A Brief History of Clay Animation

A Brief History of Clay Animation

Whether they’re Hollywood blockbusters or wonders of the small screen, chances are you’ve seen more than a handful of clay-crafted masterpieces in your time. However, you may not have noticed claymation’s legacy in the history of animation. But let us make it clear, clay animation, alongside its close relative, stop motion, has played a vitally important role in the history of animation.

From its invention back in 1897 to modern-day works from top-end animation studios, there’s a whole history of claymation that you might find surprising. So join us on a journey into animations past as we look at some of the best (and most bizarre) examples of clay animation history.

When was claymation invented?

It’s safe to say that our favourite claymation films would never have made it to the silver screen without the invention of plasticine back in 1897. Whilst traditional artists were just starting to dip their toes in the waters of cel animation (AKA, painting images on transparent sheets then stitching them together), clay animation was starting to brew on the fringes of the artform.

How does it work?

Even to this day, claymation techniques remain somewhat similar to the very first experiments in the art form. Claymation characters start as blobs of clay before being moulded onto armatures (tiny skeletons for the clay to fit around) and covered in latex. Then it’s up to the claymation artists to move the models into the positions they need to make the film.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at the first surviving example of claymation…

The Sculptor’s Nightmare

This very early film was the first to combine claymation and live-action footage. Designed to spoof the 1908 US presidential election, ‘The Sculptor’s Nightmare’, was directed by Wallace McCutcheon and combined live-action narrative with animated clay heads. The narrative is simple: a rowdy group of top-hatted gentlemen argue about who will succeed Roosevelt as president. They commission a sculptor to make a bust of the new president and the sculptor sets to work…drinking as much as he can. When he is thrown in jail for disorderly behaviour, the sculptor dreams of three clay slabs that sculpt themselves into living busts of Roosevelt’s three potential successors: William Jennings Bryan, Charles W. Fairbanks, and William Howard Taft. These living heads delight the sculptor as he watches them drink, smoke and gurn. Then, as quickly as they appeared, they vanish, leaving the sculptor in a happy, drunken slumber.

Not going to lie, it’s pretty weird. But it’s oddly compelling too – there’s nothing like seeing the animator’s fingerprints in the finished work.

This in turn inspired…

Long Live The Bull

This is the oldest surviving full-length piece of claymation we could find, it reminds us a little of Tony Hart’s classic Morph. ‘Long Live the Bull’ was made in 1926 by Joseph Sunn – a pioneer of claymation technique. It’s surprisingly funny – we wish we had a retired bull to be our sparring partner.

As artists continued to play with the clay and give their models new forms, this led to indelible character creations like…

Gumby and Pokey

Brightly modelled and the first of his kind, Gumby was created in 1953 by stop motion claymation master Art Clokey. A green humanoid character, Gumby was modelled with kids in mind – he taught moral values and lessons as he hopped through time with his sidekick, Pokey (voiced by Art himself) and battled his nemeses, the Blockheads.

Most of the characters took a cube form to allow the stop motion modellers to stand them up for long periods of time. Gumby himself was coloured bright green to be as racially neutral as possible.

The Big Break

For a while, claymation took a bit of a backseat as the likes of Disney and classic cell animations ruled the screens.

As sketch-style animation started to take off and digital tools for animation came into play, more studios turned their hand to the tactile world of claymation and in the 1980s, its resurgence came.

You may recognise these gentlemen…

Wallace and Gromit

Everyone knows the delightful Wallace and Gromit. If you haven’t watched their day out capers and cheered for them to bring cheese back from the moon, then you haven’t experienced claymation.

In 1989, their big break came with the release of ‘A Grand Day Out’ – animated by Aardman’s Nick Park. A loveable short with buckets of charm, it was an instant success and established clay animation as a serious format for film. Equally beloved classics followed: ‘The Wrong Trousers’ (an Oscar winner that we chatted about in our recent article on the history of animation), ‘A Close Shave’ and in 2005, the sweetly spooky ‘The Curse of the Were-Rabbit’.

Alongside the Wensleydale-loving duo, Nick Park also created….

Creature Comforts

Developed while the first Wallace and Gromit short was in post-production, this classic 1989 short film was the inspiration for a series of legendary claymation adverts for Heat Electric. A charming claymation series that saw zoo animals and everyday pets chatting about their lives in very frank, human ways. Moulding plasticine to create these shorts for mainstream TV, Creature Comforts was a natural evolution of Wallace and Gromit and proof that claymation and comedy went together like cheese and crackers.

Chicken Run

In 2000, Nick Park and Peter Lord directed the comical escapade, Chicken Run. An animation staring Ginger and Rocky, the plucky poultry leads, the film was a box office smash and was Aardman Animation’s first full-length claymation feature film.

Boasting all the charm of Wallace and Gromit and with years of stop motion experience behind it, ‘Chicken Run’ became the highest-grossing claymation film of all time, earning a staggering $224 million.

And to get the film finished? It took 30 sets, 80 animators and a team of 180 – with one minute of filming completed per week. That’s claymation dedication.

From here, there’s been no stopping clay animation, with new films and shorts springing up all the time from animation studios across the globe. For something that started as a ball of clay invented back in the 19th century, who knew we’d end up with such a rich medium for storytelling? It won’t be long until the next big claymation success hits our screens.

Pebble Studios
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