Claymation Craze

No crackers Gromit! We’ve forgotten the crackers!”—Wallace

Oil-based modeling clay has been around since 1897, when Plasticine. was invented by an art teacher in England. William Harbutt stumbled developed modeling clay because he wanted his students to work with something that wouldn’t dry out. He patented it and created a new artistic medium. While the ingredients are a secret, the compound is mainly petroleum jelly, calcium salts and stearic acid. It must have been eaten by kids by the droves, as they fashioned things in back yards, in kindergarten and on the dining room table. I can’t imagine that eating something made of Vaseline would be very good for you, but modeling clay is labeled non-toxic, so at least we don’t see Death by Plasticine on the mystery bestseller list. My friend, Gary, remembers when he and his little brothers sat around the kitchen table making soldiers and such out of this synthetic clay, with sounds of their mother using the wringer washer in the background. If you have the time, the skill, a studio and a good cinematographer, you could make quite a bundle, but it is painstaking work. The motions an audience sees in a film at the theatre are brought to life by  stop action animation It means that someone has moved a clay figure a minute amount, then shots frame of it. A sequence is built movement-by-movement and frame-by-frame. This eHow site has good background information about the history of claymation and its major figures.

Claymation Films

Well-known claymation characters   use lingo, gestures and have personalities we come to know, as is the case with the Wallace and Gromit, created by Britain’s Nick Park and his  Aardman Studios. (Here’s the blog.) I adore “The Wrong Trousers,” about Gromit’s birthday adventures and “A Grand Day Out,” during which W & G go to the moon and I want to see “A Matter of Loaf and Death.” When Aardman Studio’s physical plant burned to the ground in 2005, I remember feeling so bad because so much was lost. The originators carried on and Wensleydale cheese stayed on the map. In 2007 the studio teamed up with Sony. Last Sunday, Matt Groening’s The Simpsons parodied the duo. More recently, a stop action movie which, in part, used modeling clay, has received great acclaim, for its story, artistry, and celebrity. Directed by Wes Anderson, Fantastic Mr. Fox, came out in 2009 and is based on the Roald Dahl book. Another big player in the animation field is Australia’s Adam Elliot. There are many lesser known claymation films which merit watching, too. Personally, I like Mr. Bill, who gained fame on Saturday Night Live years ago. (Granted, you must have a dark sense of humor.)

The Process

Before you begin working with the modeling clay, you have to come up with a story, then sketch it out. And get some tools. But to begin with, you have to head to the hobby store, find some modeling clay and start practicing. Oil-based modeling clay is the best, as water-based crumbles. Also important is the color wheel and here’s something that will help you get to know about mixing clay colors. Let’s back up a bit now… Telling a good story is pivotal, as is sketching it out: storyboarding is an art form. Here’s an article about Christian deVita, the storyboard artist for Fantastic Mr. Fox. There are many of how-tos out there that show you how to  animate with modeling clay, including this WikiHow site. The way clay animation is shot is very time consuming. According to Ezine, “Commercials are shot on 35 mm film at 25 frames-per-second…claymation production…shoots up to 30 individual frames for each second of film.” There are ways to save time and TV Tropes explains a few techniques, including using “an interchangeable mouth, so that lip sync can be done without resculpting the mouth every time, and barely-visible holes or clear pegs in the pupils of the eyes, to make pointing the eyeline easier.”  The blog article continues, explaining that “on human figures, the mouth is usually a mostly-flat stuck-on piece with a black background to suggest depth: Aardman figures actually have a full set of sculpted mouths.” Claymation is a precise science and computer programs are available for amateur clay animators. For PCs, check out this link for Stopmotion Pro. I am a Mac person, so, for me, I’d look at iStopMotion 2 or Frame Thief. I got this information from Joshua Mosley’s University of Pennsylvania student resource list, but I can’t tell you how current it is. For a low-tech approach which includes  all the basics, here is an eHow claymation tutorial. Learning how to do claymation takes time and fiddling around until you like what you come up with. Nick Park explains that, “Gromit was the name of a cat. When I started modeling the cat I just didn’t feel it was quite right, so I made it into a dog because he could have a bigger nose and bigger, longer legs.”

iStopMotion claymation software for Mac


About Jan

I have a background in ceramics, graphic design and journalism.
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