Animation World Magazine, Issue 2.11, February 1998

How'd They Do That?: Stop-Motion Secrets Revealed

compiled by Heather Kenyon

In The Wrong Trousers' train chase scene, animators
moved the wall in the background to create a realistic
motion blur. © Aardman.
In The Wrong Trousers' train chase scene, animators moved the wall in the background to create a realistic motion blur.  Aardman.On October 9, 1997, Nick Park and Peter Lord made a rare Los Angeles appearance at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as part of the Marc Davis Animation Lecture Series. The at-capacity crowd was very attentive to the presentation. However, a special hush fell over the audience as Nick explained that the soap bubbles and water with which Gromit washes windows in A Close Shave was actually created using a combination of clear hair gel and glass beads.

We asked six stop-motion maestros to reveal a few more tricks of the trade: Henry Selick, Barry Purves, David Fain, Andrew Ruhemann, Voltaire and Mikk Rand. Here's what they had to say:

Henry Selick (U.S.)
Director, The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and The Giant Peach
"In The Nightmare Before Christmas there is a grotesque fountain in the town square that looks to be choking itself. The trick was the water. What we did was make a series of replacement sculptures out of translucent plastic and used a replacement cycle. We didn't use any water at all. We based the movement on traditional animation and then cast it in a queer resin."

This gruesome scene from Barry Purves' Screen Play
used a special red toothpaste to simulate blood.
© Bare Boards Productions.
This gruesome scene from Barry Purves' Rigoletto  used a special red toothpaste to simulate blood.

Barry Purves (U.K.)
Director, Next, Screen Play, Rigoletto, Achilles
"For blood, I use a cosmetic toothpaste. It's red and slightly dyes the gums a deeper shade, in effect making the teeth whiter. Mixed with a little glycerin to make it look wet, it's easily animatable and does not run or dry out. Unfortunately, it smells of spearmint. I can't look at one of my death scenes now, without smelling of spearmint!. . . . KY lubrication jelly is also wonderful for tears."

David Fain (U.S.)
Animator, Action League Now!
"The show is an interesting hybrid of about 20% animation while the remaining 80% what we call "Chuckimation," which consists of puppeteering and hurling the characters past the camera. This previous season we've worked with a variety of substances ranging from Aloe Vera gel to simulate fried Alien, to mixing all three colors of Nickelodeon "Smud" with water and tempera paint to produce the substance Meltman oozes in the show's opening sequence."

Andrew Ruhemann, Passion Pictures (U.K.)
Producer, Doppelganger.
"KY Jelly was used as a substitute for snot in the making of Doppelganger, a Reebok commercial. It was used to show that the evil Ryan Giggs double is a dirty, slovenly kind of chap!"

Voltaire's station ID for The Sci-Fi Channel.
Image courtesy of Voltaire.
Voltaire's station id for The Sci-Fi Channel.Voltaire (U.S.)
Director/animator, commercials (Sci-Fi Channel, MTV and USA Network)
"For a Halloween promo that I animated for the Sci-Fi Channel, I had to create stop-motion skeletons with pumpkin heads. The skeletons were made of armature wire and plumber's epoxy. Plumber's epoxy is a resin that you mix and in four minutes it turns to stone. Needless to say you have to be a fast sculpt! I wanted the heads to be jack-o-lanterns, but for them to look dried out and old. Rather than the usual route which is sculpting them in clay, making a mold and then casting them in rubber, I made shrunken apple heads. I carved the faces directly into the apples and then let them dry out. It created a really wrinkly, old look.

"For the set I was looking for some kind of texture that would make the ground, which was primarily craft paper and water putty, look very earthy and organic. I ended up creating a mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg, cayenne pepper and instant coffee grounds. I then spray-mounted it to the paper and it really looked like earth. The nice thing is that each one of these powders has a distinctly different color to it, so by mixing them in different proportions and by individually sprinkling them, you end up getting a really organic modeled texture. All of the dried out foliage came from a dried flower and plant store. These thorny, seed casings and podlike things ended up giving the landscape a very macabre look. We used these instead of sculpting trees.

"At the very end of the spot there's a Victorian haunted mansion. We were getting down to the wire and hadn't yet built the house, so I sent one of my assistants to Starbucks and asked him to liberate about 200 wooden stirrers. We cut them like miniature wooden siding and built a little forced perspective house out of the stirrers. Then we spray painted the entire thing black. It is probably the quickest and cheapest mansion ever built!"

Mikk Rand, Nukufilm (Estonia)
"When we animated the film Back to Europe, directed by Riho Unt, we thought we had discovered making water by using hair gel!

"Anyway, here are a few more examples:
Cotton wool was used to imitate smoke and smog in Kaerajaan (Dir: Mikk Rand) and Back to Europe (Dir: Riho Unt). Cotton wool was also used to create snow in The Elf's Tree (Dir: Rao Heidmets) and The Elf's Coming (Dir: Heino Pars).

Rice in water was used for falling snow in Underground (Dir: Mati Kutt) and Edgeland Tales by Mikk Rand & Priit Tender. We also use corn, rice, rye, wheat, barley and oats together in the water because they fall at different speeds and look more natural.

Another way we have created snow was to use salt from Byelorussia [Republic of Belarus] for the film Christmas Story (Dir: Aarne Ahi).

Licorice was used to imitate the maggots in Back to Europe (Dir: Riho Unt).

Coffee made with half the liquid, so that it is extra strong, looks like oil. We used this technique in Back to Europe (Dir: Riho Unt)."

Heather Kenyon is Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Magazine.

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