The History of Stop Motion Animation

Stop motion is a popular form of filmmaking involving manipulating physical objects in tiny increments between individually photographed frames to make it appear that they are moving by themselves when the frames are played back. It allows any object to be animated, but the most popular forms use puppets or plasticine figures (known commonly as claymation). However, live actors can also be used in stop motion, known as pixilation, and materials like paper and fabrics can be used to make cut-out animation.

From the cultural phenomena Wallace and Gromit to the animation studio Laika, stop motion has continued to be a popular filmmaking medium even to this day, but it has origins that started even before the days of filmmaking. Here’s a look at the history of stop motion animation.


Before Film

Even before the days of film, stop motion was utilised using photographs. In 1849, Joseph Plateau published notes about the improvements to his Fantascope (phénakisticope). This device is regarded as one of the first forms of moving media entertainment that paved the way for future motion pictures. It used a spinning disc attached to a handle with a series of drawings showing the phases of animation. The user would spin the disc, and the images appeared to be moving.

This kind of animation device went through various stages of development through the 1800s until eventually becoming the zoetrope, a device that produces the illusion of motion by displaying a sequence of drawings or photographs in progressive phases of movement. It was a cylindrical variation of the phénakisticope that became very successful.


Silent Stop Motion

Around 80% to 90% of all silent films are lost, and silent stop motion films that have been lost are considered even more difficult to trace. The written documentation on missing films is often insufficient and incomplete. With stop motion, the special effects were kept secret to prevent copycats and keep the audience interested in the mystery of how it was done.

During the silent film era, stop motion was known as stop trick, as the camera was stopped during filming to change something before filming continued. The oldest example is the beheading in the film The Execution of Mary Stuart (1895). In 1917, claymation pioneer Helena Smith-Dayton referred to the principle as stop action, a synonym of stop motion.

Early shorts made use of stop motion, including the famous sci-fi short, A Trip to the Moon (1902). One of the earliest claymation films was Modelling Extraordinary (1912).


By the 1950s, stop motion was being utilised in a string of successful fantasy films such as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), and It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955). At the time most animated films in the US were made using cel animation, but in 1955 the feature film, Journey to the Beginning of Time was made,featuring stop motion animation of dinosaurs and other creatures.

60s and 70s

Tadahito Mochinaga popularised puppet animation in China after working with puppets and stop motion following the scarcity of paint and film stock after the war. In the 60s, he supervised the puppet animation for productions like The New Adventures of Pinocchio (1960-1961) and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), which is still one of the most beloved holiday films in the US.

In the UK, stop motion was used for many children’s TV shows, like Snip and Snap (1960-1961), Pingwings (1961-1965), Clangers (1969-1972) and Bagpuss (1974). But possibly the most significant historical moment for stop motion occurred in 1972 when Aardman Animations was formed. They created the popular character Morph in 1976, a plasticine model that was an animated sidekick to TV presenter Tony Hart before going on to have his own TV series.


Stop motion was used for model animation in the Star Wars trilogy and many of the shots in Raiders of the Lost Ark and the first two films in the RoboCop series. In the UK, Aardman Animations continued to grow with their 1989 work Creature Comforts, which went on to win the Oscar for Best Animated Short in 1990.

The first feature-length clay animated film was released in 1980, I go Pogo, which aired a few times in the US but has not been commercially released. Stop motion continued to gain traction, and in 1986 Pingu was produced by Trickfilmstudio, which went on to have 156 episodes.

In 1989, Nick Park introduced the world to Wallace and Gromit in A Grand Day Out; they would then go on to feature in three more shorts, a feature film and many spin-offs, earning Park an Oscar for Best Animated Feature with Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005). He also worked on another popular Aardman film, Chicken Run (2000).


Trey Parker and Matt Stone made a series of short cut-out animation student films using construction paper, which would later become South Park (since 1997), though apart from the pilot, the series is now created on computers in the same style.

The incredibly popular The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) was one of the most widely released stop motion features and became the highest-grossing stop motion animated film of its time. The director went on to do James and the Giant Peach and Coraline, and the producer Tim Burton went on to do Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie.

Modern Day Stop Motion

From the 21st century onwards, stop motion continues to be a popular form of filmmaking with the 2009 film Fantastic Mr. Fox and Anomalisa (2015). Since 2009, the film studio Laika has released five feature-length stop motion films that have collectively grossed over $400 million. Aardman Animations have continued to snap up nominations for Best Animated Feature and are currently developing the long-anticipated sequel to Chicken Run.

Despite the prevalence of modern CGI to create animated films, stop motion continues to be a popular form of filmmaking despite the intense efforts needed for its creation. If you have any homemade stop animation films, make sure you get them backed up onto a reliable format with a VHS to DVD conversion or from video to digital. Contact us today for more information.