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Friday, April 19, 2024

Stop motion animation: How the original CGI came in, out of fashion

And what makes this technique so sentimentally special 


By CORALIE LOON — arts@theaggie.org


During the first screening of “The Lost World” in 1925, audience members watched a shockingly realistic T-rex tower above a group of human explorers, seemingly unphased by the humans’ gunshots. The whole thing was enough for a journalist of the New York Times to suggest that the “monsters of the ancient world or of the new world which he has discovered in the ether, were extraordinarily lifelike.” When the person screening the film refused to explain how the images were created, some speculated about the filmmaker’s spiritualist abilities.

But it wasn’t an elaborate magic trick that materialized the dinosaurs: In fact, the film in question was a black and white silent film, and the dinosaurs were created by stop-motion animation. 

Stop motion, a technique that is now seen as more quaint or nostalgic than visually impressive, is a relatively simple process: take a series of photographs, each one slightly different from the last, and play them together at a rate of 24 frames per second. Although typically performed with clay figures or puppets, stop motion can involve any object from the real world, including kitchen utensils, paper drawings or even people.

Despite taking hours of manual labor to produce a few seconds of animation, the technique has lost much of its early prestige and respect, seeming to slip farther and farther from the public spotlight.

Today’s discourses about animation tend to pit computer-generated imagery (CGI) animation against hand-drawn, but these conversations often forget about stop motion, or place it on the backburner. Compared to both CGI and hand-drawn animated films, stop motion films haven’t done nearly as well in the box office. According to databases of box office earnings, every one of the top 50 CGI animated films made at least twice as much as the highest-earning stop-motion film, “Chicken Run” (2000), which made almost $225 million worldwide.

Even traditional hand-drawn animation outpaces stop motion in the box office. The original “The Lion King” (1994) made $968 million worldwide, with the next three most successful films all grossing more than $500 million. Despite being a pop cultural staple, “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993) only grossed $91 million worldwide in the box office, comparable to the $90 million in earnings of the promiscuous “Fritz the Cat” (1972) that no one seems to remember watching.

Considering the meager-to-moderate success stop motion films have had compared to their counterparts, it’s easy to forget just how important stop motion has been in the history of animation. After all, stop motion in many ways served as the original CGI. Though special effects artists may laugh about it now, “The Lost World” (1925) was an impressive display at the time of how stop motion could be used to bring mythical creatures to life and create elaborate (but affordable) sets.

Stop motion animation techniques were used in the original Star Wars trilogy. Those seemingly miles-tall AT-ATs at the infamous Battle of Hoth? Those were really constructed for the film, although they stood maybe a foot tall.

In movies and especially TV shows, stop motion animation was used because of its relative cost-effectiveness. Before CGI offered quicker and cheaper ways to create fictional worlds, stop motion sets were a great alternative to building life-sized sets that could cost much more. According to Stop Motion Magazine, stop motion as the “most utilized visual effects technique” peaked in the 1970s and 1980s, but after this point was when things went downhill.

Pixar’s “Toy Story” (1995) was the first solely CGI-animated feature film, made possible by huge technological improvements that, as the years went on, only continued to improve. CGI made much possible that hadn’t been possible before. However, it also “improved” (or else mimicked) what stop motion animation had been doing the whole time.

While it may seem like stop motion animation has been discarded in favor of more efficient animation techniques (because, let’s face it, it has), it still holds a place in popular culture. The production studio Laika, for example, has been consistently releasing stop motion films, including “Missing Link” (2019) and “Kubo and the Two Strings” (2016). Considering the “impracticalities” of stop motion, it should already be dead and gone: Why waste time creating expensive and elaborate sets, all the more elaborate as the world’s expectations and standards for visual effects increase every year?

The very fact that stop motion is still bringing in enough money for prominent production studios to release stop-motion films is evidence of its pervasiveness in culture. There is something unique about the half-real worlds of “Coraline” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox” that is simply not captured in CGI films. 

While people’s love of stop-motion perhaps used to rely more on the thrill of realism, it seems that the appeal of this animation technique is its more natural or “hand-made” appearance. An opinion article by Kim Taylor-Foster theorizes that a societal-wide love for stop motion is due in part to “the massive market for nostalgia” that “goes hand in hand with a move towards a rediscovery and reappraisal of the handmade.”

In a way, this could be a promising outlook. If stop motion used to be valued as the best that could be done with what was available, its success alongside modern CGI technology could show a love for the artform that is deeper and more honest, that appreciates not its ability to mimic something, but to take up space as a unique art form and style. It is the style and sensation of stop motion, its existence somewhere between the real world and the fictional, that no technological improvement has been able to replicate. 

So, what is the future of stop motion animation? Whatever it is, it will surely not let up without a fight.


Written by: Coralie Loon — arts@theaggie.org



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