Wednesday, 18 May 2011

The Development of the Techniques and Styles of Stop-Motion Animation

You may find this useful if you are studying stop motion animation at college; particularly if you are doing the BTEC in Media Production.
Animation has developed a huge amount in the last century from its beginnings as cartoon animation such as ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’ through to stop-motion animation as pioneered by George Pal and now onto digital animation as in the films of Pixar. In this report I will discuss the development of animation from the origins of the moving image such as Joseph Plateau’s Phenakitoscope through to contemporary examples of stop-motion animation such as the feature films of Aardman animations (e.g. Chicken Run) and various modern music videos (e.g. Plan B, No Good) and adverts.

Wikipedia defines animation as ‘the rapid display of a sequence of images of 2-D or 3-D artwork or model positions in order to create an illusion of movement. It is an optical illusion of motion due to the phenomenon of persistence of vision, and can be created and demonstrated in a number of ways.’ ( Persistence of vision is the phenomenon that means when a series of images is flashed up in front of someone’s eyes, the image is retained on the retina for at least a tenth of a second. Therefore if a series of images are flashed quick enough (at least 12 images a second) the subject of the images appears to move. This is why frame rates are important in the discussion of stop-motion animation. Frame rates are measured in frames per second and are literally the amount of frames the viewer sees on screen every second. Cinema is generally 24 fps and video is generally 30 fps. For animation to appear smooth and not jerky the subject of the individual images will need to be moved around 10 or twelve times for every second of the finished film. This is stop-frame animation; the process of taking a still photo of an object, then moving the object slightly and taking another photo and so on and therefore making the object appear to move all by itself. Camera movements such as pans and tilts can also be created by moving the camera a very small amount each frame.

Some of the pioneers of the moving image were Joseph Plateau, William Horner, Emile Reynaud, Edward Muybridge, Thomas Edison and the Lumiere brothers. Their inventions lead to the development of cinema itself, cartoon animation and then stop-motion animation by early pioneer George Pal. Plateau invented the Phenakitoscope which first used the persistence of vision principle to create moving images. It was a simple device that involved two discs that were span together in the same direction, one with successive images drawn on it which would appear to move. Later in the 1800’s William Horner developed the Zoetrope which improved on the former because it did not require a mirror to be viewed. A drum is spun with successive images on the inside of it and the audience looked through slits in the side of the drum to see a ‘moving image’. Emile Reynaud next invented the Praxinoscope which was the first device to show cartoons on a public screen. Like the Phenakitoscope it involved a mirror and successive images being revolved in order to create a ‘moving image’. These inventions all displayed drawn images or cartoon images and therefore are not as related to stop-motion animation as some of the next devices I will discuss.

Edward Muybridge, a biologist interested in movement of humans and animals, later developed the zoopraxiscope which was similar to the zoetrope except for two things. Firstly, the images could be projected onto a public screen and secondly, Muybridge was using photographic stills of humans and animals moving to create moving images. A famous example of his work is the film of the horse galloping. In order to achieve this, Muybridge had to line up a bank of cameras to capture the movement of humans and animals. As the subject moved past the line of cameras successive photos were taken and these could then be put into a zoetrope-like device and screened for the public to see a ‘moving image’. Thomas Edison later developed the Kinetoscope which introduced the basic approach to cinematic projection that is still used today. A strip of perforated film with successive images on it is pulled over a light source to create the illusion of motion. This is where frame rates really began as Edison’s device screened films at 48 fps. Films could only be viewed by individuals as opposed to public screenings and the camera, or Kinetograph, was very heavy. The Lumiere brothers then developed the Cinematographe which was smaller, lighter and less noisy than the Kinetograph. It also meant films could be screened to a big audience. The frame rate was 16fps which meant less film was used which would be cheaper.

Cartoon animation soon followed and early examples of this include Winsor McCay’s and Walt Disney’s films. However stop-motion animation was not at first common and was pioneered later by George Pal. Instead of cartoons, Pal began using inanimate objects such as cigarettes in one advert and wooden puppets in a series of short films which became known as ‘Puppetoons’. These were made in the 1940’s with many different wooden puppets or puppet parts to create the illusion of movement. These puppets or parts were in various different positions and could therefore be replaced between frames in order to create movement. This foreshadowed various other techniques used in stop-motion animation such as using models, puppets, people and cut-out pictures. Ray Harryhausen became famous for his work with stop-motion animated models in live action films such as ‘Jason and the Argonauts’. The original ‘King Kong’ also used stop-motion animation very effectively.

Contemporary examples of stop-motion animation can be broadly divided into five categories; music videos, adverts, feature films, television programmes and digital exhibitions. An example of a music video that uses stop-motion animation is Plan B’s song No Good. The video was made by Daniel Levi and features the artist himself being animated as well as a huge amount of inanimate objects around his house. Objects such as kitchen appliances and food are made to appear as if they are moving by themselves and objects even move in time with the beat of the tune. Other techniques include a pile of clothes covering Plan B and then when the clothes move away again, Plan B is no longer there. Also the video contains lip synching which means that it would have had to be extremely well planned as in every single individual shot, Plan B’s mouth would have had to be in the right position for that moment in the song. Some digital exhibitions are very similar to music videos in that they are just a piece of film set to music with no dialogue and often very little narrative. Other music videos that feature stop-motion animation include ‘Fell in Love with a Girl’ by The White Stripes and also ‘Sledgehammer’ by Peter Gabriel. Some mix live action with stop-motion and some mix digital animation with stop-motion. These are usually aimed at teenagers and adults and therefore often do not use cartoon animation or claymation techniques, but animate real people instead.
An example of a modern advert to use stop-motion animation is the Doritos Tribe advert made by Matt Bowron and John Addis. It cost under ten pounds to make and demonstrates why stop-motion techniques can be so popular with companies that wish to make cheap adverts. It consists of very few camera set-ups and simply has a bag of Doritos open itself and Dorito crisps doing a little sacrificial dance and one crisp sacrifices itself to a pot of dip. It is very simple and very effectively sells the product. The ‘Creature Comforts’ adverts made by Aardman animations were also hugely successful for the Electricity Board and featured clay animals talking about various things (voiced by the British public). Like music videos these are short products, often set to music but adverts differ from music videos in that they can also feature dialogue. Adverts are aimed at all ages but mainly adults in these examples. The claymation technique used in the Creature Comforts ads is a juxtaposition with the boring normality of the voices used. This creates humour that would appeal to adults and children.

An example of a television programme that uses stop-motion animation is ‘Robot Chicken’ created by Seth Green. This is aimed at adults and teenagers and is different to the majority of television shows that use stop-motion which are aimed at children. Examples of this are ‘Bob the Builder’ and ‘Shaun the Sheep’. However ‘Robot Chicken’ and ‘Celebrity Death Match’ are two examples that are primarily aimed at teenagers and adults. They feature swearing, violence and coarse humour mixed with claymation in the case of ‘Celebrity Death Match’ and 1980’s toys quite often in ‘Robot Chicken’ such as ‘Transformers’ and ‘Star Wars’ toys. They are both using stop-motion animation to increase the comedy value of their products.

Feature films have generally been made by Aardman animations such as ‘Chicken Run’ and ‘Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit’. These are feature length films made from animating very detailed clay models, elaborate sets and featuring huge numbers of camera set-ups and camera ‘movements’. Aardman are a huge company with massive amounts of animators and recently collaborated with Dreamworks on a digitally animated film. Aardman’s films are aimed generally at children with talking chickens and innocent, action packed stories. On the other hand Tim Burton has produced some darker animations such as ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ and ‘The Corpse Bride’. These are aimed at children and adults with their darker themes and animation style.
Finally there are also digital exhibitions. These are stop-motion animations that have been made purely to be shown on the internet. A great example of this is ‘Tony vs Paul’ made by Paul Cummings and Tony Fiandaca. This features two friends who seem to have telekinetic powers because they can move objects just by waving their hands. They can also ‘fly’ and go through walls by using stop-motion techniques. This film is very like a music video as it is around five minutes and set to a piece of music. There are thousands of examples of these on YouTube and there are often competitions and festivals to celebrate these films.
Stop-motion has come a long way since its beginnings. It has been threatened by digital animation but has had a resurgence due to the internet and also budgets in music videos and adverts being cut dramatically in recent years.