This post is by Jason Hellerman from No Film School

What’s your favorite form of animation? There are so many different versions of the art form it can be hard to choose. But when many people branch out from the 2D draws of Disney fare, they find themselves enraptured by claymation. There’s something special and remarkable about claymation characters. From the Christmas specials that usually indoctrinate people to movies like Wallace and Gromit, which came later in claymation history, these movies capture imaginations.

But do you know what claymation is and how claymation works? Can you define the medium and find examples from different generations of movies?

Today, we’re going to answer all of those questions. We’ll even include a guide to shooting your own stop-motion movies at home.

Sound good?

Let’s get started.

What Is Claymation Animation, and How Does it Work?

Many people were raised on the claymation Christmas specials that used to come out once a year. But as they got older, maybe they realized that this artistic medium is not just for kids but for anyone with an imagination.

What is Claymation Animation and How Does it Work?
‘Kubo and the Two Strings’
Credit: Latika

“Claymation” Definition

Clay animation (sometimes called claymation or plasticine animation) is one of many forms of stop-motion animation, in which each animated character or background is made of a malleable substance capable of being formed into new shapes and expressions.

What Clay Is Used for Claymation?

As stated in one of its alternate names, many people use plasticine clay for claymation.

Plasticine is a putty-like material made from calcium salts, petroleum jelly, and aliphatic acids. Its most attractive quality is that it never dries, so you can mold different expressions and angles out of the same hunks of clay, and it looks glossy on camera.

What Techniques Are Used for Claymation?

Clay animation has its own very specific techniques used to create characters and stories. It starts with making a wire skeleton that the plasticine or other forms of clay are molded around to give it movement. That wire skeleton is called an armature. These bodies are then arranged on the set and photographer before being slightly moved by hand to prepare them for the next shot. This happens over and over again.

Animators go frame by frame to create the whole movie. Consistency in the shooting environment is needed to maintain the illusion of continuity. Objects must be consistently placed and lit and molded, and the process repeated. That’s why storyboarding is so important. They need to have the entire movie visualized before they shoot anything. They also have to have the script locked and the voices already recorded so they know how to animate the mouths and the inflections that are given to each word.

There are so many different moving parts of the process—pun intended.

What is Claymation Animation and How Does it Work?
‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’
Credit: Rankin and Bass

The Origin of Claymation

Plasticine was invented in 1897, right around the time we were experimenting with the movie camera. And since then, the two have been intertwined. One of the first claymation films ever was The Sculptor’s Nightmare, which Wallace McCutcheon directed. It combined live-action work with claymation heads talking. Pretty creepy but revolutionary for the time.

But claymation film history doesn’t stop then.

The History of Claymation Movies

Claymation has been a part of Hollywood since it began. Edwin S. Porter’s Fun in a bakery shop (1902) is about a baker transforming a patch of dough into different faces.

The oldest surviving full-length piece of claymation is Long Live the Bull made in 1926 by Joseph Sunn. It’s about a guitar-playing Barcelona man who is in love with a woman, and she says the only way he can attain her love is if he faces off with a bull. But things do not go as planned.

Claymation rose in prominence with the 60s TV show Gumby, created by Art Clokey, which introduced home audiences to the animation medium. Also, there were many claymation Christmas specials from Rankin and Bass that showed people an entirely new way to think about visuals.

And they were also used for special effects by people like Ray Harryhausen and his famous work on Jason and the Argonauts.

In the 1980s, Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit brought claymation to the forefront, creating a feature-length movie that traveled all over the world. People were stunned by the inventiveness and worldbuilding you could do with this art form.

There are many other examples throughout film history.

What is Claymation Animation and How Does it Work?
‘Jason and the Argonauts’
Credit: Columbia Pictures

Examples of Claymation Movies

There are examples of claymation movies across the world. The reason is that these movies often do not rely on dialogue but on visual storytelling. The less dialogue, the easier it is to get a movie to travel across the world. From Australian works like Mary and Max, British works like The Boxtrolls, and the French My Life as a Zucchini, you can see how many different animators across the world have tackled this medium and found success.

Many of these movies have Aardman Animation to thank for the ride in claymation. Aardman Animations, Ltd. is a British animation studio based in Bristol, England. It is known for films made using stop-motion and clay animation techniques, particularly those featuring its plasticine characters Wallace and Gromit, Shaun the Sheep (have you seen Close Shave?), and Morph. They brought this kind of animation into homes and inspired others.

One of my favorite claymation movies is Chicken Run. It’s an amalgamation of British, French, and American companies teaming up to produce a clay film. It was produced by Pathé and Aardman Animations in partnership with DreamWorks Animation.

And I also adore Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox.

What is Claymation Animation and How Does it Work?
‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’
Credit: Fox Searchlight

Is The Nightmare Before Christmas Claymation?

In short, yes. The Nightmare Before Christmas is a 1993 American stop-motion animated musical film directed by Henry Selick (in his feature directorial debut) and produced and conceived by Tim Burton. It was a huge hit, becoming a cult classic that plays over and over again on two holidays.

The idea for the movie originated in a poem written by Burton in 1982 while he was working as an animator at Walt Disney Productions.

What is Claymation Animation and How Does it Work?
‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’
Credit: Disney

How Can I Shoot My Own Stop Motion?

Shooting your own stop motion has never been easier. All you need is a camera and a computer and you can get started right away. Set up your first shot in an area without wind or background movement—you want everything to be stable.

Make sure all your pieces stand up on their own.

If one of them falls over during filming, you’re going to have to start shooting all over again.

I recommend storyboarding everything. That way, you can plan for the edit. Check out these storyboards from Isle of Dogs to inspire you.

It is very hard to do reshoots for stop motion. So make sure you know the syncs and transitions in the edit.

Does it matter what kind of camera you use? No!

What is Claymation Animation and How Does it Work?
Isle of Dogs’
Credit: Fox Searchlight

Stop Motion Camera

The only thing you need out of your stop-motion camera is clarity.

Sure, you can work with anything, even grainy images generated by a webcam or lower-grade digital camera, but you probably want to use a DSLR, mirrorless camera, or a smartphone that can take good photos in low light. You also want to be able to easily take all the photos off the camera and download them into your software. More on that later.

The most important thing to remember is that when you download your photos, label all of them of the scene and angle you shot.

https://nofilmschool.com/2018/03/storyboarding-isle-of-dogs-wes-anderson
Ray Harryhausen with his iconic creatures
Credit: The Dwrayger Dungeon

Stop Motion Using a DSLR Camera

There are no tricks to using a DSLR. You just need to point and shoot it, but Nikon has a few tips for how to use their cameras for stop motion.

stop motion
Credit: Nikon

Stop Motion Using an iPhone

Shooting with an iPhone covers the same basic principles as with a DSLR. You need to have it stabilized and lit at a consistent rate. Make sure each shot gets focused and that you don’t use the flash. Also, due to the white balance on the camera, make sure it stays consistent as your hands come in and manipulate what’s in front of you.

Summing Up “What is Claymation Animation Film and How Does it Work?”

I hope this primer on claymation movies has given you an appreciation for the medium. What starts with modeling clay becomes animated movies with hard work, patience, and imagination. Watching these clay characters come to like is one of the secret joys of cinema. Whether watching a feature or a short film, claymation can take you places you’ve never dreamed of.

What are some of your favorite claymation films? Let us know in the comments!