Breaking the Mold: Why Stop Motion Is Thriving in a CGI World

Kim Taylor-Foster
Movies
Movies

Animation is big business. Pixar’s recent Incredibles 2 banked a massive $1.25bn at the global box office, making it the second-highest grossing animated film of all time. Sony’s Hotel Transylvania 3, also from 2018, raked in a sizable $529m, while another sequel, Disney’s Ralph Breaks the Internet, achieved $473.5m. Not only that, but Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse  took $347m at the global box office and even had audiences and critics declaring it the best superhero movie of the year full stop — in the same year Black Panther so brilliantly addressed diversity and Avengers: Infinity War unleashed the Thanos Snap onto the world, no less.

Around the globe, box office figures tell the same story. If there was a time when moviegoers fell out of love with animation, in 2019 there’s incontrovertible evidence that we’ve universally fallen head over heels for it once again. Yet it’s not just CGI-stories that are wowing audiences. Anime — once a cult genre — celebrated its first ever world premiere at the Cannes film festival in 2018. Mamoru Hosoda’s Oscar-nominated Mirai, an immersive blend of family drama and fantasy, is ironclad proof that the world is fully embracing all types of animation.

“I can actually feel the trend shifting.” — Mamoru Hosoda

As Hosoda told Fandom, “Animation is a method in filmmaking, so whether it be animation, be it live-action, computer graphics, so long as the story is good, it’s good and it’s a movie full stop. It’s not just an anime. It’s not a niche thing at all. I think it’s good to know that animation movies are accepted as standard, normal movies. I was at San Sebastian [Film Festival, this year], and I was there three years ago in the competition, and I can actually feel the trend shifting. At that time, if you were making animation movies they would say: ‘Well, there’s this animation festival that’s separate.’ But the borders are really blurred now. And I think it’s a good thing.”

It follows, then, that audiences and filmmakers are also embracing stop motion, a form of animation in which models, puppets or other otherwise static objects are animated by painstakingly shooting incremental movements. According to David Sproxton, co-founder of Aardman Animations, the British studio behind stop-motion stalwarts Wallace and Gromit, “Three or four years ago, there were more stop-frame films being made in the world in that year than have ever been made before in any one year.”

Isle-of-Dogs-Wes-Anderson
The Oscar-nominated Isle of Dogs is Wes Anderson's second stop-motion feature film, after Fantastic Mr Fox.

They’re doing alright at the box office too — with Aardman’s own Shaun the Sheep Movie (2014) taking $106m, Laika’s The Boxtrolls (from the same year) hitting $109m, and Aardman creations Chicken Run (2000) and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005) bringing in $225m and $193m respectively. Yet, even when they’re bringing home more modest sums, they’re getting plenty of praise and recognition — with Wes Anderson’s 2018 sophisticated sci-fi dramedy Isle of Dogs earning itself an Oscar nomination at this year’s ceremony, putting it on a par with 2016’s My Life As a Courgette, Kubo and the Two Strings, and 2015’s Anomalisa, which were also given Oscar nods. All that’s not to mention the Rotten Tomatoes scores, which almost across the board reflect high critical acclaim.

But the question is, why is stop motion thriving in a landscape that has been dominated in recent years by CGI?  

A Brief History of Stop-Motion

Let’s face it, stop motion should be dead. It’s a crude, time-consuming, labour-intensive form of animation that has been trumped by the jaw-dropping, smooth, and lifelike qualities of CGI. Remember the fuss surrounding Disney’s Bolt in 2008, and how they managed to animate all those individual dog hairs? Rich Moore, co-director of Ralph Breaks the Internet, certainly does.

“I am blown away that when they made Bolt they fretted and tortured themselves over getting Bolt’s hair to blow in the wind in that one scene where he sticks his head out of the mobile home,” he told Fandom.

Acknowledging how far digital animation has come in just 10 short years, he continued: “And now we’re able to build a giant Ralph out of a million little Ralphs with all the little detail on them?! [Bolt] wasn’t that long ago!” The giant Ralph he refers to is the film’s biggest scene, and a feat of CGI.

Yet, despite incredible advancements in animation techniques, stop motion is alive and kicking. To fully understand why, however, is to first look at the origins of stop-motion in movies, and its journey to today.

The very first known animated feature film was a 1917 stop-motion effort by Quirino Cristiani made using cutouts, called El Apóstol (The Apostle). But the technique really started making a splash when Willis O’Brien’s pioneering special effects were integrated into live-action creature features The Lost World (1925), King Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949). Today, of course, such effects are created using CGI and performance capture techniques, meaning that stop motion has evolved to become something that no longer trades on groundbreaking methods, but rather something else entirely (tradition and charm — more on which later.)

The legendary Ray Harryhausen was the natural successor to O’Brien — and worked with the animation kingpin, in fact, on Mighty Joe Young. Harryhausen picked up the stop-motion mantle to create his own legit movie magic in live-action fantasy epics including The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Clash of the Titans (1981).

As digital and practical effects began to take hold in Hollywood, stop motion was used less and less in live-action features, though use of it was made in some surprising blockbusters, where stop-motion sequences were intended to blend in with the film’s myriad effects. Films like the original Star Wars trilogy, Jaws 3, Ghostbusters, The Terminator,  Aliens and more. Stop motion was even used as recently as 2015 in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

In the early 1990s, it became a device used for largely comedic effect. In both Army of Darkness and Coneheads, for example, we’re encouraged to laugh at the crudeness of the animation technique. This was an era in which audiences had recently witnessed the staggering molten metal T-1000 effects in Terminator 2, making stop motion ripe for mockery.

All the while, of course, stop-motion animated features continued to be made. One or two highlights came along but no one film really made a mark. And then along came the Wallace and Gromit films, culminating in Aardman’s big Hollywood break, and their first feature-length animation, Chicken Run, a film made in partnership with Dreamworks. It’s the highest-grossing stop motion film in history, and a sequel is currently  — finally — in the works.

nightmare-before-christmas-online-and-just-in-for-stream-nightmare-before-christmas-online
Tim Burton wrote and produced the Henry Selick-directed The Nightmare Before Christmas, which became a huge cult success.

While Aardman was stamping its authority on stop motion, Tim Burton was getting in on the act, producing the Henry Selick-directed adult-orientated stop-motion feature The Nightmare Before Christmas in 1993 before taking the reins of the similarly toned Corpse Bride in 2005 and Frankenweenie (based on his own 1984 live-action short of the same name) in 2012. And in the midst of that, critically acclaimed studio, Laika, was established — founded in 2005 and helmed by Nike heir and Bumblebee director Travis Knight — bringing its own particular brand of stop motion to the table. The studio, in its infancy, worked on Corpse Bride but soon established a tone for itself in films like Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls and Kubo and the Two Strings.

And so to 2019, and looking ahead to a slate of stop-motion films this year and beyond that includes the latest efforts from Aardman (Farmageddon: A Shaun the Sheep Movie), Laika (The Missing Link) and the Henry Selick-directed Wendall and Wild. That’s as well as Guillermo del Toro’s take on Pinocchio and Taika Waititi’s tale of Michael Jackson’s chimp, Bubbles. Stop Motion has never looked healthier.

The Lego Movies

Then, of course, there’s The Lego Movie and its sequel, The Lego Movie 2. Not to mention spinoffs Legos Batman and Ninjago. These massively popular, big-budget offerings are proof  — if you need more — that stop motion is more in vogue than ever, not just in the size of audience they’re finding but also in the budgets injected into them, as well as in the lengths the creative teams go to in order to replicate the look of stop-motion digitally. Oh, and let’s not forget the commitment to integrating real stop-motion (that ambitious end-credits sequence in the first Lego Movie, anyone?).

That’s right, the Lego films aren’t actually stop motion (for the most part), they’re made predominantly using CGI. That’s partly because of the scale of the stories and partly because of the glossy yet handmade look the creative teams are going for. You’d never make a film of this ambition using traditional stop-motion techniques — which haven’t changed since stop motion’s early days.

Shaun the Sheep Movie 2 director Will Becher concurs: “[The Lego Movie] is a big epic battle type of film so it’s the kind of thing that would be really hard to do in stop motion.”

While Becher’s co-director Rich Phelan adds, “It’s just a time/quality thing.” There’s also the small matter that the bricks alone would have cost millions.

Lego Movie co-director Chris Miller told the New York Times that CG was used to create a homemade brick feel, with research going into how to put fingerprints and even dandruff on digital bricks, allowing for the lighting and camera angles of a big-budget action movie. Miller and co-director Phil Lord even included a cracked spaceman helmet based on one of Miller’s own childhood minifigures in the interests of lifelikeness. They actually used some real Lego sets too, and employed a creative agency to make the CG photoreal so it blended seamlessly.

In the interests of keeping it as close to real stop motion — and therefore as real-looking — as possible, Production Designer Grant Freckleton used a publicly available online tool, Lego Digital Designer, to plan out ideas, constructing them out of virtual Lego bricks. Which meant his team actually faced the same constraints in animation as they would had they physically built the models.

“The more people think [The Lego Movie] is a real-stop motion film, the better. If we can convince people it’s a stop-mo film from the outset, I think we’ve achieved what we set out to do.” — The Lego Movie‘s animation supervisor, Alfie Oliver

Animation supervisor, Alfie Oliver told The Credits: “The more people think [The Lego Movie] is a real-stop motion film, the better. If we can convince people it’s a stop-mo film from the outset, I think we’ve achieved what we set out to do.”

Despite the film’s extensive use of CG, Lord and Miller saw fit to include a real stop-motion end credits sequence. Initial plans estimated 300,000 Lego bricks would be needed to construct huge scenes of around 70 feet across. But this was ultimately scaled down from an average of 10,000 bricks per scene to 3,000 — a total of around 60,000 for the entire two-and-a-half-minute sequence. Work began a year ahead, but according to Creative Director Brian Mah: “Time ended up being a big challenge for this job.”

Because of the nature of Lego bricks, they faced more difficulties than, say, claymation films, which meant that “every step of the project was very time-consuming”. That’s from the various technical limitations of the Lego Digital Designer software, which they used as a planning tool, to the sourcing of bricks and building the sets. And that’s before you’ve even got to the slow, monotonous process of shooting frame by frame.

There were no short-cuts, meaning that even if Lord and Miller had wanted to make their entire feature using stop motion, you see how it would have been almost impossible. All of this to say that, although The Lego Movie and its successors are predominantly CGI, what they really, really, really want to be at heart, is stop motion. Despite only borrowing its aesthetic, crucially they’re bringing the appeal of stop-motion animation to a wider audience. 

Embracing the Handmade

The 1980s as a decade is currently big business on screen; think Stranger Things and Bumblebee to name just two hugely popular titles. The massive market for nostalgia goes hand in hand with a move towards a rediscovery and reappraisal of the handmade. Take into account an increasing awareness amongst the general population of the environment, and the negative impact of mass production — not only in terms of carbon footprints and the real and perceived unethical business practices of large corporations, but also homogenisation — and it’s a perfect environment in which ‘small-scale’ and artisan products can thrive. Enter stop motion.

Chicken-Run
A sequel to Aardman's Chicken Run, the highest-grossing stop motion film of all time, is in the works -- all because we love its handmade charm.

In 2019, it makes sense that there’s a rise in appreciation for art forms and products where you can see and feel the human effort that has gone into them, and the sheer craftsmanship. Just as you might enjoy supporting the independent coffee shop where you can buy unique, specially sourced blends from an owner you trust (and whom you perceive to love what they do), so the stop-motion animator has a comparable bond with audiences. It’s a backlash, to an extent, against ‘evil’ corporations, and a Hollywood that for a long time has been thought to put big bucks before quality output. In other words, stop motion has become shorthand for craftsmanship, quality and charm. 

From Lord and Miller and the Lego Movie gang to Aardman’s key players and fans of the medium, both creatives and audiences talk about the handmade charm of the format as a reason for its popularity. The Lego Movie’s Brian Mah says that the early large-scale designs for the film’s end-credits sequence seemed to “take away from the lo-fi, homemade charm” of the scene, meant to differentiate it from the [rest of] the film.

“Having each scene so big added a finer resolution to the bricks, and without seeing the blocky nature of the aesthetic, or even the iconic pegs on each block, it seemed to take away from the concept’s relatability,” Mah told Art of the Title. Relatability is perhaps the key to unlocking what makes the format so charming.

Lego-Movie-2
The co-directors of The Lego Movie 2 were nostalgic for its aesthetic, and eager to build handmade charm into the film.

Mike Mitchell, director of the Lego Movie 2, told Animation Magazine: “Everything has gone CGI and everything is behind a screen now, and for me, that’s why we really wanted to get tactile in Trolls and we really brought that into the Lego film because I really miss that.” Mitchell clearly feels that lure of nostalgia, as well as a desire to break away from the pack.

Trisha Gum, co-director of The Lego Movie 2, meanwhile, said in the same interview that it was important for them to convey a tactile aesthetic in the sequel, to try and capture the world that Bianca, the little sister in the film, creates. So, as an audience, we’re better able to imagine a little girl in her bedroom as a puppeteer to the characters and fabrics that stand in for the sky and water.

“We really wanted to make this feel handmade and crafty, and so there’s a lot of cut paper and fabric and things like that, that really give it a more multimedia feel to it,” Gum said. There are elements of relatability and nostalgia at play here, as we can’t help but cast our minds back to our own childhoods, and this helps to explain why we’re so eager to embrace the handmade aspect of stop motion.

Commanding Respect

Let’s talk about respect, because it’s a large part of why we love stop motion. The art form commands huge amounts of it. Why? Because the effort that goes into it is both conceivable and visible in the finished product — we know exactly how it’s done, and there are few ways to cheat this. Moreover, we visualise the hard work in every movement we see on screen.

Disney community member and stop-motion fan Gilad Hyperstar acknowledges the labour that goes into stop-motion films and says it’s this in part that makes them so appealing: “Because it is very hard to make stop-motion movies, the filmmakers put a lot of heart into them.”

Fellow community member Igordebraga, meanwhile, explains the charm of stop motion this way: “The [puppets] make for something more palpable than drawn/digital cartoons, and seeing what resembles either toys or clay moving is always eye-catching, along with so tiresome to make you respect the animators.”

And CyberJackslope concurs that there’s an element of rose-tinting at play: “CGI is great and getting better, but so is our nostalgic desire for that handcrafted goodness we grew up with, filmmakers included.”

Frankenweenie-stop-motion
Tim Burton's Disney-produced Frankenweenie.

Brickipedia community member (the Lego fan hub), JaxZilla, also nods to the nostalgic appeal as well as the work ethic that shines through in stop-motion films: “They are made with honest work over a long period of time unlike [other] modern films, [which] use computer rendering systems. Stop motion was the best way to create monsters in films prior to CGI, which makes it a kind of totem in the special effects industry. Stop motion [films today] give us a glance at what special effects used to be like and how much they have evolved since then.”

Like Fandom’s community members, Aardman’s Rich Moore points to the tactile nature of stop motion as the quality that courts admiration, labelling the animation style magical.

“With CG, you obviously can’t walk around the set, and you go into the underground base or farm [sets in Shaun the Sheep Movie 2] and you can almost feel the people that have gone into building it,” he tells us. “They’re masters of what they do. Their attention to detail is unbelievable. So there’s some sort of quality to that. It’s like a giant toy set. Which is really magical.”

farmageddon-stop-motion-shaun-the-sheep
Stop motion films, according to Farmageddon: A Shaun the Sheep Movie co-director Rich Moore, encourage you to step outside the film and respect its craftsmanship.

As a director, he can and does visit the set, able to take in the spectacle as it’s coming together. But does he think that the audience experiences it in the same way?

“Sometimes, yes,” he says. “Some films you watch and if you’re able to step out of it just for a moment, you go: ‘Oh my god, look at it all!’. Or you’ll see ‘the making of’ and they’ll take apart a puppet and you’ll see hundreds or thousands of man hours have gone into building it. I’m not an animator, so Shaun arrives on set and he’s just a little puppet, and you leave [the animators and crew] alone for a week and he comes back this living, breathing and thinking character, which is amazing to watch.”

Laika boss Travis Knight, who is gearing up for the release of Missing Link in April, a stop-motion animation about a quest to find a legendary creature, also points to the format’s magical qualities, like Moore, as well as its nostalgic appeal as elements that both charm us and evoke awe. The producer has said: “Stop motion has this sort of weird, magical charm and energy that reminds us what it was like when we were kids, I still have that feeling to this day. Even though I’ve been doing this for 20 years, I don’t feel like the medium has lost any of its allure, charm or magic. It’s still just as beautiful as it was when I was a kid running home from school to see those after-school specials and movies.”

Charming, it most certainly is — but there’s also clearly something unique about stop motion that makes it stand apart and earn our respect.

CGI Insouciance

Unique is the word. In the 21st century, we’ve become accustomed to CGI being used for, well, everything. Pretty much anything is possible now, and we’re less impressed than we were in 1995 when Toy Story was first released by the things that computers can do with screen images. Yes, they keep on raising the bar (the ground Ralph Breaks the Internet has broken, for example; the uncanny-valley of Alita: Battle Angel) but our capacity to be impressed doesn’t rise accordingly, and fans are very ready to criticise if they don’t think the CGI is up to scratch.

“Nowadays computer animation is the norm, so it’s always good to get a breather with a different animation style.” — Trigger Happy the Gremlin, Brickipedia community member

Indeed, some fans see CGI animations as having a homogenised look. “Nowadays, computer animation is the norm, so it’s always good to get a breather with a different animation style,” says Brickipedia community member Trigger Happy the Gremlin.

This perceived homogeny creates a space for animation that looks different. That’s not (obviously or predominantly) digital. Time and again, Fandom’s community members referred to stop motion as ‘unique’ when attempting to explain why it’s becoming more popular.

In a world at saturation point with media vying for our attention every which way, stop motion has a distinct USP. Everybody seems obsessed with looking for the different angle and stop motion delivers it.

Disney community member RandomGirl1995 points out that within the stop-motion arena, you get an array of different looks, adding to its freshness and appeal.

“Unlike CGI movies, which tend to have the same general animation type, stop-motion movies all have radically different styles,” she says. “Just compare The Nightmare Before Christmas to Isle of Dogs, or ParaNorman to Kubo and the Two Strings. Every time you sit down to watch a stop-motion movie, you’re getting something that’s truly special and different.”

For The Lego Movie 2 director Trisha Gum, its simplicity is its USP: “What Mike [Mitchell] and I say is, less is more. An animator could do a really subtle eye dart or a really subtle blink that is a lot more effective than having a million different things on a character’s face move. A lot of times, the simplicity really works in our favour.” In other words, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should, says Gum who appreciates the power of stop motion in a digital landscape offering truly lifelike graphics.

It’s very telling that in the age of the live-action remake, Hollywood doesn’t touch stop-motion animations. Anime, yes. Disney’s traditional 2D favourites, yes. But the characters of Chicken Run — the highest grossing stop motion film in history — have yet to crop up in live-action form on the big screen. Make of that what you will.

Crafting Great Stories

“I’ve noticed that the movies with the best animation also tend to have the best stories, characters and soundtracks,” says RandomGirl1995. “A lot of work is put into [stop-motion animation], and since everything is painstakingly done by hand, you can see on-screen just how much effort it took to craft the movie, which I think the audience (perhaps subconsciously) appreciates.”

Shaun the Sheep sitting on a fence
Shaun the Sheep has become a massive success for Aardman, because the studio puts story and characterisation first.

With Netflix using algorithms and analytics to generate some of its content (which doesn’t necessarily equal inferior, or less popular — take House of Cards as an example), and much Hollywood output feeling derivative, formulaic and created to serve the special effects and action sequences, it’s little surprise that lovingly crafted stories are making themselves heard. Time and again, stories and characterisation are the elements that win over audiences. For Aardman, these are paramount, and the place from which all its ideas start.

Director Will Becher says, “Aardman has always maintained the same ethos around the films which is always that it comes from the story and creating the characters — and [stop motion animation] is not always the go-to. We’ll have a features development team look at all ideas and they don’t always think that the idea works for stop motion.”

We Can Do It!

“I use it as a means of cheap material,” says claymation filmmaker Lee Hardcastle of the pliable modelling material he uses to make the puppets for his movies. “That’s how I started out, anyway — because I always wanted to be a live-action filmmaker and when I struggled to get my projects made, that’s when I started using toys and plasticine. And then once it became a thing, a voice for me, it just became my choice of weapon.”

Hardcastle, who has worked with Adult Swim and 20th Century Fox among others, isn’t the only one who sees the format as a way into movie making and bringing life to the stories he wants to tell. A whole host of Lego fans saw their favourite little toy bricks as the perfect building blocks for their own stop-motion films, and just like that, Brick Films were born. A massive online community is dedicated to making Lego stop-motion films, which were an inspiration for The Lego Movie and its successors.

“The medium is so special because anyone can do it.” — Fireworks888, Brickipedia community member

Brickipedia community member Fireworks888 says, “The medium is so special because anyone can do it. As long as you have [in the case of Brick Films] Lego, a camera, and an imagination, you can do whatever you want. It’s the reason Lego itself is popular; you can do whatever you want.” Fireworks888 identifies Bradford Roberts’s Lego Clone Wars 501st Legion series from 2007 as classic Lego stop-motion animation if you’re looking to gen up.

And its accessibility leads us back to the medium’s relatability, a key factor in the popularity of stop motion.

From Kids Only To Adult-Orientated… And Cracking the Family Market

During our interview, Mamoru Hosoda noted that animation and our reaction to it has definitely evolved. Once seen as a medium primarily for children, television has largely been responsible for its transition to an adult-orientated medium, with series like South Park, Family Guy, American Dad, Bojack Horseman, Animals, Rick and Morty, Archer and more redefining the concept of the cartoon.

“Back in the day when animation began, animation films were for children, so creators were making children’s movies and TV programmes,” says Hosoda. In this way, he says, anime — and animation in general — was a genre. Now, however, he believes it has broken free of that limiting definition and instead is seen more and more as a method of filmmaking.

“Now … it’s not just for children, it’s not a genre, it’s just a movie,” he says. “I think animation movies, recent modern ones, are rich in stories and also have universal appeal [with] a really strong storyline, world and lives. And I think animation creators have [adopted a] more conventional filmmaking method if you like, [in terms of] character development, etc. So I think that’s where we are now and I think that’s why Japanese animation is popular. Just because it has this universal appeal.”

Aardman chief David Sproxton agrees that, in the US at least, animation was historically viewed as something for kids, and believes that the catalyst for change came in the work Channel 4 was commissioning in the early 1980s. It’s this, he said, that paved the way for The Simpsons and the wave of adult-orientated animations that followed.

“It’s interesting, because the precursor to The Simpsons was The Tracey Ullman Show,” says Sproxton. This is where Matt Groening’s dysfunctional yellow family scored its television debut.

“I think it came out of the Channel 4 commission,” suggests Sproxton. “They commissioned animation in the early years [of the channel’s existence] which was for adults, and I think somebody clocked that there was an adult audience for animation … In the States, animation was for kids, that’s it. Hanna Barbera stuff was very much distinctly for kids.” Tracey Ullman was a fixture on British television before making her move to the US, so it follows that she would have been plugged into Channel 4’s output, with animation for adults firmly on her radar.

The rise of animation for adults paved the way for greater numbers of families among audiences, with all generations keen to see the latest animated feature knowing that they’d be presented with material that could be enjoyed by children and adults alike. Films that worked on more than one level to keep audiences of all ages entertained.

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Aardman's Morph was never really made for children.

Aardman has had this cracked since its early years, although Sproxton admits that they weren’t always aware that the much-coveted family market was who they were creating for. Aardman’s team was always making films for themselves first. “We didn’t understand audiences then,” he says.

Aardman co-founder Peter Lord adds, “We never really made any of [our films] for children. We’re more aware of it now. We’re smarter, I guess, because you have to be. But in the early days, actually, we didn’t really know. You make it for yourself, and I think the best thing to do, you do what genuinely amuses you. And [then there’s] a chance to find an adult audience. The obvious truth is that the family audience is the biggest one. That’s the one they’re all after.”

Sproxton agrees that money talks, that getting a whole family audience in cinemas is the Holy Grail: “People have realised that you can do engaging and sophisticated storytelling [in the 80/90 minutes you’ve got to do it in.] That’s definitely the take: can you get the 5-year-olds, the 15-year-olds and the 50-year-olds in the same cinema?”

Just like Aardman, Laika, Tim Burton, and now Warner Bros. with the Lego Movie franchise, have also all been able to answer that question with a resounding ‘Yes’.

CGI Enhancements and New Technology

The technology of the 21st century is also playing its part in a renewed enthusiasm for stop-motion animation. While it’s tempting to see the handmade look of stop-motion animation as the opposite of super-glossy CGI, stop-motion filmmakers are actually using CGI to enhance what they’ve got — to greater and lesser degrees.

Aardman, for example, relies on CGI to animate certain elements of their films.

Shaun the Sheep 2 co-helmer Will Becher says, “We’re always striving for the right look so nothing wants to stick out in the film. When you watch it you want it to feel real. So, things like fire, fog, and mist and stuff are just really hard to do in stop motion. We’d always rely on CG for that.”

CG also steps in where there are practical problems — such as a spaceship, in the case of the Shaun the Sheep follow-up, that would crush the set if it were fully built. It’s due to appear in the movie as a blend of stop-motion and CGI.

What Laika is doing, meanwhile, is very intriguing. Despite embracing the traditional form of animation, they’re also making extensive use of the latest technology, most pertinently 3D printing.

“The Laika stuff is interesting because they’re almost 90% CG,” says David Sproxton. “Everything is so pre-planned. With all the rapid prototyping stuff — they do all the facial stuff — it’s gone through a whole CG process, and it gets printed out and then it gets filmed. So the movement is incredibly CG-lookalike.”

We’ve already discussed the Lego films in some depth, but what they’re doing is equally groundbreaking, as they strive to add a realistic stop-motion touch to an almost entirely CG film. Instead, like Aardman, of making fire and smoke look like fire and smoke using CGI, the team is always at pains to make such elements out of (virtual) Lego bricks. “So that if you froze any single frame of the movie, it would be something that you could actually build yourself,” says Chris Miller.

In blending past and present, stop-motion animation might just have hit on a formula to further boost its appeal and help fuel its rise. While Aardman has been one of the most important creators of stop-motion hits from the latter part of the 20th century and beyond, it’s Tim Burton who gave it cult appeal and Taika Waititi who looks set to inject some cool when Bubbles eventually emerges. Guillermo del Toro, meanwhile, will take it well-and-truly mainstream when Pinocchio, slated for a 2021 release, hits screens. Our love affair with stop motion looks set to continue heating up into the next decade and beyond.

Kim Taylor-Foster
Kim Taylor-Foster is Entertainment Editor for Fandom in the UK. She was raised on an unsteady diet of video nasties and violent action flicks.
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