Are you a fan of animated films? No matter if you are a kid, teenager, or adult, almost every movie lover enjoys a good animation film where characters can do anything and everything!
Quite often these animated characters have a habit of instilling a sense of entwined hope and positive emotions while etching a message into our hearts. It isn’t just as simple as animated movies or Claymation characters being a source of entertainment for kids anymore.
Animated movies, and Claymation films specifically, have always been able to move people with such an ease that traditional cinema hasn’t been able to achieve within the same emotional budget.
While having reached greater heights of possibilities through CGI and other technologies, most traditionally shot films still somewhat lack that hook that animated movies use to catch the hearts of kids and adults alike with ease.
Why is that, though? How could such simple and clearly fabricated characters hold such sway in our hearts? How could Coco bring tears to our eyes making us remember the importance of family? How was Shaun the sheep one of the best movies to show the power of friendship?
What is Clay Animation?
If you have seen animated films like Will Vinton’s The Adventures of Mark Twain or Mike Johnson’s Corpse Bride, you must have wondered how these films were made. The answer is Claymation. It is one of the oldest animation techniques where all the figures, background, and characters are made from plasticine clay, which is a malleable substance.
This kind of animation method involves capturing motion amid slightly moving the clay figures between frames. The characters and models made from clay are placed on the set and are slowly moved between frames to capture motion. Each frame is recorded on film and then played back in quick succession to create an illusion of motion.
As per the scene in the film, the filmmakers make adjustments to the models with extreme focus to create an appearance that the characters are moved by their own forces.
Approximately 12-44 adjustments are made by the filmmakers to capture a single second. Unlike other filmmaking styles and animation techniques, Claymation is a labor-intensive art that is time-consuming and involves a lot of manual work.
The plasticine, which is used to make the figurines, is mostly wrapped around an armature, known as a wire skeleton. It is placed on the film set and moved slowly, one portion at a time. In order to create an illusion of motion, the characters and models remain lit and are correctly placed at all times.
Just like 3D filmmaking, Claymation or stop motion techniques bring life to characters. In fact, not many people know that Claymation was the closest form of 3D animation, long before 3D filmmaking was invented.
Long before the process of manipulating the three-dimensional objects and virtual environments in films, Claymation or stop motion was used to give the illusion of motion using real-life objects. A Sculptor’s Welsh Rabbit Dream was the first Claymation film that was released in 1908. It was directed by American film pioneer Edwin S. Porter and started the trend of Claymation films in Hollywood.
Sony, Walt Disney, or Dreamworks might be the biggest names in the animation movie segment, but In present times, there has been a surge of so many localized production houses that are using 3D printing to create mind-blowing Claymation film projects.
Movies like Coraline, ParaNorman, Missing Link, and The Boxtrolls have just been the beginning of the once small-time Claymation production house.
History of Claymation films:
Claymation, the time-consuming but beautiful art of constructing characters out of clay and moving and filming them one frame at a time to make them look like they are moving, might be a century-old art form but is still relevant in today’s tech-driven world of VFX and CGI.
Clay animation can be traced back to the 1800s when plasticine was first invented by British artist William Harbutt in 1987. When several artists from across the globe started constructing characters out of clay, the Claymation technique was invented.
Soon after the release of the first Claymation movie Sculptor’s Welsh Rabbit Dream in 1908, several animators and filmmakers started using the technique for their projects.
Filmmaker Wallace McCutcheon Sr’s The Sculptor’s Nightmare, J. Stuart Blackton’s Chew Chew Land, and The Adventures of Dolly and Jim were a few films that were made using the Claymation technique in the early 1900s.
Be it British animator and filmmaker Walter R. Booth’s 1911 film Animated Putty which used the freeform Claymation technique as the clay molding itself into different shapes or Segundo de Chomón’s Sculpteur Moderne which featured a large amount of clay molding itself into particular sculptures, Claymation appeared in a number films from 1902 to 1910 and became quite popular at the time.
After seeing glimpses of clay animation in short sequences in movies and series like Out of the Inkwell, it was 1926’s Long Live the Bull, became the first film to use clay animation as its main production method. The film was made by Joseph Sunn.
After a 3 decade gap, it was American filmmaker Art Clokey, who is also known as the American pioneer in the popularization of stop-motion clay animation, who revived the use of Claymation technique by featuring all kinds of clay objects in his 1955 film Gumbasia and making them move and move to the jazz tune and changing their shape for different characters.
Art Clokey not only revived and redefined Claymation but gave the world the iconic character Gumby later featured in Howdy Doody segments, eventually getting his own television series from 1957-1989 and a theatrical film in 1955.
Gumbasia became the first stop motion clay animation film with a 3-minute, 10-second runtime that was entirely made using Claymation and is still remembered for creating legendary characters like Gumby and Davey and Goliath through the technique.
Clay animation became extremely popular from the 1970s, especially among the kids with popular Claymation television shows such as Italian stop motion children’s TV show Mio Mao, The Red, and the Blue, Pingu, among others.
Aardman Animations studio, which was launched in 1972, introduced the world to iconic characters and gave us classic claymation movies and series like Wallace and Gromit, Shaun the Sheep, and Morph, among others.
The British animation studio also created Chicken Run, which emerged as the highest-grossing stop motion animated film ever made in history. The film was directed by Nick Park, who is known to be one of the biggest and the most notable claymation directors who won the Academy Award for his 1989 claymation film Creature Comforts.
In the past two decades, several independent filmmakers started making claymation movies that can be found on various online entertainment sites such as Newgrounds. In the late 90s and early 2000s, several computer games such as The Neverhood, ClayFighter, and Platypus, among others were launched, and all of them were created using clay animation.
As with any of the filmmaking technologies, Claymation film techniques have also evolved over time. From the time when the animators used to take pictures of characters’ faces one frame at a time to using wires to make semi-automated movements, the techniques have evolved explosively.
There are several types of Claymation techniques:
Freeform: One of the most popular Claymation techniques, Freeform involves the clay changing its shape to another form or a character throughout the animation. Popular American animators and filmmakers Ivan Stang and Eli Noyes often use the freeform Claymation technique in many of their animated movies or work.
This Claymation technique is said to be extremely random and exciting as we never know what shape the clay might form and how it would look to the eyes. It is one of the most widely used Claymation techniques where each outcome is entirely different as even the filmmaker or animator doesn’t know what shape the clay will form and in how much time.
Imagine a clay sphere transforming into a vase and morphing into a human structure. This is what exactly happens in the freeform Claymation technique.
Replacement Animation: This technique is used specifically for animating a character’s facial expressions. A perfect example of this technique is in the movie, The Nightmare Before Christmas. Jack Skellington’s head was animated using the replacement animation technique where various replaceable parts of the head and face were used with changing emotions to create specific facial expressions that would have been impossible to pull off otherwise.
More than 700 replacement heads were crafted for the movie to give Jack a full range of the emotional spectrum – a staggering amount. It showed, not only the dedication of the animators but also their attention to detail.
Now the manual replacement animation technique has become obsolete and digital replacement animation has literally replaced the older variant. In the movie Coraline, this technique was officially brought into the 21st century.
In this technique, a block or a layer of different colored clay is sliced fractionally into thin sheets. Each cut is captured and played back to create fluid animation by eventually revealing the movement of the internal images within. This technique was invented during the 1920s and 1930s in both clay and blocks of wax by German animator Oskar Fischinger who used it to create the backgrounds of Lotte Reiniger’s 1926 film The Adventures of Prince Achmed.
It was later rediscovered, revived, and transformed by popular animator David Daniels, in his 16-minute short animated film Buzz Box. Not many people know that Daniels, who is also the creator of animation studio Bent Image Lab, came up with the idea of this technique when he was merely 8 years old.
After creating popular animated ad commercials, music videos, and superhit animated TV shows like Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and Peter, David Daniels redefined the Strata-cut Animation technique by constructing a clay loaf, cutting it slowly from the edge and capturing every layer.
Although the technique is no longer used by animators or animation directors for any form of animation, it is said to be one of the most creative and difficult Claymation techniques as it requires a lot of patience, focus, and hard work.
Clay Painting: If you have seen the 1992 short animation film Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase directed by renowned Hollywood animator and filmmaker Joan C. Gratz, you would easily understand what the Clay Painting technique is and how it works.
Similar to the Strata Cut Claymation technique, Clay Painting involves molding and moving a flat form of clay on a canvas to create an illusion of motion and style of images along with a surrealistic effect.
Invented by popular American animator Joan Gratz in his 1980 film The Creation, which bagged an Academy Nomination, this technique is widely used for animated backgrounds and sometimes live-action animation.
Clay Painting became immensely popular after it was used in 1992’s Oscar-winning animated film Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase.
Character animation: As the name suggests, this Claymation technique involves rigging the characters with a wireframe skeleton in order for the shots to be made precisely. This helps create arcing movements that make the animation more realistic and believable.
The technique is used to breathe life into the characters of the film and form an illusion of emotion and thoughts through facial expressions, hand gestures, and body movements. Sometimes, animators replicate human movement using motion capture to give it a more realistic feel.
Character animation has been used in several films and TV series such as Nick park’s popular series Wallace and Gromit. Animators and animation directors use this especially when they are creating something where the focus is more on the characters and their actions.
7 Brilliant Claymation movies of all times:
Directed by popular American stop motion filmmaker Henry Selick, Coraline is one of the finest Claymation films of all time.
The film, which is based on renowned British author Nel Gaiman’s novella by the same name, won an Academy Award nomination for the Best Animated Feature category and won several other prestigious awards including the Best Animated Feature at the San Francisco Film Critics Circle Awards.
It also became the third highest-grossing stop-motion film of all time after Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit after minting more than 124 million dollars at the worldwide box office. It’s a surprisingly haunting fairytale with some scary twists but nonetheless, a perfect treat for everyone who loves watching Claymation movies.
Henry Selick used his brilliant Claymation technique and experience to create magical and lively characters in this popular Claymation film which is loved by fans from across the globe and is one of the most prominent stop motion movies of all time. In an old interview with a leading daily, the makers and crew members of Coraline had revealed how they sculpted more than 6,333 faces for the film.
The characters of the film are loved by animation movie lovers even today and many budding animation filmmakers still take tips from Henry Selick’s creative way of incorporating life in the characters that are merely made of clay.
The movie, which is said to be one of the most successful Claymation films in Hollywood, opened to raving reviews and worldwide recognition by critics from across the globe.
One of the most popular stop-motion animated films, A Town Called Panic is an adventure fantasy comedy that has been directed by Belgian filmmakers and screenwriters Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar. The film revolves around the story of three friends who lived together in a rural house and all the fun experiences they share.
Based on a television series of the same name, the film received a lot of critical and commercial acclaim and became the first stop motion film to be screened at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in 2009.
A Town Called Panic was filmed in 260 days and according to reports, more than 1500 plastic toy figures were used during filming. The film received raving reviews from critics and earned millions of dollars at the US box office.
Directed by British filmmaker and animator Mark Burton and Richard Starzak, Shaun the Sheep Movie is an adventure comedy Claymation film which has been inspired by Shaun the Sheep, a popular British TV series by Nick Park.
The stop-motion animated movie minted more than 107 million dollars at the box office and received massive recognition from critics on a global scale. It also bagged Academy Nominations for Best Animated Feature at the 88th Academy Awards along with nominations at the BAFTA and Golden Globe Awards.
It was also the first Claymation film to win the Best Animated Film title at the Toronto Film Critics’ Awards and won several nominations at the prestigious Annie Awards. Its sequel titled A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon was released in 2019.
Released in 2005, this American claymation fantasy film has been helmed by popular Hollywood filmmakers Mike Johnson and Tim Burton. Not many people know that famous Hollywood star Johnny Depp and popular British actors Emily Watson and Helena Bonham Carter gave their voices for this film.
The claymation movie was an international production collaboration between the United States and the United Kingdom. After its successful premiere at the Venice International Film Festival in 2005, Corpse Bride won several awards and nominations including the nomination for the Best Animated Feature at the 78th Academy Awards.
It is so far one of the most commercially successful claymation films of all time.
Another gem by the king of claymation films, Nick Park, and the famous Aardman Animations, A Close Shave featured an iconic Wallace and Gromit and bagged the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. British stop-motion animated comedy film received a lot of critical acclaim across the globe and performed extremely well at the box office.
The film marked the Hollywood debut of filmmaker Chris Sullivan and was one of the most prominent American animated films of 2012. The film was based on the lives of three residents of a fictional place called Magguson. It explored their work lives, relationships, and secrets. The film won the Chicago Award at the Chicago International Film Festival.
Critics called it a slice-of-life film that was never seen before. Apart from stop motion animation, many other techniques such as drawings, collages, models, etc, were used to film this movie which took more than 10 years to complete.
Directed by popular animation filmmakers Nick Park and Peter Lord, Chicken Run is one of the greatest claymation films of all time. Aardman Animations’ first full-length claymation feature film, Chicken Run is the highest-grossing stop motion animated film ever made in history. The film, which was released in 2000, opened doors for several projects involving clay animation.
After its massive success at the global box office, several filmmakers began their work on claymation movies and several big-budget claymation films were released worldwide in the following years.
How to make a Claymation movie?
Making a Claymation film can be a challenging task since it requires a lot of creativity, patience, manual work, and most of all, a free mind. Several Claymation films took more than a decade to be made as getting the right shots and capturing the perfect frames can be a tedious job.
However, if you are truly passionate about something, then nothing is impossible.
If you are a fan of animated movies or are an aspiring animation filmmaker, you can make your own Claymation film at home! All you need is the help of some friends, a lot of clay!
Step 1: Think of a story that is simple yet interesting so that the process does not get too complex.
Step 2: Create characters that are easy to shape and have to make fewer actions, such as a ball or a bird.
Step 3: Place the characters on the set and start shooting with a digital camera. You will need some help with moving the characters as you capture shots between frames.
What makes Claymation such a unique animation technique?
When it comes to filmmaking, especially animation films, it is the unique element that makes one film different from the others. Claymation is one such technique that makes a film truly unique in its own way because of its process.
Each frame is different from the rest, all characters are unique, and mostly, hands are used to move and reshape the objects and characters constructed from clay.
This art of creating, moving, and reshaping the characters of a film manually, like a puppet show, is what differentiates Claymation from other animation techniques.
No matter how much we love the new kinds of films such as 3D films or movies made with CGI or VFX, we all have childhood memories of watching films that were centered around clay or wax figures and not only made us laugh uncontrollably but felt like the characters were alive.
Without the use of any computer program or 3D glasses, this technique still manages to create the illusion of motion by creatively taking pictures while moving the objects from your hands.
The stop-motion animation technique might have been introduced to the world in the 1920s and might be a century-old technique, but it surely created an everlasting impact on the audience with the special films and iconic characters that are relevant to date. I mean, who doesn’t know about Gumby and the classic Wallace and Gromit?
It is not just a technique but an art of filmmaking that requires attention, focus, and a lot of creativity to create an illusion of motion with the use of clay and your bare hands.
We might be used to watching Marvel Universe of DC films with world-class editing, VFX, and CGI but the art of creating motion animation by using objects made of clay is what makes claymation different from any other animation technique.
In fact, the century-old technique has become more popular now than ever. With highly anticipated claymation films like Chicken Run 2 and the previously successful missing link, it looks like the stop motion animation technique is here to stay.
Genres and trends may come in go, but clay animation will be here forever.