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The History of Stop-Motion in Cinema

Billy Stoker Jun 10, 2022 Scroll to read in 6 minutes

Almost as old as film itself, stop-motion has been incorporated into live action films for well over a century, even as early as 1902 with the French short film, ‘Le Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip To The Moon)’. We’re going to go through and look at some of the most iconic uses of stop-motion in film history and highlight some of the more recent stop-motion sequences,right up to films in the 21st Century.

The Lost World (1925)

Beginning our list is the first full length feature film to ever feature stop-motion animation, ‘The Lost World’ from 1925. This 97 year old silent movie consists of some of the most iconic stop-motion sequences of the early 20th century. Following an expedition crew through a plateau in Peru where they discover that dinosaurs do indeed still exist. The sequences include an amazing fight between two meat eating dinosaurs that stunned audiences in the mid 1920’s who had never seen anything like that in film before. Compared with traditional animation in ‘Gertie the Dinosaur’, 1914 which was considerably less terrifying.

The lost world web pic

King Kong (1933)

King kong web pic

In 1933 the world was introduced to one of the most iconic movie monsters of all time, ‘Kong’. Another masterpiece of work from the animator Willis O’Brien who was the lead animator on ‘The Lost World’. Regarded by many as one of the greatest horror films of all time, ‘King Kong’ has cemented itself in everyone’s mind since its premier in 1933. The sequence of ‘Kong’ with ‘Ann Darrow’ in his hand as he scales the Empire State Building is a crucial part of cinema and stop-motion history, paving the way for future animators to develop the artform to new heights.

The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

Sinbad web pic

Jumping ahead over 20 years since ‘King Kong’ was made, we have an incredibly influential piece of work from someone who many consider to be the most important figure in stop-motion history, ‘Ray Harryhausen’. Heavily influenced by Willis O’Brien and his work on previously mentioned ‘King Kong’. Ray had been developing his skills in the art form and this film was when he really started to flex his muscles and push stop-motion to another level. This film is full of legendary sequences such as the cyclops and dragon battle and the first glimpse at his famous skeleton warrior character.

Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

Jason and the arganauts web pic

Not long after 'The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad', we were introduced to what many consider to be Harryhausen’s best piece of work, ‘Jason and the Argonauts’. This epic 1963 fantasy is one of the most impressive integrations of stop-motion in live action film to date. Harryhausen spent 4 months planning and shooting the infamous fight scene between 3 warriors and 7 living skeletons. Greatly developing the scene with just one skeleton from ‘The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad’ 5 years prior. The seamless intertwining of stop-motion and live action characters interacting with each other is absolutely astounding, especially with the resources Harryhausen would have had at the time of production.

Star Wars - The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Star wars empire strikes back web pic

Heavily inspired by the work of Ray Harryhausen, a young creative designer turn stop-motion animator designed and animated one of the most iconic scenes in all of cinema history - this was of course Phil Tippett. After working on the stop-motion 'holochess' in the original Star Wars in 1977. Phil was tasked with bringing to life these terrifying machines that walked just like elephants. So in order to imitate the scale of these machines, Tippett needed to incorporate motion blur into the animation, something that was missing from stop-motion in the years prior. This led to Tippett pioneering the technique of ‘Go Motion’, moving the object slightly during the exposure to replicate motion blur. This became a staple for future stop-motions allowing animators to ascend their work to new heights.

The Evil Dead (1981)

The evil dead web pic

Stop-motion had already been used in horror films for the previous 40 years, especially in the 1950’s during the science fiction horror craze. However, in the 1980’s was when directors really pushed for an emphasis on gore and stop-motion was the perfect tool to realise their vision. In 1981, a young ‘Sam Raimi’ directed a supernatural zombie horror film. Live-action was not an option for the visuals that Raimi wanted, so he heavily used stop-motion to show the melting and dissolving of the zombies. This was especially apparent in the climax of the films with multiple zombies transitioning in form and decaying right before the main protagonist's eyes.

The Terminator (1984)

Terminator web pic

This titan of cinematic history is no stranger to stop-motion animation. James Cameron knew he needed to display how menacing and terrifying the ‘T-800’ was and live action puppeteering just wasn’t going to cut it. So the obvious answer was stop-motion and the outcome was incredible. The sequence of the ‘T-800’ skeleton is one of the most memorable scenes from the entire franchise. It perfectly embodies the characteristics that 'Arnold Schwarzenegger' portrayed in his role of the 'T-800'. The animators for this sequence were part of a special effects company called ‘Fantasy II’.

Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade (1989)

Indiana jones tlc web pic

Paying homage to the famous ending scenes from ‘Indiana Jones Raiders of the Lost Ark’. ‘The Last Crusade’ which was the third and final instalment of the original ‘Indiana Jones’ trilogy utilised stop-motion for some more gruesome face melting and ageing sequences when ‘Walter Donovan’ drinks from the incorrect grail. Like the original stop-motion scenes from the first film, this sequence horrified viewers in ways that live action just couldn’t replicate at the time.

Stop-Motion in 21st Century Cinema

Miss peregrine web pic

Even as cinema develops and progresses into the 21st century, stop-motion still plays a significant role in many projects. It’s featured in 3D animated feature films such as ‘The Little Prince’, where stop-motion scenes were frequently used in between the CGI animation. In 2016 we saw an amazing puppet animation sequence of Enoch’s creations animated by legendary British animator ‘Darren Walsh’. Phil Tippet was also brought back to animated the holochess game in ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ and ‘SOLO: A Star Wars Story’.

Stop-motion has played an incredibly integral part in the development of cinema and especially special/visual effects. It was at the forefront of visual effects from the 1940’s way into the 1980’s and early 1990’s until many moved to computer generated effects. However, stop-motion still played a key role in cinema throughout the 1990’s and into the 21st century and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. As long as there is a love for this amazing art form, it will always have a place in cinema.

If you enjoyed this blog then you’ll love the top 10 Oscar nominated stop-motion animations and upcoming 2022 stop-motion films.