As far as animation and film-making techniques go, stop motion is one of the most intricate and labor intensive, but it is also one with a unique character and feel that really shines through. Some truly amazing productions have utilized the method, and it’s difficult to imagine them being created in any other way.

If you’re not sure exactly what stop motion is, it’s an animation technique where physical objects are moved incrementally, with an individual photo taken at each stage of the movement.

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When these individual frames are played back in sequence, it gives the inanimate objects the illusion of movement. In this way, scenes are created on a frame-by-frame basis.

In this sense, stop motion technique is similar to 2D animation. The difference is that while 2D is made up of flat cells that have been painted, stop motion consists of 3D scenes that have been photographed. This gives this form of 3D animation an altogether different quality.

"Toy figures with a camera, depicting a humorous photography scene
Image Source: Unsplash

The beginnings of stop motion

The history of stop motion dates way back to the mid-1800s, before film even existed.

You probably don’t know what a zoetrope is by name, but you will almost certainly recognize one from a picture. It’s a cylindrical device which contains a series of photographs or drawings on the inside. When it is rotated, it gives the series of images the illusion of motion. This and other similar devices can be considered the very earliest examples of stop motion projects.

With the arrival of celluloid in 1888, the world of stop motion film burst open and early pioneers of the silent film era started to experiment with the technique. The very first commercially released stop motion animated film is reported to have been The Humpty Dumpty Circus by J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith, although other stop motion videos were being produced in and around this time.

Breaking big

Animator Willis O’Brien can be credited for taking stop motion to the big league.

His stop motion animation on 1933’s King Kong is considered a landmark moment and a high point of Hollywood cinema at that time. The way in which he made the otherwise inanimate King Kong ape full of emotion and with a range of facial expressions was said to have stolen the show from the human actors.

King Kong was a direct inspiration on Ray Harryhausen, who pored over the film and began experimenting with the production of animated shorts. He eventually became a protégé of Willis O’Brien and would go on to become one of the foremost and influential animators of all time, producing special stop motion effects for a string of movies over a career that spanned decades.

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Gathering momentum

From this time, stop motion animation grew in popularity and proliferated in TV and film.

As well as being used as a special effect in major motion pictures, standalone, fully stop motion films started to be made, as well TV series using stop motion as the main technique. There have been some truly incredible and groundbreaking works produced using the method, and while computer animation and CGI might have long since displaced stop motion as the dominant special effect in movies, there is still something really special about the technique that keeps people coming back to it.

The artistry, craft and feel of stop motion is nigh on impossible to replicate with any other process, and here is a rundown of what we at Linearity consider to be some of the most significant stop motion moments of all time.

The originator: King Kong (1933)

King Kong is the big daddy of stop motion animation in more ways than one.

First off, he’s literally a giant ape, and secondly, this is the film that propelled stop motion into the mainstream. The storyline is now part of our pop culture canon and has been rebooted multiple times, but this is where it all began. Motion animator Willis O’Brien was responsible for the stop motion effects, which were combined with live action in a revolutionary way. Watching the footage today, it’s still very impressive to see the way that the stop motion Kong was seamlessly merged with the live performance of the actors, and it lends a real air of believability to the character that created a real bond with audiences.

The big earner: Chicken Run (2000)

While this movie is far from the first highly lauded stop motion production from the British studio Aardman Animations, it needs to be singled out for the fact that it is the highest grossing stop motion animation film of all time, hauling in an absolutely whopping $224,834,564.

Aardman is well known for using clay figures and plasticine to bring its characters to life. It already had a lot of success with its short films, but this was the studio’s first shot at a full length feature and it managed to parlay its keen attention to detail and deft storytelling touch into something wonderful. A side effect of the incredible way in which it anthropomorphized chickens is that we can no longer eat at KFC, which is probably a good thing.

The creepy did’s movie: Coraline (2009)

If you thought that kid’s movies had to be full of whimsy and cuteness, Coraline laughed in your face and said you’re wrong.

Produced by LAIKA Studios (the U.S. based stop motion studio owned by Nike co-founder Phil Knight), Coraline is so creepy that it could be said to cross over into horror. The movie is a clear example of how stop motion and sound effects can create a sense of otherworldly realness in a way that other animation techniques can’t. Coraline isn’t just a visual feast, the story itself is adapted from a book by legendary fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, and that man knows how to tell a tale.

In the film, a young girl discovers a parallel dimension behind a secret door in her house, only to find something ominous on the other side. The film was a huge box office success and even received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature.

The fresh delivery: The House (2022)

This is the most recently released entry on our list, and while we love that it is keeping the stop motion flag flying, the reasons for including it go beyond that fact.

Produced by London-based Nexu Studios for Netflix, The House is actually three different short stop motion films with various animation styles, all featuring different characters and settings, but all based on the same house. The voice cast is star-studded and includes Helena Bonham Carter, Jarvis Cocker and Mia Goth.

Each of the three stories are exquisitely detailed and have quite different styles, but they all manage to be both oddly surreal and totally believable.

The pioneering music video: Peter Gabriel - Sledgehammer (1986)

There was a time when a good music video could launch a song into the stratosphere.

It’s not that Sledgehammer isn’t a great song (and to clarify, it’s a total banger), it’s more that the accompanying music video was such a work of art that it arguably turned it into a way bigger hit than it might otherwise have been. The video was produced by Aardman Animations and features stop motion, claymation, and pixilation.

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Reportedly, Peter Gabriel had to spend 16 hours under a sheet of glass while filming went through the painstaking frame by frame process. The effort paid off handsomely – it won nine MTV Music Video Awards, which is the most awards that a single video has ever won.

The holiday classic: The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

To give you an idea of just how much work went into the production of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, the main character, Jack, had around 400 different heads in order to make them able to express every possible emotion.

Directed by Henry Selick, it is widely regarded as one of the greatest stop motion films of all time. The detail is just astounding, as is the sheer scale – in total some 20 sound stages were used for the entire film.

Even though the film is now approaching 30 years old, it has a truly timeless quality that ensures it will continue to be a holiday (both Halloween and Christmas) favorite for generations to come.

The underrated: Fantastic Mr Fox (2009)

When your source material is a classic Roald Dahl’s children’s novel, it’s hard to go wrong.

When you add in a director with as idiosyncratic and brilliant a style as Wes Anderson, going wrong is pretty much an impossibility. Bolstered by a frankly outrageous list of star voice over actors, including Meryl Streep, George Clooney and Bill Murray, Fantastic Mr Fox is much more than just the sum of its parts, even if the box office performance didn’t quite live up to the expectation, and Anderson’s dry humor somehow fits perfectly with the stop motion style.

Anderson would later go on to build on his stop motion success with Isle of Dogs in 2018, but for us The Fantastic Mr Fox has a delightful underrated edge.

That's a wrap

This is of course not an exhaustive list of all of the great stop motion animation projects that are out there – we didn’t even mention Wallace & Gromit, Pingu or Shaun the Sheep! – so if we have missed your personal favorite, we can only apologize.

If you love animation, you can read more about the difference between Motion Graphics and Animation, or about the magical and lovely Studio Ghibli.

We do hope that this inspires you to make your own stop motion project. As a form of animation, it is easily accessible and fun to create, and you never know, your own animated videos might appear in a list like this in the future.

And, as always, don't forget to try out Linearity Curve and Linearity Move for all of your vector design and animation needs.

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The 7 greatest stop motion moments of all time | Linearity
The 7 greatest stop motion moments of all time