved.