A Look into the Art of Claymation for Film and Video Projects
Explore the hand-crafted history of stop-motion claymation and how you can use it for your own stories and projects.
Regardless of how far back across cinema history that you look, chances are that some of the favorite childhood films and programs of any generation include some variation of claymation—or stop-animation centered around wax or clay figures. From Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to Shaun the Sheep Movie we have countless examples of claymation found across mainstream cinema.
However, as we recently learned with the horrific news of a warehouse fire at the headquarters of Aardman Animations back in 2005 (the famous studio responsible for hugely successful claymation franchises like Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run) the art and history of claymation might be disappearing—or at least changing up against a new digital animation future.
Still, let’s explore the history of the art of claymation, where it comes from, how it’s developed over the years, and see how you can use its practice and principles in projects of your own.
What is Claymation and How it Works
By basic definition, claymation is simply a type of stop-motion animation that utilizes clay—or at times more specifically plasticine—as a way to capture motion when moving figures incrementally between frames. The art of claymation is almost as old as film itself and is very closely tied to how film is captured and reproduced by projecting still images together quickly in succession to create the illusion of life and movement.
And while traditional film actually does capture real life, claymation recreates it much in the same way as other forms of animation. Claymation is unique though in how it is created in real 3D space and often by physically moving and reshaping the clay or objects by hand. The process of stop-motion claymation can be painstakingly slow and very precise in how figures and shapes are moved inside of self-contained sets.
The History of Claymation
The history of claymation dates back to the late 1800s. It really starts with the British artist William Harbutt‘s invention of plasticine in 1987. This plasticine invention would go on to become a preferred material for claymation still to this day as it does not dry out and harden like normal clay. Instead it stays sturdy, yet flexible, enough to rearrange from shot to shot.
Experiments in claymation existed throughout the early 1900s in vaudeville sketches and shows, along with other new forms of classic animations. However these sketches (like this historic feature by Walter R. Booth titled “Animated Putty” that dates back to 1911) would eventually evolve into theatrical shorts and features, before transitioning into mainstream television and movies of the 1940s and 50s.
The medium began to find a home with children’s and family-oriented productions. Iconic children’s television programs like Gumby and Davey and Goliath would entice a new generation with their creative character designs and approachable animation styles.
Famous Claymation Examples Over the Years
However, while children’s entertainment franchises like Morph, Gumby, and Wallace & Gromit rose in popularity, the art of claymation would also find ways to combine with other forms of stop-motion animation. It was also used as a cheaper means of visual effects for other big budget blockbusters and productions.
Elements of claymation can be found in notable films and like The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and Coraline. It’s also used in many different versions of television programming, advertising campaigns, and music videos.
With the rise of digital visual effects and greater computer processing power, claymation has been further streamlined over the years and used in conjunction with traditional by-hand methods with digital effects to make bigger projects come to life faster. The medium has also shifted over generations from being youth oriented to be subverted for older audiences and comedy with examples like Celebrity Deathmatch, The PJs, and Moral Orel.
Tips for Using Claymation
Still, the question remains, how can YOU use claymation for your film and video projects? Well, lucky for you claymation really isn’t that hard or expensive to reproduce, at least at a basic level.
All you really need to start is a camera and some modeling clay, preferably plasticine, which you can find quite cheap online.
From there, as you can see in the tutorial above on how to make some basic Morph-inspired figures, you’ll just need to spend some time creating your characters and build out your camera and set. As far as space and figuring out your camera and lighting setups, I’d recommend many of the same options that you’d consider for any standard product videos or photography:
Those are just some tips for getting started though. I’d imagine most of your claymation needs for future projects will be in either one of two arenas. Either you will create some basic claymation as a stylized choice and effect much in the way Wes Anderson does in his films like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, or as a fun way to create your own DIY miniature visual effects for large action set pieces.
The Future of Claymation
Claymation is also becoming much more digitized. Both small projects and big budget features are continuing to find new and innovative ways to combine traditional models with other digital filmmaking methodologies, like green screens and 3D character animation softwares.
As you can see in the behind-the-scenes featurette from the 2019 film Missing Link, their big budget crew uses a mix of practical rigging systems and green screen props and placeholders to help speed up production. At the same time, they combined real-world characters with digital computer animation for the more complex scenes involving water, action, and motion.
It’s up to you how you might want to venture into claymation. Whether it’s to explore a new hobby and for the fun of creating simple stop animations by hand, or if you’re looking to find new ways to push the artform in creative and bold new directions for the next generation of audiences.
For more filmmaking and animation tips and tricks, check out these resources below.
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