The History Of Clay Animation (It’s Older Than You Think)

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The History Of Clay Animation (It’s Older Than You Think)

Hello, friends. We are back and ready to mold your minds through educating you on another niche animation technique that has somehow found itself still making a huge impact, even amidst the modern technologies we have within the industry today.

Clay animation, the nephew of stop motion, has played a critically important role in the history of animation.

Clay animation is almost like an old childhood friend that you don’t have to stay in contact with every day but still appreciate very much. When you meet, nothing has changed. You still love, appreciate, and find a home-like comfort in them, despite having more in common with your shiny new friends who do cool activities.

I guess what we’re trying to say is – always make time for that old friend. Don’t dismiss that old friend for your new friends just because they have CGI capabilities. They can co-exist. We’re getting lost in our own analogy here. Let’s get back to the yellow brick road.

What Is Clay Animation

Once again, the definition pretty much does what it says on the tin. Figurines constructed from clay are brought to life, opening up a whole new realm of possibilities for animators. 

Clay animation, or ‘claymation,’ is a form of stop-motion animation where each animated segment, mainly characters and objects, and some backgrounds, is created from plasticine clay. 

To be a clay animator, be prepared to have your patience tested. Each individual frame is moved one small portion at a time, recorded on film, and then displayed in quick succession to produce an illusion of movement. Objects may stay illuminated and positioned correctly at all times in order to create the illusion of continuity.

Wire skeletons, referred to as armatures, are generally wrapped around the plasticine to keep them stable. 

Even to this day, claymation techniques remain strikingly similar to the earliest experiments in the art form. Characters start as blobs of clay before being molded onto armatures and covered in latex. The claymation artists then proceed to move the models into the positions required to make the film.

The History of Clay Animation

You may be surprised when we tell you that compared to other types of animation, claymation movies are quite recent. 

With Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs being the first feature-length film made out of cel animation being produced in 1937, 2D animation has had a 60-year headstart. 

The first claymation movie, Chicken Run, wasn’t actually produced until 2000. 

Don’t sigh in relief that you may have stumbled upon a short but sweet article just yet. Clay animation holds a long, rich and distinguished history that goes back much further than the turn of the century. Let’s delve in, shall we?

While the first feature-length clay animation film may have been Chicken Run at the new Millenium, the art form actually dates back to over 100 years prior to the release, in 1897. 

Plasticine was a clay made of oil-based modeling compound. Plasticine would go on to become the standard claymation clay used for most films due to its non-drying property and malleability. Non-drying and malleable – what more could you ask for? 

Claymation’s First Rodeo

The first claymation animation film known to have survived is The Sculptor’s Nightmare from 1908. 

This very early film was the first known to integrate claymation with live-action video. Designed to parody the 1908 US presidential election, director Wallace McCutcheon combined live-action narrative with animated clay heads for comical value.

The narrative, in paradoxical satire, follows a boisterous group of top-hatted gentlemen, bickering about who will succeed Roosevelt as president. The group task a craftsman to make a statue of the new president, and he sets to work, all the while drinking as much as he can. 

Soon sent to jail for his disorderly behavior, the sculptor dreams of three clay blocks that come to life and become the living busts of Roosevelt’s three potential successors: William Jennings Bryan, Charles W. Fairbanks, and William Howard Taft. 

The living heads amuse the sculptor as he watches them drink, smoke, and act antisocially in a true mockery of the establishment. Before we know it, as quickly as the sculptures appeared, they vanish, leaving the sculptor in a haze of drunken bliss.

The Gumby Show

Colorfully modeled and the first of his kind, Gumby was formed in 1953 by claymation master Art Clokey. A green humanoid character, Gumby was modeled with children in mind –designed to teach moral lessons as he leaped through alongside his sidekick, Pokey (voiced by Art himself) battling his nemeses, the Blockheads.

To enable the stop motion modelers to stand the characters up for long stretches, most of the characters maintained cube-shaped bodies for stability. In a progressive stance for its time, Gobby himself was colored bright green to remain racially neutral.

Gumby spawned his own films and even a video game. You go, little guy. 

A Big Break For Clay Animation

For a while, Claymation faded into obscurity as the Disney revolution dominated the silver screen.

Claymation’s resurgence occurred in the 1980s, as sketch-style animation became increasingly popular and digital tools for animation became available.

Do you recognize these friendly faces?

If you have not yet been introduced to the delightful companions Wallace and Gromit, we suggest you spend your evening watching clips of their adventures on Youtube. It’s plain and straightforward, really: until you’ve watched their day-out escapades and cheered for them to bring cheese back from the moon, you haven’t yet experienced claymation.

In 1989, Aardman Studios’ big break came with the release of ‘A Grand Day Out’ – animated by Nick Park. Who knew a film so short could be bursting at the seams with so much charm? It was undoubtedly and unsurprisingly an instant success and a turning point for clay animation, establishing it as a serious format for film. 

This comedic short film depicts the first of many cinematic adventures of Wallace – a peculiar, good-natured inventor with wacky ideas who constantly finds himself in trouble. But who is Wallace without his best pal Gromit, the loyal beagle sidekick who bravely comes to the rescue in each sticky situation Wallace endures.

In this film, cheese enthusiast (aren’t we all?) Wallace resolves that the best place to find cheese is the moon, so Wallace and Gromit construct a rocket to fly there. We can’t argue with the logic, in all honesty.

The Wrong Trousers

More beloved classics followed: In 1993, Aardman passed another milestone with the completion of Nick Park’s Oscar-winning The Wrong Trousers, Aardman’s first 30-minute film. Acclaimed worldwide and winner of over thirty awards, The Wrong Trousers has become one of the most successful animated films ever made. 

‘A Close Shave’ swiftly followed in 1995, awarding Aardman with another Oscar and establishing Wallace and Grommit as two household names. 

And Aardman hadn’t quite finished amassing critical acclaim and outstanding box office results. In 2005, our friends appeared in their first feature film, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. The film peaked at the box office charts in the US and UK. It earned many distinguished international awards, including the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film and a BAFTA for Best British Film.

It is a wonder that from Peter and David’s tabletop beginnings, Aardman has grown into a major, world-class studio. But it is the people of Britain who are most fond of their animation baby, with Wallace and Gromit having become so synonymous with British culture they are almost as loved as much the humble cup of tea.

Why Did Claymation Fail To Find Early Success?

As we have previously discussed, Chicken Run became the first feature-length work of clay animation to find its way onto the silver screen, grossing $224 million worldwide from a $45 million budget. To date, it is still the highest-grossing stop-animation movie of all time.

But the success begs the following questions: Why hasn’t clay animation been tried more often? And why did two previous attempts at full-length clay features stall at the box office?

Let’s be honest here: clay doesn’t really fit the bill when it comes to Hollywood’s vision of what it takes to produce a cinematic spectacle. 

What’s more, other forms of animation, such as traditional cel, can be broken down infinitely, with tasks delegated to hundreds of workers at a time before the director’s final assembly at the animation production stage.

In stark contrast, the handmade nature of clay animation consists of one or two animators working in front of a camera. To complete Chicken Run, it took 30 sets, 80 animators, and a team of 180 people– with only a single minute of filming completed each week. That, my friends, is what we call claymation dedication. We can rhyme anytime.

5 Steps For Making Clay Animation 

The models and sets may have increased in complexity over the decades, and the camera equipment might now be more advanced; however, the template for creating claymation films has remained relatively unchanged throughout the twentieth century. Here is how to create a claymation film:

1. Create a flexible outline

Construct a basic framework of the story, illustrating the plot and movement that your clay animation will follow. Since animation form is tangible and dynamic, you can have the creative freedom to let your imagination take charge.

2. Know your frame rate

Most films of this nature consist of twenty-four frames per second. It can always be helpful some of the same techniques borrowed from celluloid (cel) animation in traditional 2D animation by repeating static shots to save yourself some time and effort. It is crucial at this stage that lighting and the movement of the clay figures must stay synchronized and consistent to avoid continuity errors in the final cut.

3. Create your characters

Using traditional plasticine clay to create your characters is not a necessity. Still, if you choose clay for your medium, we highly recommend forming your clay around an armature. As we have discussed in this feature, armature functions as the skeletal structure of the character and will help it to hold a uniform shape and movement from frame to frame. 

This will save you an immense amount of time and enhance the fluid motion of your animation. You can create your own armature with wire or otherwise find a DIY kit online with artificial joints that simulate organic movement.

4. Shoot still frames 

How cool does this sound: when it comes to claymation, you are the puppet master of your show. The top dog, the wheeler-dealer, the power behind the throne, the hidden hand – you get the idea. 

With that said, make sure to focus on every detail when shooting singular frames to create fluid scenes and eliminate any chance of continuity errors that will risk sending you back to square one (believe us – nobody wants that). The movements of your figurines need to be slight enough to create the illusion of cohesive motion.

5. Compile, edit, and learn

Once you’ve compiled your final shots, the last stage of the process is to edit them into the final product: your short film. Claymation is a time-consuming and challenging art form that will be sure to test your patience. Ultimately, the lessons you learn throughout the process will help you perfect your craft.

Wrapping Up

Well – there you have it. That is a lot of information about clay.

It is an uncommon form of filmmaking, and we must say, for good reason. The process takes a rare grade of focus, energy, attention to detail, and patience. But when done correctly, it can produce truly spectacular results.

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