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CONVERGE | Technology

Stop Motion Movie Effects: A Micro-History

March 28, 2019

From stop-motion to motion-capture, discover the history of your favorite animations.

From big screen movies like Crazy, Stupid Love to record-breakinTV series like The Office, Steve Carell has taught us a lot. But, in 2018, he also taught us about special effects.  


In his film, Welcome to Marwen, Carell transforms into an animated version of himself as he enters a fictional world. But, viewers will notice that Carrell’s animation looks strikingly like his actual appearance. Enter motion-capture - a modern-day advancement of stop-motion technology. So, who created this innovation and how has it changed over time? 


Here’s a brief history on stop-motion movie effects.  


1897: The First Stop-Motion Film 


Using his daughter’s toys, Albert E. Smith combined a series of still images (each with slight variations in the toy’s placements) to create the first stop-motion film, The Humpty Dumpty Circus. These small differences between each image gave the illusion of movement. Thus, stop-motion technology was born. Unfortunately, the film was lost and is no longer viewable. But, evidence of Smith’s work extends far beyond his daughter’s toy circus. 


1933: The Most Iconic Stop-Motion Film 


There’s a good chance that you’ve never heard of The Humpty Dumpty Circus until today. But, there’s an even better chance that you have heard of King Kong.  


This old-time, black and white film did more than popularize the infamous gorilla - it also popularized stop-motion technology. Using similar techniques, Willis O’Brien combined stop-motion technology and traditional acting with a musical ensemble to bring his ideas to life. King Kong made such an impact that the film was recreated eight times (with a ninth installment debuting in 2020). In fact, the 2017 version, Kong: Skull Island, introduced the modernized stop-motion technology known as motion-capture. Here, actors don a black bodysuit covered in small sensors that track live movements. These actions are translated to a computer and outfitted with on-screen animations. The same strategy was used in Welcome to Marwen (which is why Carrel’s animation looks just like his real appearance). 


1993: The Modern-Day Return of Stop-Motion 


The mid-1900s was an uneventful time for stop-motion technology. Films turned to traditional acting rather than technological assistance. But, this took a turn in 1993 with the release of Tim Burton’s iconic film, The Nightmare Before Christmas. With plenty of time to enhance the technology, Burton’s film showcased a superior level of stop-motion. Images were crisper, animations were more life-like, and plots were more developed. Tim Burton is notorious for being a stop-motion fanatic. Thus, he released several other animated films that achieved high success in the box office. Think James and the Giant Peach, and most recently, Coraline. How long did these projects take to create? It’s estimated that The Nightmare Before Christmas took over three years to make. With 24 frames per second, they created a total of 110,000 images for the entire movie. If that doesn’t make you think twice about the film, then we don’t know what will. 


2000: Highest Grossing Stop-Motion Film 


From King Kong to Chewbacca, the stop-motion world has seen a lot of animated creatures. So, it’s no surprise that the 2000 release of Chicken Run was so popular. In fact, it is still the highest grossing stop-motion film to hit the big screen. With such high domestic success, the film was released worldwide and brought in over 310 million dollars in revenue. That’s not including the additional 142 million it generated from DVD sales.  


While stop-motion may be fading out, its child, motion-capture, is just getting started. To see it for yourself, find stop motion classics live or On Demand with Contour TV from Cox. 

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