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Hollywood’s love affair with stop-motion animation

Hollywood’s love affair with stop-motion animation

The Nightmare Before Christmas is a masterpiece of stop-animation, but is it a dying art? We explore Hollywood’s love affair with this classic genre

November is the perfect month of the year to revisit an iconic stop-motion animated feature.

While the debate about when is best to watch the hit will probably never end, what’s obvious is that producer Tim Burton and director Henry Selick created a bona fide, true classic in The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).

The magic of the film can be attributed to its gorgeous soundtrack, stunning voice acting and quality writing, but it’s the visual style that sets it apart the most.

"The hard work speaks for itself, but the difficulty of the medium meant that stop-motion had begun to die out"

The Nightmare Before Christmas relied upon traditional techniques of stop-motion, with the animation team painstakingly working for over three years on the project.

The hard work speaks for itself, but the difficulty of the medium meant that stop-motion had begun to die out.

Those breathtaking cinematic cues that could only come from that style of filmmaking became largely absent from our screens. 

A short history of stop-motion animation

It’s not hard to locate evidence of stunning stop-motion animation throughout cinema history. The Nightmare Before Christmas might be at the height of its genre, but it’s certainly not the first or only entry into the medium.

In fact, director Henry Selick has made a career from directing stop-motion, whimsically enhancing scenes from Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach (1996) and adapting Neil Gaiman’s Coraline (2009) via this method.

Tim Burton also never shied away from the complexity of stop-motion. He created his much-loved Frankenweenie in 2012, based on his 1984 short film which was made in the same format.

In turn, his iconic Corpse Bride (2005) is the epitome of Burton’s style as a director, with the production's gothic visual boldness marrying perfectly to the way the picture was captured, with its imperfections and otherworldly imagery. 

Stop-motion isn’t just for the spooky season though. Indeed, Hollywood used to heavily rely on the technique to animate fictional characters.

Look no further than the skeletons of Jason and the Argonauts (1963) or the creatures and vehicles of the original Star Wars trilogy as brilliant examples.

And of course, two studios in particular champion stop-motion as a gorgeous art form: LAIKA and Aardman.

The former has proudly worked on Coraline alongside mega-hits like Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) and ParaNorman (2012), as well as underrated gems such as The Boxtrolls (2014) and Missing Link (2019).

Aardman, meanwhile, can be credited with the creation of characters like Shaun the Sheep and Wallace and Gromit, alongside features such as Early Man (2018) and the timeless hit Chicken Run (2000).

Both studios represent different sides of the same coin; the epic scale and depth of tale weaving of LAIKA contrasted with the fast-paced, whimsical and comedy-focused direction of Aardman. 

Is stop-motion animation a dying art?

Unfortunately, despite that list of undeniable greats, stop-motion is such a timely, difficult and expensive process that it’s simply not attractive to major studios.

Much in the same way that pen and paper went by the wayside with the advent of traditional animation, so too has the moulding of clay.

Computer-generated animation has completely reformed the industry. Mythical creatures no longer need to be created in-person to feel real on screen.

Studios like Pixar (which pioneered the CGI revolution) and DreamWorks can turn to their software to tell their stories.

"Computer-generated animation has completely reformed the industry"

Some movies, such as The Willoughbys (2020) actually use the technology available to craft a visual style that feels like a stop-motion picture without all the physical components. 

There are obvious benefits to a CGI system and a long list of award-winning cinematic masterpieces owe themselves to the nuanced work of animators in studios like Disney.

But there is something so nostalgic, authentic and vibrantly detailed about crafting a film through clay and the click of a camera.

Stop-motion is looked back on in the same way that movie makers view film cameras over digital.

This is an art form on another level that relies on the talents of set makers, costume designers, special effects gurus and those key animators, all of which must work together to create their magic in-camera.

The relaunch of the stop-motion genre

For a long time, it was largely LAIKA and Aardman who kept that ethos alive. Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs (2018) was one of the early signs that creators outside of those two core studios were looking at stop-motion as a way to tell modern stories.

The puppet-led sci-fi drama might have taken over two and a half years to make, but the end result was oh-so worth it. Suddenly, there’s a plethora of exciting new stop-motion pictures that could help relaunch the genre. 

LAIKA is developing its first full fantasy epic in Wildwood, while Aardman is hard at work on a much-anticipated Chicken Run sequel.

And now legendary directors are returning to the medium. Henry Selick of Nightmare Before Christmas fame has directed Netflix’s Wendell & Wild (2022), a film that doesn’t shy away from its animation heritage.

"Now legendary directors are returning to the medium"

Plus, visionary giant Guillermo del Toro has created his iteration of Pinocchio (2022) for Netflix once again, a film that celebrates stop-motion on every conceivable level.

Ultimately, it appears that these once vital filmmaking skills are suddenly back in high demand. 

Both Wendell & Wild and Pinocchio are instances of a high-profile studio, outside of the traditional two, stepping into a complex medium and showcasing what it could bring to today’s cinema.

LAIKA and Aardman have valiantly flown the flag for a long time, and it’s exciting to see further productions make the bold choice to go down the stop-animation route.

It’s never going to replace CGI animation, that much is obvious. But there is always hope that the success of these latest films could catapult the genre into another renaissance that produces some inspiring stop-motion spectacles, as only this medium could.

The magic is still alive. 

Banner image credit: Paul Hudson, CC BY 2.0

Isle of Dogs, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Kubo and the Two Strings and many more stop-motion favourites are available on Amazon to rent or buy.

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