Updated: Oct 20, 2020
Long before the advent of modern animation, humans right from the Paleolithic Age gradually progressed through shadow play, puppetry, flip books, magic lanterns, pinhole cameras, Chinese magic mirrors, and kaleidoscopes for simulating motion for entertainment. The technological advancements in the 19th and 20th centuries created a boom in the film industry and grew leaps and bounds making contemporary animation feasible. Before computers could be fully yoked to produce graphics, hand drawn and hand made animations were the norm. Late 1880s saw a new trend of using toys as models and recording them after changing their position little by little which came to be known as stop motion animation, and boy did it change the world for the better!
Only after more than 3 decades of perfecting the technique could stop motion be a standalone art form in itself. Quickly incorporated into children's TV shows (does anyone else remember Pingu and Shaun the Sheep?), stop motion also began to be marketed to adults along with animation in general. Tim Burton and Wes Anderson, two directors with completely opposite aesthetics championed Hollywood endorsement, while the non-Anglophone world had also been experimenting with full length feature films made with stop motion with indie releases.
Wes Anderson's patronage has perhaps pushed stop motion into twee, hipster, and kitschy associations in our minds. Social media being full of stop motion food prep and cooking videos also doesn't help the cause, and people usually end up filing away stop motion as cutesy and non-serious. This doesn't have to be necessarily true as stop motion has developed as a dynamic technique with ample potential to be malleable enough to meet the artists' vision. With painstakingly hand drawn frames to paper, clay, and plasticine puppets, artists all over the world have been coming up with innovative ways to take up new subjects within and without the classic stop motion format. We've curated a list of our favorite artists working with stop motion, take a look!
Lynn Tomlinson's fluid clay paintings
Award winning animator Lynn Tomlinson brought a unique finish to the vibrant medium when she decided to manipulate animation by revolutionizing a clay painting technique. "Painting" with oil based coloured modeling clay on a light table, Tomlinson's short films resemble fluid oil paintings and stained glass windows with delicate and seemingly effortless transitions from one frame to another. Her inspirations and influences are many: Impressionism meets Aleksandr Petrov in her frames with subjects ranging from classic literature to climate change and loneliness, all strikingly from non-human perspectives. Tomlinson is a veteran with more than 30 years of experience as an interdisciplinary artist under belt. She also works for community projects while teaching and conducting workshops for animation.
William Kentridge's History of the Main Complaint
Dismembering is the getaway term into Kentridge's animated artworks. With his idiosyncratic take on stop-motion, Kentridge uses a single sheet to draw with charcoal as a keyframe on which he selectively sketches and erases to portray the jagged motions of time and change. The whole process is captured on film, and exhibited alongside the completed artwork. This technique achieves a palimpsest which attempts to state that what can't be stated and hence is forgotten, or remembered partially in passing, but nonetheless present. For Kentridge, form is intrinsically tied up with content and that manifests itself in nuances portrayed and they erased through a few strokes. The remnants betray the endurance of memory and the ruthless beauty of characters who live and love within a private fort/da of their own making. Kentridge's video installation More Sweetly Play the Dance was exhibited at the 2018 Kochi-Muziris Biennale to great acclaim. The 8 channel video dealt with the ravages of social inequalities and instabilities while hauntingly capturing movement, both physical and temporal, as his trademark backgrounds flickered in and out.
Tala Madani's mad men
L.A. based Iranian-born artist Tala Madani plays with traditional depictions of masculinity through an absurdist, tongue-in-cheek approach which is both witty and grotesque. Subverting by installing, "her men" as she calls them are petulant, profane, and ill-behaved, not too different from a toddler throwing tantrums. Exploring taboos in gender through satire, Madani creates isolated time-space pools where men are humiliated, disemboweled, and sometimes ending up dead, all the while leaking bodily fluids and engineering pain and shame. Her oeuvre includes painting and other video work, but her stop-motion animations are singularly remarkable for playing with fourth wall while exploiting an one-point perspective wherein she paints with oils on wood, capturing each frame on video and then erasing and re-painting the frame. She paints almost 2,500 still images sequentially which adds up to 1 minute in terms of recorded video. The focalization helps trap the viewer in a voyeuristic loop when one can't look away without a horrified chuckle.
Sun Xun: Between history and memory
Coming from a background training in printmaking, Sun Xun is one of the most prolific voices coming from contemporary China. His monochromatic mixed media artworks are recorded in stop motion, and manifest Xun's distrust of official history making and sanctioned narratives while grappling with the erasure of ordinary, everyday voices. Drawing and erasing individual frames, he stitches them together for sequential animation to explore alternate timelines and universes. Unable to afford a camera during his university years, Xun decided to hand draw his films to pursue his burgeoning interest in animation. Today his artworks focus on toeing the line between history and individual memories, and expand upon the lingering issues of childhood naivete, cultural incongruities, and dreamlike dystopias while challenging the accepted relevance of art itself.
Worshipping Nathalie Djurberg
Nathalie Djurberg is Sweden's answer to Tala Madani. Her brightly coloured faux-naive style of clay animation accompanied by upbeat music from frequent collaborator Hans Berg has prompted polarizing reactions to the grotesque subject matter. Transgressive and nightmarish, Djurberg considers animation to be the best way to physically actualize ideas, and her stop motion animated films feature power, sex, and violence along with quasi-erotic figurines who question the viewer's own response to the supposedly arousing subjects through a twofold expression of desire and repulsion. Freakish animals and partially clothed women populate the psychological narratives in her work in increasingly bizarre situations, and Djurberg thrives in challenging shame and disgust through these pieces.
Martha Colburn: Making gold out of glitter
Mere descriptive categories fall short of capturing the full range of the multi-disciplinary artist and filmmaker Martha Colburn. She started out by experimenting with found objects and found footage art, and eventually incorporated puppetry, collages, and paint on glass methods into developing her aesthetic of dreamlike punk-rock. Her distaste for computer generated animation is apparent in the exultant vibrancy in her hands-on approach, keeping the execution of her ideas intimate and personally individualistic. The rich texture of the appropriated objects and videos only add further to the bright colour scheme, making her critique of pop culture and politics even more insidious and sinister. Tackling consumerism, sexuality, and the notions of truth, Colburn's work has been called "cartoon surrealism" and has drawn praise from even John Mekas commending her courage and innovation to keep pushing boundaries. She has screened at the Venice Biennale, Art Basel, Sundance, and Cannes, among many others!
Kirsten Lepore's Food Porn!
Kirsten Lepore has won a lot of hearts around the world with her beautifully whimsical stop motion videos, going viral with some of her shorts, and has even worked on CN's Adventure Time recently. Her highly experimental technique keeps evolving but the optimistic tone of hope and a minimalist stylesheet is constant in her video work. Lepore has a MFA in experimental animation, and when it comes to stop motion she's mostly self-taught! Before making it big, Lepore had been a one-woman-show working on all aspects from designing and strategizing to carrying out the gritty logistics, and true to stop-motion's notoriety of being slow and time consuming, she could produce only 7 to 15 seconds of the video on a good day. Her BFA thesis "Sweet Dreams" had been a gorgeous stop-motion which had been completely carried out from animating food! The 10 minute short follows an anthropomorphic cupcake who falls in love with a carrot and ultimately saves their sugar town from destruction with a kale foliage in the backdrop.
Honorable mentions would be mixed media artist Geng Xue whose stop motion animation Mr. Sea is composed with porcelain marionette figures; Zhang Xu Zhan's 2013 stop motion animated installation at the Asian Art Biennale; Caledonia Curry aka Swoon's Sofia and the Storm exploring trauma and the body; Dina Amin's reassembled common consumer goods; Federico Tobon's drill powered flipbook animation; and, oh, how could we forget, Michael Rakowitz's The Ballad of Special Ops Cody;
Video art has always been a dynamic medium for artists. Right from sophisticated graphics and transitions to stylized primitivism, stop motion artists continue to dazzle, covering a range of subjects with their own evolving stylistics. For more getaway art films, check out our short art film marathon here!