Stop action films, also known as stop motion movies, were one of the first special effects techniques used filmmakers. Willis O’Brien, who first used the technique in the 1925 film The Lost World to bring dinosaurs to life for a delighted audience, is one of the pioneers of this form of filmmaking in America. He went on to direct King Kong in 1933, using stop motion animation to animate the colossal ape that terrorizes New York City.
Stop motion movies are created taking one frame at a time with a moving camera. In early films, each camera rolled at a rate of about 24 frames per second. As a result, stop action films would take frames of a non-real object, such as a dinosaur or King Kong, and make minute movements in between each frame. When the film was viewed, it gave the impression that the inanimate object was moving and interacting with other characters.
Stop motion films were notoriously difficult to make because the movements of inanimate characters between frames had to be extremely small to maintain a realistic sense of movement. Typically, special effects were used for a brief period of time in a film, with the rest of the film consisting of actors on the screen using standard filming techniques. After that, stop motion sequences would be spliced in to complete the film.
Ray Harryhausen, perhaps the most well-known stop-action film creator of the twentieth century, furthered the genre with films like The Seven Voyages of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts. Harryhausen developed a split-screen technique known as Dynamation, which allowed stop motion characters to appear on the screen at the same time as actors. The stop action film style gained more realism as a result of this.
To the modern viewer, however, these early stop motion films often appear fake and silly. Stop motion characters or monsters appear jerky and lack fluidity in their movements. Monsters and people’s spatial relationships were frequently ill-defined, and monsters lacked the size differentiation that would have made them truly terrifying. Many filmmakers and film fans, on the other hand, have a deep affection for these early stop motion films, which have inspired special effects masters of the late twentieth century and today.
George Lucas tweaked stop motion to create “go motion,” a technique he coined. During clicks, the model is moved, but the results are blurred, giving a more realistic impression of movement. The first time this was done was in the 1981 film Dragonslayer. Stop motion and go motion films, on the other hand, were quickly surpassed computer animation. The release of the 1993 film Jurassic Park, which relied heavily on computer animation, encouraged filmmakers to experiment with computer graphics for special effects, and these techniques have only improved over time. One look at the Lord of the Rings series, particularly Gollum’s animation, demonstrates how far computer graphics have progressed in terms of realism.
Stop-motion movies had mostly retreated to claymation, where they remained popular. The use of clay models and the meticulous treatment of not only the models’ movements but also their facial expressions were forerunners to Nick Parks’ fantastic work on the popular Wallace and Gromit series. With so many films featuring computer animation, particularly Pixar and its imitators, it was surprising to see the Academy Awards honor Parks’ Wallace and Gromit and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit in 2006 rather than the many computer animation films available. It’s clear that fans of stop-motion animation are still alive and well.
Tim Burton, a well-known director, has used stop motion animation in two of his most popular films, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride. Such work, as well as Parks’, continues to advance stop motion film techniques, resulting in movements that are now quite smooth and fluid. These works pay homage to the pioneers of stop motion animation and stand in defiance of computer graphics animation. They are history in motion and should be seen everyone who enjoys movies.