With Laika’s visually sumptuous and breathtaking stop motion masterpiece Kubo and the Two Strings dazzling audiences worldwide, what better time to celebrate this singular and remarkable art form?
The effect is created when an on-screen character or object is carefully manipulated one frame at a time, leading to an illusion of movement during playback – and such fiendishly intricate work, which takes years of dedication, deserves to be honored. Here are the greatest examples of stop motion movie mastery.
The Humpty Dumpty Circus (1898)
What defines the elusive appeal of stop motion? Surely a great deal of it is down to the blend of the recognizable and the uncanny: a simulation of recognizably human movement that still has a touch of the fantastical about it. These contradictions were put to groundbreaking use in the first officially recognized American stop motion short, visualized by Vitagraph Studio co-founders J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith. Although the original film isn’t available, here’s a spirited homage to their achievement.
The Lost World (1925)
No, not Steven Spielberg’s CGI-infused blockbuster, but an early, pioneering Hollywood example of stop motion craft. Willis O’Brien, one of the earliest practioners of the form, was instrumental in giving physical life to the creatures and dinosaurs that sprung from the pages of Arthur Conan Doyle’s story, paving the way for what was to come, and mentoring a certain protege by the name of Ray Harryhausen…
King Kong (1933)
This watershed creature feature was revolutionary for how its stop motion title character effectively stole the show from the human stars. Again supervised by Willis O’Brien, with Ray Harryhausen lending key support in one of his earliest screen credits, the complex, in-camera mixture of stop motion with live action remains incendiary to this day. It was achieved by fusing the Dunning Process (cinematographer Caroll H. Dunning’s use of “bipacking” whereby two reels of film pass through the camera gate together), with the Frank D. Williams process (an optical printer combining foreground, background, live-action, and stop motion into a single image).
Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
If anyone was responsible for cementing the joy of stop motion in the minds of audiences, it was Ray Harryhausen. His gloriously handheld creations were always so wonderfully, palpably invested with a visceral sense of life, nowhere more evident than in the climax of this classic fantasy adventure in which our title character and his compatriots face a host of sword-wielding skeletons. It may ultimately have been director Don Chaffey’s movie, but there’s no denying the real star of the show was Harryhausen himself.
Clash of the Titans (1981)
Okay, so it’s only a stop motion movie in the loosest sense of the term, but arguably the most unforgettable sequence from this fondly remembered Greek myth fantasy is the spine-prickling showdown between Harry Hamlin’s Perseus and the hideous stop motion beast, Medusa. Showcasing the kind of wondrous physicality that the laughable, CGI-infested 2010 remake could only dream of, Ray Harryhausen’s snake-haired Gorgon remains to this day a classic movie monster, augmented by the expertly shadowy lighting and Laurence Rosenthal’s slithery score.
The Terminator (1984)
James Cameron’s trendsetting cyberpunk sci-fi thriller spearheaded a host of revolutionary movie techniques, most famously Stan Winston’s extraordinary animatronics that really made us believe in the existence of a killer cyborg sent back from the future. However, there’s still room to appreciate the movie’s oft-overlooked stop motion effects that burst into terrifying life during the final chase sequence, as heroes Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese are pursued into the factory by their seemingly invincible enemy.
It’s a stretch to define Paul Verhoeven’s no-holds-barred sci-fi classic as a fully stop motion feature. Nevertheless the unforgettable showdown between our metallic title character and rampaging killer robot Ed-209 is a fine showcase for the intricate work of genius animator Phil Tippett (a veteran of Star Wars and, later, Jurassic Park). That the fight between RoboCop and his nemesis lingers so vividly in the mind is largely down to Tippett’s brilliant creation.
One of cinema’s most idiosyncratic takes on Lewis Caroll’s beloved Alice in Wonderland came courtesy of Czech quirk-meister Jan Svankmajer. A noted animator and filmmaker, Svankmajer made Alice his debut feature after decades of working on short movies, and set out to correct what he perceived as the wrongs of all preceding adaptations. With stop motion bringing a host of dolls, stuffed animals, and more to life, there’s no denying it’s a dark, troubling work that fulfils the director’s desire to honor the dreamlike tone of Carroll’s source.
A Grand Day Out (1989)
“Wensleydale? Stilton?” Stop motion – or indeed films involving cheese – were never the same again after Wallace and Gromit’s fledgling Aardman adventure, a work of unparalleled delight that sees the Yorkshire inventor and his loyal mutt head off to the moon to load up on their favorite food. The fluid, effortlessly involving physicality of the stop motion is writ large in the details both broad and intimate – watch out for the grub disappearing down Wallace’s gullet -and was to become an Aardman hallmark.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
There are two things to remember about this ghoulish gem, a mainstay of Halloween (and Christmas) viewing. The first is that it’s not directed by Tim Burton (he came up with the concept and designs whereas Henry Selick actually helmed). The second is it’s one of the greatest stop motion achievements of all time. The wonderfully twisted imaginations of both Burton and Selick offer fertile ground for all kinds of memorable monstrosities. As Pumpkin King Jack Skellington discovers Christmas, the rich detail of the models from Skellington’s spindly form to grotesque baddie Oogie Boogie offer a showcase for stop motion in all its glory.
The Wrong Trousers (1993)
The last of Wallace and Gromit’s short films prior to their 2005 feature debut (bar the Cracking Contraptions series), A Close Shave again steps up the stop motion intricacy by introducing a host of new characters, all of whom are delightfully realized in that quintessential claymation fashion. Chief among them are big-haired love interest Wendolene and her loyal dog (also the film’s villain), Preston. The latter’s facial expressions in particular are a joy, a rictus deadpan occasionally broken by looks of complete surprise. Plus, we were also introduced to a certain Shaun the Sheep…
James and the Giant Peach (1996)
Roald Dahl’s celebrated literary creations were crying out to be rendered in stop motion: the approach carries with it a sense of physicality and quirkiness that does absolute justice to his offbeat imagination. Henry Selick’s acclaimed take on Dahl’s 1961 novel is bookended by live-action segments narrated by the late Pete Posthlethwaite. But the real magic resides in the mid-section whereboy our hero James sets out on the titular peach accompanied by Grasshopper, Centipede, Earthworm, Spider, and Ladybug, the stop motion lending more magic than any CGI could ever hope to do.
Chicken Run (2000)
The full breadth of Aardman’s stop motion capabilities took flight in this, their feature film debut – and the results were everything we’d hoped for. Translating the rich plasticene environments of their short films skillfully into a long-form narrative, the scope of detail in their animation becomes clear, subtle differentiations in our titular flock becoming apparent through little more than hair, girth, or height.
Corpse Bride (2005)
Given he didn’t actually direct The Nightmare Before Christmas, it’s surprising that Tim Burton’s first fully-fledged stop motion feature came 12 years afterwards. Corpse Bride is possessed of a distinctly more melancholy quality than Nightmare that is writ large in Johnny Depp’s central character, Victor Von Dort, and Helena Bonham Carter’s undead Bride. But there’s still more than enough ghoulish claymation mayhem, particularly in the impressive opening tracking shot and Danny Elfman’s wicked number “Remains of the Day.”
Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)
Just as Tim Burton was making in-roads into stop motion features, in the same year British institution Aardman’s most famous creations made the same leap. There was initial worry that stretching a Wallace and Gromit adventure to feature length would dilute the magic, but quite the opposite happened. In fact, it was a glorious showcase for Aardman’s increased confidence in the medium they’d help popularize, and also demonstrated some of their most riotously intricate set pieces to date. In particular, Gromit controlling the giant rabbit puppet in the manner of Charlie Chaplin is a timeless piece of physical comedy.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
If James and the Giant Peach demonstrated the sweetly soulful side of stop motion Roald Dahl movies, Wes Anderson’s brilliantly deadpan and acerbic take on another of the author’s classics is definitely a more acquired taste. But there’s no denying that the dazzling visual intricacy of Anderson’s stop motion vision gets right to the heart of Dahl’s quintessential zaniness, with an unbelievable amount of sly in-jokes ranging from a Jarvis Cocker cameo to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance from Bath’s wonderful Little Theatre rendered in claymation form.
Due to its very physicality, stop motion has a unique ability to take on grotesque forms that feel palpably, viscerally frightening. Henry Selick’s long-overdue return to the medium, the first from Kubo studio Laika, is surely one of the creepiest children’s movies ever made, adapted from Neil Gaiman’s book in which a young girl escapes into another dimension to flee her banal parents. While there, however, she discovers the mysterious other side where people have buttons for eyes… It’s a richly realized, unsettling world underscored with a genuine sense of compassion.
Mary and Max (2009)
Noted Harvie Krumpet animator Adam Eliot turned his hand to feature filmmaking with this, an uncompromisingly bleak and melancholy study of the pen friendship between a young Australian girl and a lonely American Jewish man. The stop motion detail is quite wonderful: cartoonish lumps and bumps, like exaggerated heads and oversized noses accentuating the outsider qualities of the film’s characters, further brought to life by the excellent vocal work from Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toni Collette.
Laika’s second feature film is arguably even better than their first in terms of both narrative and technique. Walking the finest of lines between genuinely creepy and sweetly affectionate, ParaNorman manages the tricky feat of introducing young audiences to zombie lore (the sly opening film-within-a-film gag reinforces this), while deploying ever-more sophisticated stop motion techniques to draw viewers into its world. Ultimately a heartwarming tale of how supposed monsters are in fact much more than that, it’s a treat.
The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists (2012)
Perhaps Aardman’s most underrated movie (it may be their most scattershot, narratively speaking), this loose, swashbuckling adaptation of Gideon Defoe’s first Pirates novel is nevertheless rammed with the kind of rich claymation detail for which the company have become renowned. Taking time to poke fun not only at piracy but also creationism (Charles Darwin provides a terrific running gag), it’s a stop motion adventure whose dry sense of humor is perhaps best appreciated by adults.
Cementing all of the macabre, yet sweetly sentimental hallmarks of Tim Burton’s career, this stop motion delight marks yet another step upwards in technique for the esteemed high prince of weird. A grisly, yet poignant story of a young boy who brings his dead dog back to life (extended from Burton’s very own short film), the wonderful black and white patina lends further retro Gothic richness to its assorted figures and environments.
The Boxtrolls (2014)
Another of stop motion’s great strengths is its ability to be tactile, to convey a sense of texture that one simply doesn’t get from more glossy CGI. Laika’s third feature, based on Alan Snow’s novel Here Be Monsters!, is almost certainly their ickiest and grimiest, the story of sewer-dwelling, box-bodied creatures who have raised a lonely boy as their own, and the cheese-allergic villain who vows to hunt them down. With Ben Kingsley’s scheming Archibald Snatcher ballooning grotesquely while chomping on cheddar and a hero coated in all kinds of muck for most of the movie, the detail in the stop motion is both unsettling and entrancing.
The LEGO Movie (2014)
Okay, so it’s not strictly speaking a stop motion movie (although elements of the technique were deployed), but more a movie whose CGI approach simulates the recognizably physical sense of movement we associate with the former. But in this instance, it works dividends: given the tactility of LEGO and the memories we all share of building worlds with our hands, Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s gloriously witty animated comedy brilliantly replicates not only the look of the brand, but also the feel of it. It’s proof of stop motion’s pervasive influence, even when it isn’t directly utilized in the movie itself. Everything is, indeed, awesome.
Shaun the Sheep (2015)
Aardman’s work has always drawn on the richly humorous legacy of classic silent cinema. Here it takes full flight as bit-player-turned-TV-legend Shaun (voted the most popular children’s TV character of all time) gambols into his own movie, with barely a line of dialogue to give him personality. Instead, it’s all down to the exquisitely realized physical mannerisms and facial expressions, as perfect a distillation of the joy of stop motion as we’re ever likely to see. The deviously hilarious Silence of the Lambs-style pound incarceration is one for the ages.
In the words of co-director Duke Johnson, Anomalisa was designed to “take the medium of stop-motion animation into realms that we hadn’t seen it go before.” It certainly did that. Adapted from filmmaker Charlie Kaufman’s own 2005 ‘sound play,’ it’s a dark story of an acerbic middle-aged man suffering from ‘Fregoli delusion’ (whereby someone believes everyone else is one and the same). The movie shows a pleasing committment to the craft of stop motion, so much so that the seams on the puppets’ faces are intentionally left in, giving a distinctly raw quality befitting Kaufman’s typically bleak outlook on life.
The Little Prince (2016)
Only half of this genuinely breathtaking Netflix movie is rendered in stop motion, but intriguingly, it’s the half most given over to flights of fancy and imagination. Loosely based on Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s beloved children’s novel, it’s the tale of a disaffected young girl looking to escape the unfeeling world in which she lives by taking solace in a local aviator’s remarkable stories. Interestingly, the now-standardized CGI approach is used to render our central character’s soulless world. Stop motion is used to bring the extraordinary story of the Little Prince himself to life, surefire proof that filmmakers recognize in it a singular sense of magic unrivalled by any other medium.