Stop motion animation: what is it?

by Joost | Last Updated: June 20, 2022
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Stop motion animation is still around, and you’ve probably seen it in commercials or some of the most popular films, like Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (2015) or his most famous film, The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).

You’re probably fascinated with stop motion characters, like Victor and Victoria from Corpse Bride.

The “dead” characters come to life beautifully in the movie, and their actions are so realistic, an untrained eye wouldn’t even realize the whole film is stop-motion animation.

In fact, people who are unfamiliar with animation techniques often overlook stop motion.

What is stop motion animation?

On the most basic level, stop motion animation is a form of 3D animation where the figures, clay models, or puppets are placed in the required position and photographed many times. When images are played back quickly, it tricks the eye into thinking the puppets are moving on their own.

The 80s and 90s saw popular series like Wallace and Gromit thrive. These shows are cultural gems that are just as beloved as soap operas and TV comedies.

Playmobil petting zoo stop motion
Playmobil petting zoo stop motion

But, what makes them so appealing, and how are they made?

This article is an introductory guide to stop motion animation, and I will tell you how this type of animation is done, how characters are developed, and discuss some of the technicalities.

What is stop motion animation?

Stop motion animation is a “photographic film making technique where an object is moved in front of a camera and photographed many times.”

Also known as stop frame, stop motion is an animation technique to make a physically manipulated object or persona appear to move on its own.

But, there’s a lot more to it because it’s actually an art form that uses so many different art forms and technologies.

There’s really no limit in terms of how creative you can be as an animator. You can use any type of small object, toy, puppet, or clay figure to create your cast and decor.

So, to summarize, stop motion is an animation technique in which inanimate objects or characters are manipulated between frames and appear as though they are moving. It’s a 3D form of animation where the objects appear to move in real-time, but it’s really just photos played back.

The object is moved in small increments between individually photographed frames, creating the illusion of movement when the series of frames is played as a continuous sequence.

The idea of movement is nothing more than an illusion because it’s just a filming technique.

Little puppets and figurines are moved by people, photographed, and played back rapidly.

Dolls with movable joints or clay figures are often used in stop motion for their ease of repositioning.

Stop motion animation using plasticine is called clay animation or “clay-mation”.

Not all stop motion requires figures or models; many stop motion films can involve using humans, household appliances, and other things for comedic effect.

Stop motion using objects is sometimes referred to as object animation.

Sometimes stop motion is also called stop-frame animation because each scene or action is captured through photographs one frame at a time.

The toys, which are the actors, are physically moved between the frames to create the illusion of motion.

Some people call this animation style stop-frame animation, but it refers to the same technique.

Toy actors

The characters in stop motion are toys, not humans. They are usually made of clay, or they have an armature skeleton covered in other flexible materials.

Of course, you also have the popular toy figurines.

So, that’s the major characteristic of stop motion: the characters and actors are not humans but rather inanimate objects.

Unlike live-action films, you have inanimate “actors,” not humans, and they can really take on any shape or form.

The toys used in stop motion movies are hard to “direct.” As the animator, you have to make them move, so it’s a time-consuming activity.

Imagine that you have to make each gesture and mold the figurine after each frame.

Live-action stop motion featuring human actors exists, too, but it’s called pixilation. That’s not what I’m talking about today though.

Types of stop motion

Still, let me share the different types of stop motion animation just so you know them all.

History of stop motion

The first stop motion animation was about the life inside a toy circus. The animation was called The Humpty Dumpty Circus, and it was animated by J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith in 1898.

You can imagine the excitement people felt seeing toy objects “move” on the screen.

Then later, in 1907, J. Stuart Blackton created another stop motion film using the same animation technique called The Haunted Hotel.

But all of this was only possible because of the advances in cameras and photography techniques. The better cameras allowed filmmakers to change the frame rate, and it made the work move along faster.

One of the most famous pioneers of stop motion was Wladyslaw Starewicz.

During his career, he animated many films, but his most unique work was called Lucanus Cervus (1910), and instead of hand-made puppets, he used insects.

After he paved the way, animation studios started to create more and more stop-frame films, which went on to have massive success.

So, using stop motion became the best way to make animated movies up until the start of the Disney era.

Check out this cool Vox video to learn more about the history of stop animation:

King Kong (1933)

In the year 1933, King Kong was by far the most popular stop motion animation in the world.

Considered a masterpiece of its time, the animation features small articulating models designed to resemble real-life gorillas.

Willis O’Brien was in charge of overseeing the production of the movie, and he is a true pioneer of stop motion.

The film was created with the help of four models made out of aluminum, foam, and rabbit fur to resemble a real animal.

Then, there was one simple lead and fur armature that was pretty much destroyed while filming that scene of King Kong falling from the Empire State Building, which is one of the coolest scenes, I must admit:

How stop motion is made

If you’re familiar with 2D hand-drawn animation like the earliest Disney animations, you’ll remember the first Mickey Mouse cartoons.

The illustration, drawn on paper, “came to life” and moved. A stop motion animation movie is similar.

You’re likely wondering: How does stop motion work?

Well, instead of those drawings and digital artworks, modern animators use clay figures, toys, or other puppets. Using stop motion techniques, animators can bring inanimate objects to “life” on the screen.

So, how is it made? Are the puppets moved somehow?

First, the animator needs a camera to take photographs of each frame. Thousands of photos are taken in total. Then, the photography is played back, so it appears the characters are moving.

In reality, puppets, clay models, and other inanimate objects are physically moved between frames and photographed by the animators.

Thus, the figures must be manipulated and molded into the perfect position for every single frame.

The animator takes thousands of photographs for each shot or scene. It’s not a long video, as many people seem to think.

A stop motion movie is shot with a camera by taking photographs.

Then, still images are played back at various speeds and frame rates to create the illusion of movement. Usually, the pictures are played back at a fast rate to create this illusion of ongoing movement.

So, basically, each frame is captured one at a time then played back quickly to create the impression that the characters are moving.

The key to successfully capturing the motion on camera is to move your figures in small increments.

You don’t want to completely change the position, or else the video won’t be fluid, and the movements won’t seem natural.

It shouldn’t be obvious that your objects are being manually manipulated between frames.

Capturing stop motion

In the early days, film cameras were used to capture the frames for stop motion animation.

The challenge was that an animator could only see the work once the film was processed, and if something didn’t look good, the animator had to start all over again.

Can you imagine how much work went into creating stop-frame animation back in the day?

These days, the process is more fluid and simpler.

In 2005, Tim Burton opted to shoot his stop motion animated film Corpse Bride with a DSLR camera.

These days almost all DSLR cameras have a live view feature which means the animator can see a preview of what they’re shooting through the lens and can re-do shots as needed.

Is stop motion the same as animation?

Snow white 2D animation vs stop motion animation

While stop motion is similar to what we know as traditional animation, it’s not quite the same. The films are quite different.

Snow White (1937) is an example of 2D animation, while films like Paranorman (2012) and Coraline (2009) are well-known stop motion movies.

Traditional animation is 2D, stop motion is 3D.

Stop motion is also shot frame by frame like 2D classic animation. The frames are placed in sequence and then played back to create stop motion.

But, unlike 2D animation, the characters are not hand-drawn or digitally illustrated, but rather photographed and turned into beautiful 3D lifelike actors.

Another difference is that each frame of animation is created separately then played back at a rate of 12 to about 24 frames per second.

Animation these days is made digitally and then usually placed on an existing film reel where special effects are created.

How stop motion figures are made

For the sake of this article, I am focusing on how to make and use inanimate actors and toys for animation. You can read about materials in the next section.

If you’ve seen films like Fantastic Mr. Fox, you know that the 3D characters are memorable and quite unique. So, how are they made?

Here’s an overview of how stop motion characters are made.

Materials

There are two basic ways to make stop motion figures. Almost all of the materials you need are available at craft stores or online.

Some basic hand tools are required, but for beginners, you can use minimal materials and tools.

Clay or plasticine stop motion characters

The first type of model is made with clay or plasticine. For example, Chicken Run characters are made of clay.

You need some colorful modeling clay. You can mold the puppets into any shape you like.

Aardman Animations is well known for claymation-style feature films.

Their creative clay models like Shaun the Sheep resemble real animals but they are made entirely of a plasticine clay material.

Wondering why claymation may seem so creepy?

Armature character

The second type is the armature model. This style of figurine is made with a metallic wire armature skeleton as the base.

Then, it’s covered with thin foam material, which acts as muscle for your doll.

The wire armature puppet is an industry favorite because the animator moves the limbs and creates the desired poses rather simply.

Lastly, you can cover it with modeling clay and clothing. You can use doll clothes or make your own out of fabric.

Cutouts made of paper are also popular and are ideal for making backgrounds and decor pieces.

Check out how to develop stop motion characters and give it a try.

Toys for stop motion animation

For beginners or kids, making stop motion can be as simple as using toys.

Toys like LEGO figures, action figures, dolls, puppets, and stuffed toys are perfect for basic stop motion animation. If you’re a bit creative and can think outside the box, you can use any type of toy for your film.

People like to use LEGO because you can build any shape or form, and let’s face it, putting the blocks together is pretty fun.

One of the best toys for kids and beginners are the Stikbot Zanimation Studio toys which come as kits, complete with figurines and a backdrop.

Stikbot Zanimation Studio with Pet - Includes 2 Stikbots, 1 Horse Stikbot, 1 Phone Stand and 1 Reversible Backdrop for stop motion

(view more images)

If you’re using toys, it might be a bit harder to get the facial expressions perfect, but if you stick to claymation, you can give your characters the facial expression you want.

Wire armature puppets are always a good option because they are easy to move. You can shape the limbs easily and the puppets are flexible.

You can even use colorful candy to create short stop motion videos or films. Check out this tutorial and see how simple it is:

Stop motion FAQs

There’s so much to learn about stop motion animation. Here are some popular Q and A’s to answer those questions everyone is wondering about.

What is cutout animation?

People often think that cutout animation is not stop motion, but it actually is.

Stop motion animation is the overall genre and cutout animation is an animation form from this genre.

Instead of using 3D armature models, flat characters made of paper, fabric, photos, or cards are used as actors. The backgrounds and all characters are cut out from these materials and then used as actors.

These kinds of flat puppets can be seen in the stop motion movie Twice Upon a Time (1983).

But these days, stop motion animation using cutouts is not really popular anymore.

Cutout animations can take a long time to make, even compared to regular stop motion feature films.

What do you need for stop motion animation?

To make your own stop motion video or animation, you don’t really need too much equipment.

First, you need your props which include your models. If you want to make a clay animation, make your characters out of modeling clay. But, you can use toys, LEGO, dolls, etc.

Then, you need a laptop (here are our top reviews) or tablet. Preferably you’ll use a stop-motion app too because it makes the whole process much easier.

For the backdrop, you can use a black sheet or dark tablecloth. Also, you need some bright lights (at least two).

Then, you need a tripod for stability and the camera, which is the most important.

How expensive is stop motion animation?

Compared to some other types of filmmaking, stop motion animation is a bit less expensive. If you have a camera you can probably make your set for about $50 if you keep things very basic.

To make a stop motion film at home is far cheaper than a studio production. But a professional stop motion film can be very costly to make.

When calculating how much it costs to make a stop motion animation, a production studio looks at the price per minute of finished video.

Costs range between $1000-10.000 dollars for one minute of the finished film.

What is the simple way to make stop motion at home?

Of course, there are many technical things you need to know but for the most basic video, you don’t need to do much.

Learn more on how to get started with stop motion animation at home

How many pictures does it take to make a 1 minute stop motion?

It depends on how many frames you shoot per second.

Let’s pretend for example, that you shoot a 60-second video at 10 frames per second, you’ll need exactly 600 photos.

For these 600 photos, you need to factor in the time it takes to set up every shot and move every object in and out of the frame.

Overall, the process takes a long time and in reality, you could need as many as 1000 photos for a minute of video.

Takeaway

Puppet animation has a history that dates back over 100 years, and many people still like this art form.

The Nightmare Before Christmas is still a beloved stop motion movie for all ages, especially during the Christmas season.

While clay animation has sort of fallen out of popularity, puppet animation motion pictures are still pretty liked and can compete with video.

With all the new stop motion software available, it’s now easier to make stop motion videos at home. This technique is also still popular with kids.

In the early days, everything was done manually and the photos were taken with cameras. Now, they use modern editing software to make things easier.

So, if you want to make a stop motion film at home as a beginner or teach kids how to do it, you can use toys or simple models and a digital camera. Have fun!

Next: these are the best cameras to use for making stop motion animation