Arguably the most important element to any stop-motion puppet is its armature. This is essentially the skeleton. It holds the puppet’s shape and allows it to stay in solid and stable positions when animating. But what are they made of? What different types of armature are there? And how have they been used throughout stop-frame history? This blog will hopefully answer these questions and give you an insight into just what animation armatures can do!
One of the first majorly complex armatures used in film would have to be the classic gorilla puppet developed by Willis O’Brien and Marcel Delgado for the 1933 film King Kong. In fact two puppets were made for Kong, each around 18 inches tall. O’Brien and Delgado chose to use the ball and socket method of creating armatures, a process that involves using small joints to create the bendable elements of the puppet. These joints vary in size from elbows and knees, all the way down to fingers! One of the main advantages for using this type of armature is that each joint can be tightened and loosened to adjust its stiffness. This is done to help support heavier models as well as to allow for each animator’s preference for mobility.
One of the pioneers in using these types of armature was Ray Harryhausen. His stop-motion work is world-renowned, with the monsters he animated throughout his career going down in history as some of the most major advancements in the field of special effects. He animated on films such as Jason and The Argonauts and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and is well known for combining stop-motion effects with live action footage.
Over the years there have been leaps and bounds in what ball and socket armatures can achieve, with most major stop-motion studios using more and more complicated designs.
One of the most notable of these advancements would be MacKinnon and Saunders’ work on Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride. The armatures used on the film were so intricate that the animators were able to control every element of each puppet’s facial feature with precise accuracy. Building on the base idea of ball and socket tightening, each puppet contained gears and wires that could be adjusted to control every element.
If you’re looking for ball and socket armature parts that are affordable for students and independent animators, Julian Clark Studios’ StopMotionShop provides top quality options at reasonable prices and start creating professional armatures yourself.
Although ball and socket joints are probably the most popular type for animators to use, many other armature alternatives can also be used. One of the easiest ways to make an animation puppet yourself if you’re first starting out is to use a wire armature. Making wire armatures involves coiling thin wire around itself to increase its strength and stability. The coiled wire is then placed on top of a design for measurement and assembled into the final armature. From this point, padding such as foam or cotton can be added to the skeleton to give it a fuller body based on the character’s needs. The other advantage of this method is that it’s really cost-effective and much more accessible for less experienced model makers to work with. A disadvantage is that wire can be a lot less stable and solid than ball and socket armatures due to them being comprised of a flimsier material. If built correctly, however, wire armatures can easily stand up to more expensive options in terms of quality.
At A+C Studios, we build our animation puppets to suit each project. For A Life in Print for example, we used a lot of wire armatures because of the sheer volume of characters required for the nativity scene. In Trivago: To The Mountains we had just four main characters, with pretty equal screen time, so we invested in building ball and socket armature puppets to get the most out of them in terms of performance.
3D printing has also come a long way, which has greatly helped the stop-motion industry over the past decade. This is most notable with studios such as Laika, who have used the process to create extremely precise replacement faces. Every element of the puppet can be intricately designed to fit perfectly – creating a perfectly solid and stable puppet once each element is assembled.
With so many advancements made in the field of armature making, there are more options than ever in stop-motion for types of armatures you can use in your own animations and modelmaking. From ball and socket to wire armatures, there will always be an option that perfectly fits your budget, skill level and needs.