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A History of British Stop-Motion Animation

Dan Richards Aug 18, 2020 Scroll to read in 5 minutes

When looking into the history of stop-motion, it’s hard to overlook the impact that British studios and animators have had over the years. The amount of amazing and groundbreaking work that has come out of the UK is astounding.

We wanted to take a look back at some of the standout points for stop-motion over the years and highlight some of the studios and people in Britain that helped make this style of animation so popular.

We’re starting this look at British stop-motion animation way back in 1901, with what is considered to be the first British stop-motion film. Dolly’s Toys used a combination of live-action footage and stop-frame animation to create a short film depicting the story of a group of children whose toy soldiers come to life and perform a full dance routine. This would go down as one of the earliest examples of stop-motion being put to film and laid the foundation for many years of animation to come.

Stop-motion in the UK really came into its own with the rise of children’s animated TV shows. Starting in 1950, Watch with Mother was a children’s programming schedule produced by the BBC. The shows that sprang from this are some of the most famous older British animations. Through various animation types were used, the majority of the content was stop-motion. One of the stand out shows that aired during the Watch with Mother period was Camerwick Green. The show was created by Gordon Murray and centred around the daily lives of the characters of Camerwick Green – the most famous of which was Windy Miller, the local farmer and owner of a large windmill. Shows like this raised public awareness for stop-motion, with content that anyone could enjoy no matter how old.

After this initial wave of animated children’s content, there was a sudden burst of British stop-motion animations. Smaller studios across the British isles began opening up and producing children’s TV content. Amongst these new studios was Smallfilms, started by Oliver Postgate (writer, animator and narrator) and Peter Firmin (Model maker and illustrator) in the early 1970s. Smallfilms went on to create such shows as Bagpuss, The Clangers, Noggin the Nog and Ivor the Engine. Most of these are now considered animation classics here in the UK. A testament to the longevity of these shows is the fact that The Clangers was rebooted a few years ago by the same studio!

Towards the end of the 1970s and into the early 1980s, many smaller stop-motion animation studios opened and began producing their own shows for various channels. Some of the standout studios from this time were Woodland Animations (responsible for the phenomenally popular Postman Pat) and Bumper Films, who would go on to create the equally popular series Fireman Sam. The British stop-motion animation scene was alive and filled with talented animators and model makers – all producing great films and TV shows. There were however two standout studios from the time who would eventually become world-renowned in the animation industry.

Beginning their mainstream career in 1977 by creating stop-motion segments for an art show called Take Hart, Aardman Animations went on to gain further popularity for with their standalone short Creature Comforts in 1991 which won them an Academy Award. This success eventually led to the creation of what are arguably their most famous characters, Wallace and Gromit. The popularity of this animated duo continued to increase throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s. On the back of this success, Aardman has managed to produce their many feature-length films including Chicken Run.

Aardman

The other studio that began gaining traction around the same time as Aardman Animations was Cosgrove Hall Films. This studio was started in the early 1970s, and much like Aardman, found success in producing animated children’s television shows. The studio was founded by Brian Cosgrove and Mark Hall who had previous experience in creating stop-motion animations with their company Stop-Frame Productions. The first series produced by the studio was Chorlton and the Wheelies, which quickly gained popularity. Their influence only grew as they began to branch out into other forms of animation. Their underlying passion for stop-frame came to the fore in 1983 when they produced the stop-motion animated The Wind in the Willows. The success of this film led them to create many more stop-motion animated series in the early 2000s, many of which were revitalisations of classic children’s programmes such as Andy Pandy and Postman Pat. At this point, the Cosgrove Hall was considered one of the largest animation studios in the whole of Europe.

Rastamouse

Within the staff of the studio around the late 1980s were two men who would go on to revolutionise the art of stop-motion model making. Ian Mackinnon and Peter Saunders began work at Cosgrove Hall Films as model makers, pioneering new techniques that helped to change the way that stop-motion puppets were produced. These advancements were used on numerous studio projects, the most famous of which being the aforementioned The Wind in the Willows. In the early 1990s, the pair decided to start their own studio Mackinnon & Saunders. Their success began when Mackinnon produced The Sandman in 1991. The film gaining international acclaim in the animation and film world. The studio was then approached by legendary director Tim Burton to produce the models for the aliens in his up and coming feature film Mars Attacks! This would ultimately lead the studio to team up with Burton again to produce the stop-motion puppets for Corpse Bride, which solidified the Mackinnon & Saunders as one of the top model and puppet making companies within the British stop-motion animation community.

Cosgrove


This blog just scratches the surface for some of the amazing model making and animation studios in the UK. The country has such a rich history of animation that to cover it all would take a long time! We hope that this has given you an insight into some studios that you may not have been aware of. There is so much awesome animation to be found coming from so many amazing British stop-motion animation studios that it is definitely worth looking into. If you would like to read about some more animation studios you may not have heard of, why not check out this blog we wrote on the animation studios that inspire us!