a brief history of clay animation

A Brief History of Clay Animation

Chances are, you’ve probably seen a good handful of clay crafted masterpieces – whether it’s Hollywood Blockbusters gracing the silver screen or wonders of the small screen. You might not have even batted an eyelid at its place in animation past.

From its invention back in 1897, to modern day works of art from the talented folks at animation studios,   there’s a whole history to it that you might find surprising. So join us on a journey back into clay animation past as we look at some of the best (and most bizarre) that the art form has to offer.

 

To kick things off..

When was claymation invented?

It’s safe to say that our favourite claymation films might never have made it to any kind of screen at all, without the all important invention of plasticine back in 1897. Whereas traditional media was starting to dip its toe in the waters of cell animation (AKA, painting images on transparent sheets then stitching them together), clay animation was on the fringes of the artform.

 

And..

How does it work?

For early experimenters of clay animation and even to this day, the technique still remains somewhat similar. Claymation characters start as just that, clay, before they’re moulded onto armatures (AKA tiny skeletons for the clay to fit round) and covered in latex. Then, it’s up to the claymation masters to move the models into the positions they need to make the film.

With this in mind, the first known use of claymation was in 1908, with…

 

The Sculptor’s Nightmare

Designed to spoof the 1908 US presidential election, The Sculptor’s Nightmare by Edison Manufacturing shook the film world by mixing a cohort of actors with moving, clay figures. Well, to be more precise, a claymation bust of Theodore Roosevelt which transforms from a simple slab of clay, in front of your very eyes, as the political club acts out who will replace him.

Not only early claymation but also an example of early political satire, all in one.

This inspired…

 

Long Live The Bull

Alongside a host of claymation shorts for the weekly Universal Screen Magazine by East Coast artist Helena Smith Dayton in 1916 and a quick clay animation in the 1921 flick ‘Modeling’ by the Fleischer Brothers studio, this piece of art.

The oldest surviving full length piece of claymation we could get our hands on and looking like an early version of Morph, ‘Long Live the Bull’ was made in 1926 by Joseph Sunn – a pioneer of the technique.

As artists continued to play with the clay and give their models more new forms, this led to creations like…

 

Gumby and Pokey

Brightly modelled and the first of its kind, Gumby was created in 1956 by stop motion claymation master Art Clokey. A green humanoid character, Gumby was modelled with kids in mind – to teach real values and lessons as the character hopped through time on adventures with his sidekick, Pokey (voiced by Art himself).

With the Blockheads for a nemesis, key mischief makers in the series, most of the characters all took on a cube form to allow the stop motion modellers to stand them up for long periods of time. Gumby himself took on a bright green form to be as racially neutral as possible.

The sudden surge in kids claymation, prompted a few others to try their hand at a slightly more adult take on the medium.

Leading to…

 

Jason and the Argonauts

If you’ve never seen Gumby and Pokey, you may well have seen that famous claymation skeleton scene from the 1963 film by Ray Harryhausen – Jason and the Argonauts. Fun fact, that skeleton scene alone took a staggering four and a half months to create in stop motion, let alone the rest of the filming.

It’s one of the first examples in full technicolour where actors crossed into the realm of stop motion and acted alongside their clay counterparts.

From here…

 

Festive Claymation Classics

TV started to see the benefit of claymation in bringing stories to life. Following the massively successful Gumby series, the world-renowned team of Arthur Rankin Jr and Jules Bass created Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and good old Frosty the Snowman, alongside some other Christmas classics, for a special festive edition on NBC.

Featuring the famous narrator and singer, Burl Ives – a voice heavyweight of the time – on the soundtrack’s LP, it catapulted claymation and mixed stop motion media to mainstream success.

But, could claymation keep it up?…

 

The Big Break

After such acclaim, the medium took a little bit of a backseat as the likes of Disney and classic cell animations ruled the screen. But, clay animation wasn’t forgotten.

As sketch style animation started to take off and digital tools for animation came into play, more studios turned their hand to the tactile world of claymation and in the 1980’s, its big break came.

With the loveable characters that are…

 

Wallace and Gromit

Everyone knows the delightful characters that are Wallace and Gromit. If you haven’t watched their day out capers and cheered for them to bring cheese back from the moon, then you haven’t experienced claymation.

In 1989, their own big break came with the release of ‘A Grand Day Out’ – animated by Aardman’s Nick Park. A loveable short with buckets of charm, it was an instant success and established clay animation as a serious format for film – quickly followed by the equally beloved classics ‘The Wrong Trousers’ (an Oscar winner that we chatted about in our recent article on the history of animation), ‘A Close Shave’ and in 2005, that suitably spooky ‘The Curse of the Were-Rabbit’.

Inspirations for Nick Park’s next big success…

 

Creature Comforts

That charming claymation series that saw zoo animals and everyday pets, in clay form, chatting about their lives in very frank, human ways. Moulding plasticine to create these shorts, fit for mainstream TV, it was an evolution of Wallace and Gromit and proof that claymation and comedy just mixed.

And, with comedy, it’s impossible to forget that popular black comedy of the claymation world…

 

The Nightmare Before Christmas

From Creature Comforts to the realm of the Pumpkin King, The Nightmare Before Christmas combined music, with gothic art and claymation, in 1993. A brave step forward for the world of clay animation, Tim Burton dreamt up a land which turned tradition on its head and crafted a darkly musical animation, beloved by both children and adults.

Directed by Henry Selick, a top claymation Director, with stints for Disney and Pixar under his belt, the film was the first in a series of success for Selick – later followed by…

 

James and the Giant Peach

Another of Selick’s collaborations with Tim Burton (who would also collaborate to create Coraline, years later) James and the Giant Peach was full of stop motion insects, giant peaches (unsurprisingly) and tales of epic proportions.

Combining live action and stop motion, the tools to make mixed media films were becoming even more advanced and with the acclaim of previous claymation masterpieces, big names like Richard Dreyfuss and Joanna Lumely came aboard as voice actors.

Claymation, among Burton and Aardman Animations, was a medium not to be messed with.

But of all the impressive feats of claymation magic, the last one to talk about in our dash through the history of clay animation, is…

 

Chicken Run

In 2000, Nick Park (of Aardman fame) and Peter Lord (co-founder of Aardman Animations) directed the comical escapade that is Chicken Run. An animation staring Ginger and Rocky, the plucky leads, in a full length feature, it was a box office smash and was Aardman Animations’s first full length fully claymation feature film.

With all the charm of Wallace and Gromit and years of stop motion experience behind them, it became the highest grossing animated film of all time, at a staggering $224 million.

And to get the film finished? It took 30 sets, 80 animators and a team of 180 – with one minute of filming completed per week. That’s claymation dedication.

 

From here, there’s been no stopping clay animation, with new films and and shorts springing up all the time from animation studios across the globe. For something that started as a ball of clay, or rather plasticine, invented back in the 19th century, who knew we’d end up here with a whole new medium for storytelling? It won’t be long until the next big stop motion success hits our screens.

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Amy Durrant

Amy Durrant

Amy is a copywriter and all round creative type at Pebble Studios. With bundles of agency experience at Karmarama and her past life as a music, technology and design journalist, she has a love for all things creative.

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