Mad God and the History of the Art Form
There is no discussion of the history of cinema without mentioning stop-motion animation. After all, isn’t simulating movement through a succession of progressively different images a primitive form of stop-motion in itself? That’s why this laborious form of animation has been around since the early days of cinema, serving as a creative tool for pioneering filmmakers and eventually becoming its own niche of animation.
Despite its reputation as a vehicle for raisin-based advertising and nostalgic holiday specials, die-hard fans know that stop-motion isn’t always as cheerful as Rudolph the red nosed reindeer Where Wallace and Gromit (yet Curse of the Were-Rabbit remains an excellent riff on An American werewolf in London). There is actually a dark side to this charming art form, as shown Phil Tippetthe passion project of three decades, the stop motion horror film crazy god, Which one is currently streaming on Shudder.
And with this miraculous achievement in the design of nightmarish creatures having rekindled interest in adult-oriented animation, I’d like to take this opportunity to explore the history of horror (and horror-adjacent) stories by stop motion. From giant apes to surreal dreamscapes, it’s clear monster movies just wouldn’t be the same without clay puppets and patient animators.
The origins of stop motion animation are inseparable from genre cinema, with notable examples as early as 1907 in shorts like The haunted hotel, who used an early variation of the technique to bring ghostly poltergeists to life. It wasn’t the only film to take advantage of the burgeoning art form (there were others like The Humpty Dumpty Circus and Fantasy Japan), but like a depressing amount of films from this era, these examples have mostly been lost to time.
Eventually, the widespread use of stop motion in effects work led to several technological advancements in filmmaking, which allowed horror and monster movies to become more creative. Malleable wires and innovative sculptors brought all sorts of terrible creatures to life long before the days of computer graphics or even fancy animatronics, with giant monsters like those from 1933. King Kong become die-hard characters rather than lifeless special effects.
That’s when creature features started to get interesting, benefiting from a new generation of genre specialists like the legendary Willis O’Brien and its man-eating dinosaurs. These prehistoric beasts may have looked more like terrifying movie monsters than scientifically accurate animals, but O’Brien used them to perfect the art of giving his macabre creations unique personalities, bringing them to life as if he directed tiny actors – a tradition that would continue to inspire even modern animators.
This stop-motion pioneer also framed the unforgettable Ray Harryhausenwho will then work on classics like He came from under the sea, Jason and the Argonauts and the bittersweet Clash of the Titans, which marked the end of an era for stop-motion based blockbusters. Known as the father of modern monster film, Harryhausen and his work on The 20,000 Fathom Beast even inspired the original Godzilla. His filmography may have been overly parodied and watered down over the years, but it’s easy to forget that Harryhausen’s handcrafted skeletons and silent krakens originally terrified audiences with their lifelike movements and designs. nightmarish at a time when this kind of speculative imagery was generally reserved only. for comics and cartoons.
Of course, stop-motion isn’t just a crutch for effects-driven filmmaking, as several artists have noted that deliberately mixing less realistic stop-motion animation with live-action footage can create a surreal atmosphere. appropriate. This form of stylization was put to good use by the Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer in his 1988 oddity Aliceas well as his 2000 dark comedy, Little Otik (I would also recommend Svankmajer’s infamous short Foodwhich goes viral from time to time when internet users rediscover its absurd visuals).
Beyond the world of special effects and live-action experiences, stop-motion has evolved as a respectable form of stand-alone animation. From the cheap but charming TV specials of Rankin/Bass to Aardman Animation’s unique take on British humor, artists have been developing exclusively stop-motion animated stories for decades, though the painstaking effort it takes to bring them to life to these flexible puppets mean they’ve never been as popular as traditional 2D animation.
Fortunately, we have seen an explosion of stop-motion media after the unexpected success of Henry Sellickit is A Nightmare Before Christmaswho combined Harryhausen’s creative monster designs with Tim Burtonthe horror sensibilities of and the holiday charms of the Rankin/Bass specials. Although this resurgence is often mistakenly attributed to Burton, who is an admirer of the craft and became popular with the wonderfully animated stop motion short vincent (I would also say that Frankenweenie is his last really great movie), Sellick is the one who really made a career out of scary stop-motion projects. The director is even ready to direct both the next little nightmares adaptation and demonic comedy Wendell and savagewhich is great news for horror fans.
Of course, Sellick really honed his style when he collaborated with Oregon-based Laika on Coralinea scary Neil Gaiman adaptation that has become one of my favorite gateway horror films. The over-the-top designs and creative use of 3D (a record-breaking first for stop-motion) paired perfectly with the otherworldly feel of Gaiman’s yarn, and the film is often cited as one of the best features. of all time stop-motion.
Laika is no stranger to horror films, with their projects often dealing with surprisingly dark subject matter and even producing the kid-friendly zombie film. Paranormand. While the studio has recently moved away from horror, even their most tame projects inevitably include homages to the works of legends like Harryhausen. From the giant skeleton monster in Kubo and the two ropes or the monstrous Yetis of Missing linkit looks like Laika won’t be giving up on monsters anytime soon.
Beyond Hollywood, stop-motion also found its way into amateur productions, often serving as an affordable starting point for budding animators, especially before computer technology became widespread. Naturally, this style of animation has become incredibly popular online, appearing in amateur LEGO parodies on early YouTubes and even contemporary channels like Bluworm/The Lone Animator (which produces intricate adaptations of Lovecraft) and Will McDaniel (who makes comic sketches inspired by Cronenberg). combining live action sequences with gruesome puppets).
The wonders of stop-motion may not be tied to a single genre, but there’s no denying that there’s an inherently weird element around these malleable characters who move on their own like puppets released from their strings. I think this inherent weirdness is part of the reason so many people claim to get a “creepy vibe” from even the most innocent of stop-motion animation. That might explain why relatively tame moments like the infamous “Mysterious Stranger” sequence from The Adventures of Mark Twain often appear on lists of “scariest movie scenes of all time”.
Of The lost World at army of darkness, stop motion has been used to bring horror nightmares to life since the literal beginning of cinema. Although this is now more of an aesthetic choice than a technical limitation, with the existence of cheaper and easier alternatives meaning that only hardcore fans still engage in this time-consuming craft, this old fashioned art form is worth saving for rare treats like the aforesaid crazy god, which took nearly three decades to complete and proves that these surreal thrills can’t be replicated by any other type of animation. Even when it doesn’t look particularly believable, there’s still an undeniable charm to stop-motion, which is why I hope filmmakers continue to experiment with the format for years to come.