From The Boxtrolls, to Anomalisa, to Kubo and the Two Strings, stop-motion animation has consecutively held its place within the category of Animated Feature Films at the Academy Awards.
But unfortunately, none of them have been able to take home the win since Curse of the Were-Rabbit over a decade ago. While Kubo and the Two Strings took home a BAFTA in Animation earlier this month, stop-motion still seems to be recognized by the Academy in lip-service only, and a marked lack of financial support from the moviegoing public looms over its head as an existential threat. (Kubo and the Two Strings, with a budget of $60 million, only achieved a domestic gross of less than $50 million.) The future of stop-motion animation remains ambiguous, but the hope lies within the auteurs that can rediscover its seemingly lost magic.
In his video essay below, entitled “The Evolution of Stop-Motion,” Vugar Efendi charts the evolution of this tactile animation medium from 1900 to the present day, illustrating the ways in which stop-motion’s scope and aesthetic aims have adapted to industry changes and gradually sacrificed commercial viability in favor of stylistic sophistication.
The history of stop-motion animation can be traced all the way back to the late 1800s, with Albert E. Smith and J. Stuart Blackton’s experimental work The Humpty Dumpty Circus. With further development and experimentation, the turn of the century produced one of the great pioneers of the undiscovered art, Willis O’Brien. O’Brien developed new skills and formed revolutionary techniques while becoming an auteur with his own unique vision. After working on several short films between 1917-1918, the culmination of his efforts resulted in the seminal and eventually franchise-spawning King Kong. With instant critical and financial success, O’Brien was immediately commissioned for a sequel, as well as other projects featuring his signature stop-motion elements. O’Brien would go on to train another pivotal auteur in stop-motion history, Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts, The Beast of 20,000 Fathoms, Clash of the Titans), who like O’Brien, focused on the art in terms of special effects.
Production companies and studios alike would continue to develop the art in terms of special effects throughout the 1970s and ’80s. Industrial Light & Magic utilized stop-motion to create several effects for the original Star Wars trilogy, ranging from the iconic chess sequence to the AT-AT walkers in The Empire Strikes Back. In 1990, Steven Spielberg’s highly anticipated Jurassic Park was also slated to utilize stop-motion and animatronics for special effects. But with convincing from ILM, Spielberg agreed to dispose of stop-motion in favor of computer-generated animation and effects, launching the era of CGI filmmaking and putting the stop-motion puppets back on their shelves.
Now with less support and limited funding, stop-motion needed to develop along a path other than special effects in order to survive. Inspired by the 1960s and early 1970s Christmas specials from Rankin-Bass (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Little Drummer Boy, Santa Clause is Comin’ to Town), other artists began to pick up the time-consuming technique with a new purpose. Most notable for his stop-motion auteurism is Tim Burton, whose role as producer on The Nightmare Before Christmas resurrected the lost art reminiscent of those holiday television specials. He continued to utilize the medium throughout his career, ranging from his own directorial efforts like Corpse Bride (co-directed by Mike Jonson) and his most recent stop-motion animation feature Frankenweenie, both of which received a nomination for an Academy Award. Many other filmmakers began utilizing this method of expression and world-building to match their own style and voices as well, ranging from Henry Selick (Coraline, James and the Giant Peach) to Nick Park (Wallace & Gromit, Chicken Run).
Charlie Kaufman’s most recent film Anomalisa features many elements that were only accessible within the parameters of stop-motion, with every background character having the same face and voice. Wes Anderson’s use of color palettes, quirky characters, and distinct aesthetics also lend themselves to the medium. Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox was nominated for both the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film and Original Score in 2010. With development already started on his next feature film, Anderson may be able to carry the art back into the mainstream. Isle of Dogs, which includes an all star cast featuring Anderson classics (Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton) as well as newcomers (Scarlett Johansson, Bryan Cranston, Yoko Ono), will be shot in stop-motion animation.
While the special effects branch of the stop-motion tree has shriveled up, the aesthetic and conceptual branch continues to grow against the odds. The omniscience of Laika’s campaign for an Oscar in the Best Animated Feature category in 2017 is proof that studios are willing to bet on audiences’ support for the intimacy and passion of something “handcrafted.” Although such promotion was ultimately unsuccessful in earning the Academy’s vote, it rallied support and renewed interest in stop-motion across social media platforms while raising awareness of a brand dedicated to championing what many are quick to write off as an industry standard in wishful thinking only, one that’s impossible to maintain.
How, then, can stop-motion survive? The question is best answered not with examples of individual artistic or financial successes, but with examples of collectives that have devoted the bulk of their resources to in-house productions that counterpunch Hollywood’s now-digitized “gold standard” of animation production. For this reason, Laika’s time may well soon come if its collective continues to expand in the same way that Park’s Aardman Animations outfit did on their road to Oscar gold in 2006.
Despite its costly nature and time consuming practice, stop-motion’s ability to create characters and settings that are artificial yet wholly identifiable has inspired auteurs to experiment with its charms. With the help of critics, award ceremonies and audiences’ shared willingness to follow such directors down their stop-motion features’ uncanny valley, the medium still has hope yet to transcend its marginalization in mainstream film culture. MM