Probably the most prominent aspect of a stop-motion film is the characters. They are the vehicle for story-telling and arguably the element of the film the audience find most memorable.
Over the years, many different puppet making techniques have emerged that have changed the face of stop-motion animation. These changes can be technical, helpful to the animators or they could simply be artistic changes that allow for new and interesting styles to emerge. Leaps in technology have also helped to merge these into one, creating aesthetically pleasing and easily accessible models.
There are so many types of stop-frame puppets, we wanted to explore a select few and look at their appeal.
One of the most recognisable forms of puppets used in stop-motion would be claymation characters. These models are made of majority Plasticine built up with no internal armature (puppet skeleton). The advantage of having the models made out of such a pliable material is just that, the models are extremely flexible! Plasticine can be morphed and changed easily in order to replicate realistic or exaggerated movements.
Arguably the most famous example of claymation would be the works of Aardman Animations. Their use of claymation over the last thirty years from Morph to Wallace and Gromit has inspired generations.
© Aardman Animation
Felted Wool Puppets
Felted wool has become increasingly popular as a medium of late. The style has been made famous by films like ‘Oh Willy’ created by Emma De Swaef and Marc James Rols, utilising the beautiful aesthetics of the fabric to create emotion and engagement with audiences.
Models made with felt are usually made over the top of a wire or ball and socket armature. The felting process involves the puppet being fleshed with felted wool. The process includes separating, tangling and relocking the fibres together.
The simple nature of the wool creates a look that is truly unique. Felt is an extremely aesthetically pleasing medium to work in and gives the puppet’s skin and clothes flexibility over the top of the puppet’s armature.
© Emma de Swaef & Marc James Roels
Geared Clockwork Characters
Fully introduced during the production of Corpse Bride, mechanical puppet heads have been used on many productions to create precise and accurate facial movements. The heads of these puppets are completely controlled with Allen keys. During the production of Corpse Bride, clockwork mechanisms individually altered things like smiling and frowning with just the turn of a key.
The accuracy of these heads allows for very precise movements that were not as easily achievable before this point. This approach encourages far more depth and character to be shown on the faces of the puppets. This characterisation was also used on the production of Wes Andersons latest stop-motion animation film ‘Isle of Dogs’. A much deeper sense of emotion can be brought across through the manipulation of the character’s faces by the stop-motion animator.
© Warner Bros
Replacements for puppets
Replacement animation has been used for the last 50 years in stop-frame animation in many different guises. Recent developments in Computer Aided Design and 3D printing technology have allowed for the use of replacement animation to evolve to become one of the main industry standards for stop-motion animation studios.
One of the best examples of replacement faces comes from the American studio Laika. Their first animated feature film Coraline used thousands of individually sculpted faces that could be replaced to create meaningful movement in order to convey each expression, hence the name ‘replacement animation’.
3D printing out the faces created in computer design software allows for very accurate details to be carefully crafted into each replacement. The process also allows for very smooth animation that is in many cases comparable to the smoothness of CG animations.
© Focus Features & Studio Laika
So when it comes to puppets there are many different approaches to creating the perfect characters for stop-motion. Many animation studios have a house style or approach each with their own advantages. The one thing to keep in mind when making a decision for what style to take forward should always be what helps to support script and story.