Top 10 Stop-Motion Animation Films

by Eric Melin on September 14, 2010

in Top 10s

Today’s excellent Top 10 comes from Kansas City animation student Jessica Wisneski. Make sure and watch some of the amazing stop-motion animation shorts and clips embedded within the post. If you have an idea for a Top 10, email me at eric@scene-stealers.com. Here’s Jess:

After I talked some trash on a Top 10 list, Eric, in his polite way, suggested I put my money where my mouth is and come up with my own Top 10. It was surprising to me that no one had made a list for stop-motion animation, so I wanted to show love for some amazing films. I chose the following based on new techniques they introduced and how influential they were (and are), as well as arbitrary awesomeness. Enjoy!

Honorable mentions: Street of Crocodiles (1986) by the Quay Brothers, Balance (1989) by Christoph and Wolfgang Lauenstein, Creature Comforts (1990) by Nick Park, Darkness, Light, Darkness (1989) by Jan Svankmajer, The Demon (1972) by Kihachiro Kawamoto, Valley of Gwangi (1969), special effects by Ray Harryhausen, The Lost World (1925), special effects by Willis O’Brien, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) by Wes Anderson.

10. The Wrong Trousers (1993)

“The Wrong Trousers”  is a claymation short by Nick Park of Aardman Studios. Wacky inventor Wallace has modified ex-NASA trousers to create a remote ‘walker’ for Gromit’s birthday. To combat the rising stack of bills, Wallace rents out a room to a mute penguin, whom Gromit discovers (while out on his walk) is actually a wanted thief called Feathers McGraw. Hilarity ensues when Gromit tries to foil the penguin’s plan to use the mechanical trousers for a big heist. The Wallace and Gromit movies are well known for their slapstick humor and tongue-in-cheek jokes (Gromit reads a paper with a headline ‘Dog Reads Paper’). Some would argue that there are better Wallace and Gromit movies, but this one has a penguin in it and that’s all I care about. “The Wrong Trousers” won the Academy Award for Animated Short in 1993.

9. Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase (1992)

Joan Gratz is considered the pioneer of clay painting. In “Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase,” Gratz uses clay to render likenesses to original works of art. Starting with the Mona Lisa, Gratz then takes the viewer on an art history tour through the 20th century, seamlessly morphing between each painting as she goes. Did I mention that each work of art looks exactly like the original and that she’s working only with clay? Gratz even gives personality to the individual paintings – a wink, a sigh – before moving to the next work. “Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase” won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short in 1992, even without showing the titular Nude Descending a Staircase (although Duchamp makes an appearance).

8. Dimensions of Dialogue, Part One (1982)

Surrealist Jan Svankmajer uses mostly found objects and clay in his animation. I chose “Dimensions of Dialogue, Part One” for its statement on how colliding human cultures change each other as they meet, and also because it’s one of the few of his films you can watch at work. Two human heads in profile, one composed of food, the other of kitchen utensils, meet. The kitchen utensil head swallows the other, creating one giant head, as the utensils commence chopping up all the food. The utensil head then spits out the food, creating another human head made of smaller pieces of food. This chewing up and spitting out continues back and forth until the heads are clay replicas of real human heads. What is particularly awesome about this short is how he can separate out all the little bits that belong to each head after he mixes them together.

7. The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)

“The Adventures of Prince Achmed” is the oldest surviving animated feature film. Lotte Reiniger began production in 1923. Completed in 1926, it utilizes backlit hand-cut, jointed cardboard and lead-panel figures and sand to animate the stories of Prince Achmed and Aladdin. Reiniger spoke in an interview of her talent with scissors, which is evident in the amazingly intricate backdrops and figures. She was only in her 20s upon completing the film, and rumor has it that Jean Renoir helped her find the funding to finish it. This is the first recorded use of the multi-plane camera in animation (designed to give depth of field), although Ray Harryhausen claims Willis O’Brien was the first to use it.

6. The Hand (1965)

Jiri Trnka was regarded as the ‘Walt Disney of the East’ for his work in puppet animation. His films inspired many in Western Europe and the Communist Bloc, including filmmaker Jean Cocteau. “The Hand” was Trnka’s last film. It features a little artist puppet who wants to do nothing more than make clay pots for his beloved flower until a giant hand appears and demands that he make a statue of a giant, uh, hand. The artist refuses to do so, no matter what the hand bribes him with. The film takes a grim turn when the hand (wearing a lace glove) finally seduces the artist and puppeteers him into a cage to carve the statue. Things do not end well in this dark metaphor of the artist (and writer) experience under the Soviet regime. Trnka’s talent lies in the way he can give emotion to a puppet with a painted face. The puppet’s expression never changes, and yet the viewer can sense his changes of mood.

5. Coraline (2008)

Directed by Henry Selick (“The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “James and the Giant Peach”), “Coraline” is the first full-length stop motion feature to be shot entirely in 3D. Based on the book by Neil Gaiman, Coraline is a young girl who moves to a house in the country with her self-involved parents. She becomes bored and begins to explore her new surroundings, meeting her wacky neighbors and a stray cat. During her explorations, she finds a secret door and enters into the magical world of the Other Mother, who wants Coraline to stay with her forever. The attention to detail in the movie is nothing short of amazing – everything is handmade. Coraline’s sweater and gloves were hand-knit by a miniature knitting specialist; the cherry blossoms on the cherry trees are actually hundreds of pieces of popped corn, hand-painted pink in the center; every strand of Coraline’s hair can be animated separately.

4. Krysař (The Pied Piper of Hamelin) (1985)

Jiri Barta studied under Svankmajer, and Svankmajer’s love of the grotesque definitely shows in Barta’s “Krysař (The Pied Piper of Hamelin).” There are no children in this gruesome retelling; only greedy adults and greedy rats. Barta’s Hamelin is a beautiful town in wood-cut, Cubist fashion (Cubist! Not kidding – check it out), with hand-carved wooden puppets and reanimated rats. The townspeople spend their lives ripping each other off and arguing about prices, while the rats snag everything they possibly can. Enter the pied piper, who performs his hired task of ridding the town of rats, only to be ripped off by the mayor. When the only other good person in town is killed, the piper takes matters into his own hands.

3. King Kong (1933)

“King Kong” inspired a number of animators and filmmakers, among them Ray Harryhausen, who left the theater determined to make his own Kong. “King Kong” came to fruition after director Merian C. Cooper came across Willis O’Brien’s footage for the never-finished “Creation.” He scrapped the footage, but kept O’Brien’s dinosaurs and hired him to do the effects for “King Kong.” Not much is known about O’Brien’s techniques or methods since he refused to give interviews, although Harryhausen, who worked closely with O’Brien on “Mighty Joe Young” (1949), credits O’Brien with helping him refine his model construction.

2. Tale of Tales (1979)

Yuri Norstein’s “Tale of Tales” has been voted the best animated film of all time by several international panels of animators. Inspired by a Russian lullaby the film flits from image to image to emphasize the fluidity of memory, incorporating characters mentioned in the song. Norstein uses repeat images of a bull jumping rope with a girl, dancing couples, and the cutest little wolf cub you’ll ever see to help tie this otherwise unstructured narrative together. Some of the film’s most poignant moments are when the dancing couples are separated as the men are called off to war (the women wait patiently for those who won’t return), and the wolf cub’s journey through various landscapes, highlighting the progression of time. Norstein’s animating style is remarkable in his use of a giant multi-plane camera to create depth and his use of vinyl cutouts to create amazing texture and movement. Each layer of a face – eyes, mustache, cheek color, jaw – is a separate entity to allow each to be animated on its own (the documentary “Magia Russica” demonstrates his technique).

1. Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

Since this could have easily been a top ten list of Ray Harryhausen movies, I restricted myself to just one (but I put him at the top! Compromise!). Harryhausen has inspired generations of animators and filmmakers with his model animation sequences. I chose “Jason and the Argonauts” for the amazing skeleton fight sequence, which took four and a half months to film, including choreographing the live actors and counting frames for model placement. Harryhausen himself claims this to be his favorite film, due to his satisfaction both with the storyline and the animation. Along with his meticulous patience, Harryhausen also has a gift for giving personality to his figures. Talos is a giant bronze statue, but still manages to emote dying so convincingly you can’t help but feel sad for him. Another of Harryhausen’s talents: creating excellent scary monsters. I was four when I first saw “Clash of the Titans,” and Medusa scared me so much I threw up. For everyone who will hate me for not listing “Clash of the Titans” or whatever their favorite Harryhausen is, here’s a mashup of all his monsters.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers.com and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Michael Bird September 14, 2010 at 8:35 am

Coraline in the “Top 10″ over Brothers Quay is a dubious decision but I’ll chalk it up to taste (and there’s no point in debating that). But the omission altogether of Suzie Templeton’s “Peter & the Wolf” from four years back is bordering on altogether criminal. The blue-eyed gaze between Peter and the wolf, the understanding, well… very moving.

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2 Shawn Rock September 14, 2010 at 8:39 am

I guess I would have liked “A Nightmare Before Christmas” get at least an honorable mention. Interesting list anyway…

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3 Abby September 14, 2010 at 10:09 am

I’m so glad to see “Dimensions of Dialogue” on the list! Jan Svankmajer is amazing. I’m a big fan of “Little Otik.”

“Coraline,” though…I guess it’s all a matter of taste, but I wasn’t a fan. I usually love Henry Selick’s work, and I agree that the details in the film are pretty great, but I thought it all looked too smooth. I like my stop-motion a little rough around the edges. To me, making a stop-motion movie that doesn’t look like a stop-motion movie defeats the purpose. My favorite Selick film is “James and the Giant Peach” mainly because of its little imperfections.

Neat list!

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4 Dead End September 14, 2010 at 12:32 pm

What, no Jiri Trnka or Barta on the list? Absurd!!!

Seriously though, congrats on providing some exposure on some of the better non-hollywood produced films. On a personal note, kind of sad to see no Robert Morgan or Adam Elliot on the list.

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5 Dead End September 14, 2010 at 12:39 pm

Wow, didn’t notice that borth Barta and Trnka made it. Consider me satisfied!

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6 Randall September 14, 2010 at 12:44 pm

Where the eff is Davey & Goliath?!?!? Oh, right, that’s television.

Seriously, though, this is a great and interesting list. I’ve only seen the more obvious entries (The Wrong Trousers, Coraline, King Kong, Jason and the Argonauts), but I love them all. (And I, too, would choose The Wrong Trousers as the best of the Wallace & Gromit films, though I enjoy all of Nick Park’s work.)

I can’t think of any major omissions. I remember the (very early) work of Starewicz being really interesting, but I don’t know it well enough to suggest a specific film. I also have a sentimental appreciation for those Rankin-Bass holiday TV specials (Rudolph and The Year Without a Santa Claus), but those were for TV and not necessarily the pinnacles of the form.

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7 Eric Melin September 14, 2010 at 1:51 pm

I hadn’t seen half the entries on this list before formatting it so I thought it was a great introduction to some of the older stop-motion shorts (kudos, Jess!)–I remember Templeton’s “Peter & the Wolf” and am excited to find that online somewhere. Thanks to Dead End, I’ll also be looking up Robert Morgan and Adam Elliot!

Thanks for all the great comments too, everybody!

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8 jess September 14, 2010 at 2:18 pm

Whoa, thanks for the tip on Templeton’s Peter & the Wolf! Just saw some clips – I’m bummed I didn’t see it before. I found Morgan’s The Separation on Youtube just now and it looks amazing. I’ll check into Adam Elliott, too.

I figured Coraline would be a controversial choice, but I dug the subtle 3D and I’m a sucker for handmade. RE: Brothers Quay…I was trying to broaden the scope of the list and didn’t want to go too heavy on the Eastern European-influenced stuff. That may not be a satisfying reason, but there it is.

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9 Dead End September 14, 2010 at 3:53 pm

If you liked Templeton’s “Peter and the Wolf,” you should check out an older film of hers called “Dog.”

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10 MarriA October 8, 2010 at 2:12 pm

If it was me, I would have put Coraline as number 1
That movie was so amazing and magical, I love how much work had gone into making it, all the flowers, the outfits, the locations Everything. And I love how evey single character has a sort of background mistery to them, in usual movie’s u just figure out the character strait away but this movie really made you wonder.
I really hope they make a sequal, I and many people so badly want one, plus I love Wybie Lovat, he is so awesome :D

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11 Rune October 13, 2010 at 6:05 pm

Did you consider Flåklypa Grand prix /Pinchcliffe Grand Prix?

In case not, you should. It is missing. It is classic. It is insanely great!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fl%C3%A5klypa_Grand_Prix
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0073000/

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