Costuming The Animated World: Stop-Motion Animation

Missing Link. 2019. Photo: © Laika Studios

The art of creating stop-motion animations might be one of the oldest filmmaking techniques ever invented, which date back to the 1890s. Stop-motion uses photography as its medium to bring an object/puppet to life by playing series of photographs in sequence. The advances in photography made this medium effective, and throughout the years, animators have incorporated the use of CGI technology. It is considered an art because of the number of talented people working with their hands to bring characters to life. To achieve the desired motion, 24 photographs are played per second. It is a technique that no matter the amount of technology incorporated into it, the human hand would never be replaced entirely.

The very first stop-motion film created is The Humpty Dumpty Circus (1898) by J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith. In this short film, the animators took their daughter’s toys and created a circus in motion. Unfortunately, this film has been lost and there are only photographs that support the existence of it. Since then, many others have continued to create stop-motion animations, by modeling with paper, clay, and puppets. They have all contributed to what we know now as stop-motion films and continue to delight us with beautiful masterpieces.

Creating a film at such a small scale (each human-shaped character is about 10 inches/25cm) demands extraordinary attention to detail in every aspect. From sets and props to facial expressions, hair, and of course, costumes. The different textures created to imitate a fabric or surface, or the movement and weight of fabric themselves regarding the size of the puppet are some of the details that animators, modelers, and costume designers take into account when creating each character.

There are different techniques used to create puppets, depending basically on the needs of the character (movement and physical traits) and the entire aesthetic of the film. Animators mainly use resin, clay, fabric, latex, or foam modelled on top of a metal armature which allows movement and stability to the puppets. 

Left: A Nightmare Before Christmas. 1993. Photo: © Disney Studios

In 1989, the British company Aardman Animations introduced their very famous characters of Wallace and Gromit with a short stop-motion film called A Grand Day Out. This animation gave them an Academy Nomination and was their beginning to what became a worldwide phenomenon. In their animations, costume design is an integral part of character creation and in the same way, there is not a specific role for a costume designer. Animators do the entire job of designing the character from head to toe. The character modeler is in charge of bringing this character to life taking care of all the details that its costume demands. While the character is modeled in clay, all the textures that need to be on its costumes are added (stitches, creases, wrinkles, and seams). Then, it is cast in plaster, which will make it solid and easy to maneuver. Each part is then coloured (or sprayed) with a diluted latex mixture, and details will be hand-painted.

Right: Chicken Run. 2000. Photo: © Aardman Animations

Wallace is most of the time wearing a green knitted vest, red tie, white shirt, and brown trousers, this is his primary costume. But, as storytelling demands, more costumes are designed for him when creating a new storyboard. Due to the technique used to create their puppets, costumes are to some extent simple and not loaded with a ton of details.

A Nightmare Before Christmas by Tim Burton (1993) was the first stop-motion feature film to receive worldwide distribution. For this film, more than 220 puppets were made using clay. Jack Skellington came to life from Tim Burton’s original sketches as the iconic character we know, and whose costume (a black striped suit and a bat-like bow tie) has been undoubtedly a stamp to this character.

“Some of the finest model animators in the world brought the creepy characters eerily to life (…) all of which were textured to have the look of the scratchy, cross-hatched pen-work found in Tim Burton’s original drawings” (Sibley, 2010)

Right: A Nightmare Before Christmas. 1993. Photo: © Disney Studios

Another extraordinary stop-motion film by Tim Burton is Corpse Bride (2005). In this film, animators were pushing the boundaries of the different mechanisms they incorporated into their puppets. Once again, characters and costumes were designed originally by Tim Burton but then perfected by Carlos Grangel, character designer of the film. As usual, Tim Burton’s characters were very long and skinny with large heads and eyes. This was something that modelers had to take into account when creating the armature for each one of them.

One of the most challenging parts of the film was creating Emily’s dress (The Corpse Bride) since it demanded a lot of movement and fluidity. Animators had to create different mechanisms to generate movement in the veil and skirt. Also, some structures have to be placed under the characters’ dresses to maintain the silhouette of the costume while the puppet was moved.

Left: Corpse Bride. 2005. © Warner Bros. Studios

“Every character has its own personality, and personality dictates shape, balance and rhythm. So, every character has its own silhouette, and its important that we can recognize every single character when its on the screen. And they are puppets, so they have to be really graphic, and really stylized”

-Carlos Grangel, Character Designer, Corpse Bride. 2005

Corpse Bride. 2005. © Warner Bros. Studios

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) directed by Wes Anderson and produced by 20th Century Fox was a ground-breaking film in the animated world. It was based on Roald Dahl’s 1970 children’s novel of the same name, and whose origin had a lot of influence on the aesthetic of the film. In Fantastic Mr. Fox, we see animal puppets act like humans, which meant they had to stand, walk and sit as if they were human beings. In this case, Felice Haymoz was brought in to be part of the film as the character designer, she describes this as her best job ever.

“I started by drawing foxes, and asked myself ‘What if they had to stand on two legs? What if they have to brush their teeth?. So, starting from the real anatomy of the fox helped a lot, and after that we were able to move into the next stage of what the foxes were going to wear, like ‘Okay, he has to wear this outfit now so his legs have to be more upright.'” -Felice Haymoz, Character Designer “Fantastic Mr. Fox” 2009.

Left to right: Fantastic Mr. Fox sketch by Felicie Haymoz. 2009. © felicehaymoz.com / Fantastic Mr. Fox. 2009. © 20th Century Fox

For this film, the fabric was used to create the costumes, and sewing everything this size demanded it to be absolutely flawless. Using actual fabrics allowed animators to move the puppets more freely since the costumes would just adapt to the “performance” of the puppet. Besides, it is also a better way to achieve greater detail and to make every costume much more elaborate in terms of design.

Left to right: Atari – Isle of Dogs, sketch by Felicie Haymoz. 2018. © felicehaymoz.com / Isle of Dogs. 2018 © 20th Century Fox / Tracy – Isle of Dogs, sketch by Felicie Haymoz. 2018. © felicehaymoz.com / Isle of Dogs. 2018 © 20th Century Fox

Another film directed by Wes Anderson was Isle of Dogs (2018), where once again Felice was in charge of designing the human characters. She used many Japanese references, and costume design helps with storytelling and personality traits for each character. The details and accessories each costume includes are astonishing. In the case of Atari, all those zippers and labels in his overall are impeccable; while on Tracy, even though she is wearing the same uniform as her classmates, her accessories impact her character.

Coraline (2009) by LAIKA Studios was the beginning of the extraordinary productions that this group of creatives has brought to the big screen and who have made impressive advances to the stop-motion animation technique. At LAIKA, the puppet department is divided into sculpture, mold making, armature, casting, paint, hair, and costumes. Every single department works through the different stages of the puppet, so in the end, it will take around 30 people to build only one.

Having this amount of talented and dedicated people work on a specific job and perfecting it as much as possible is what makes LAIKA’s animations so stunning. They have absolutely transformed stop-motion animations. Each one of their films looks so real and unique that it is hard to believe that those extraordinary characters are puppets made by human hands.

Left: Coraline (2009) © LAIKA Studios

Deborah Cook has had the amazing and incredible task of designing the most seamless costumes for the entire Laika universe. As the costume designer, she puts a lot of research into every character and understands how every single detail will speak on its own. Deborah is careful with the fabrication of each of the costumes and experiments with different materials to find the perfect fit for her tiny puppets.

“I just like the detail, I love the level of detail. You don’t get that on large scale costumes. We work so tiny but our character are blown up to the size of a live scale person on the screen” -Deborah Cook, Costume Designer. LAIKA Studios

Left to right: ParaNorman (2012), The Boxtrolls (2014), Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) © LAIKA Studios

After experimenting with fabrics and colours, and once the fitting is perfect it will be taken apart to have it as a reference to create all the duplicates. Each main character has around 20 duplicates, and every puppet has to look exactly the same for continuity purposes. The attention to detail that Deborah puts into her work has no comparison. Every button, seam, piping, trim or gather all is there to provide essence to the character and contribute to storytelling.

The ball gown scene in The Boxtrolls (2014) was the first time these animators were dealing with puppets dancing to the same rhythm, wearing Victorian costumes. Part of the creative process included shooting the scene with a group of professional dancers while having the main characters act around them. This choreography provided animators and designers with a glimpse of how the Victorian crinolines looked like and then figure a way of making their puppets look the same.

Deborah Cook designed these Victorian skirts and worked hand in hand with the armature department to build these metallic structures to go underneath and provide the desired movement. In the end, only the main characters and a couple of dancers were animated using stop-motion, the rest of the dancers were animated using CGI. Nonetheless, the computer animators had to make their characters look like the puppets already made.

Right: The Boxtrolls (2014) © LAIKA Studios

The latest film LAIKA has created and one that has set the bar higher than ever in stop-motion animation is Missing Link (2019). In this film, one of the greatest challenges was creating the main character puppet, since his shape was clearly out of the ordinary and his movements were hard to articulate. The film is set by the end of the Victorian and entering the Edwardian era (1890-1910) which presented different challenges for its costumes. First of all, some interesting changes in fashion took place during this period (such as the use of trousers for women). In addition, the attention to detail was once again Deborah’s greatest accomplishment. Every fabric, thread, and trim used encompasses perfectly not only where the story is taking place but also who each character is made to perfection.

Left to Right: Missing Link (2019) / Deborah Cook posing with Missing Link characters (2019) © LAIKA Studios

Animations will always continue to surprise and inspire us by the amount of talent, research and work they bring together. In the same way, stop-motion animations will forever have their place in our hearts due to the complexity of their creation. It is breath-taking to see the process that each one of these films undergoes in order to achieve that stunning final result. Still, in this technique of creating animations, character design and costume design go hand in hand. It is a creative process that cannot exist without the other, and in that sense, the importance of costume design is slowly being noticed by the audience as it deserves.

Thank you, Wallace and Gromit, Jack Skellington, Victor, Mr. Fox, Atari and Tracy, Coraline, and Mr. Link (among many others that I couldn’t include here). And so many thanks to the creative minds behind the magic of these amazing masterpieces, for bringing so much joy to our screens and by inspiring us to create with our hands the unimaginable.


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One thought on “Costuming The Animated World: Stop-Motion Animation

  1. Thank you Mariana for your well researched article. I have learned some interesting information about stop-motion films that I never knew before reading this. Keep up your good work, I really enjoy reading all your publications.

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