A History of Clay Animation

Nick Park and Peter Lord’s latest creation is like a goose that laid a golden egg. Except the goose is actually a hen and it’s made of clay. Well, the egg is clay. But it’s becoming clear: These feats of clay are worth millions.

Chicken Run has become the first feature-length work of clay animation to fill movie theaters, grossing $17.5 million its first weekend and over $45 million in the two weeks since.

That’s a lot of Play-doh.

But the success begs the questions: Why hasn’t clay animation been tried more often? And why did two previous attempts at full-length clay features stall at the box office?

For one thing, clay does not fit the model of the Hollywood dream factory. In “traditional” animation, like Aladdin or Bugs Bunny cartoons, the images are painted on clear celluloid sheets, known as “cel” animation, one frame at a time. This type of animation can be broken down infinitely into tiny tasks: Thousands of workers crank out cels simultaneously, with the movie assembled by a director at the end.

Stop-motion animation is closer to a handmade art form.“That’s why clay was marginalized,” says Michael Frierson, author of the 1994 book Clay Animation: American Highlights, 1908 to the Present. “Cel animation and the Hollywood cartoon didn’t become the dominant form because it’s better. Hollywood prefers it because it keeps costs down.

“It’s like an assembly line,” says Frierson of “traditional” cartoons. “But in clay, it’s not that at all. It’s one or two animators working in front of a camera.”

In the case of Chicken Run, the two animators are Lord, a founder of the very British Aardman Studios, and Park, who made good with his short Wallace and Gromit films for the BBC after being invited to join Aardman in 1985. Featuring Wallace, a cheese-loving inventor, and Gromit, the trusty dog that bears the brunt of his buffoonery, the film noir-ish Wrong Trousers (1993) and A Close Shave (1995) were Oscar winners that built an audience — which is now showing up for Chicken Run.

But the difference between short films and a full-length feature is apparently as enormous an undertaking as the cheese-inspired journey to the moon that Wallace and Gromit made in their debut, A Grand Day Out (1992).

“It’s been a real lesson,” Park says. “I think shooting something that’s longer than a half-hour TV short is just a completely different ball game from making a feature-length movie. How to keep an audience in their seats and wanting to know what happens next, for 80 minutes, is a challenge we never had before.”

A Century-Old Art

Clay animation has a rich history that reaches back to 1897, when a pliable, oil-based modeling clay called “plasticine” was invented. While not all of Chicken Run is done in 100 percent clay, Aardman stays close to traditions that have evolved over more than a century. The characters begin as clay and then are molded into armatures with latex coverings.

The earliest surviving use of the technique is The Sculptor’s Nightmare, a spoof on the 1908 presidential election. In the final reel of the film, a slab of clay on a pedestal comes to life, metamorphosing into a bust of Teddy Roosevelt. Mack Sennet and D.W. Griffith, two important pioneers of early cinema, appear in the live-action portion of the film.

In 1917, the first female animator of any kind, New York’s Helena Smith Dayton, used real doll clothes and human hair to add realism to her clay depictions of fairy tales and classic literature, including Romeo and Juliet.

The B-Movie Guru

Jump forward a few decades to find another special-effects master interested in fairy tales. Ray Harryhausen made clay dinosaurs as a kid, then got his first job as a model animator on George Pal’s Puppetoons.

Later, assisting Willis O’Brien (the genius who in 1933 turned an 18-inch-tall cat fur-covered model into King Kong), Harryhausen worked on Mighty Joe Young in 1949.

In films like 1958’s The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts (which includes the famous animated skeleton sequence that took 4 1/2 months to create), Harryhausen perfected his craft. In 1992, he received a special Oscar for inspiring an entire generation of animators and special-effects artists.

Harryhausen’s first employer, the Hungarian Pal, created the Puppetoon series for Paramount. “The NAACP thought they were racist,” says Frierson, “and they are. He mistakenly thought he was doing folk tales.” Pal used 100 carved wooden replacement heads to animate the characters. So not only did racial tension ensue, but also a controversy over just what is clay animation: If the heads are carved wood, is it still clay animation?

He’s Green, He’s Gumby

Meanwhile, with movies being replaced by television throughout the 1950s, Warner Bros. cut back on its cel cartoon output by a third, stopping completely by 1969. A less sophisticated made-for-TV style, by Hanna-Barbera, had taken over. The time was right for clay’s first superstar: Gumby.

“The whole motivation for making Gumby was to give children something of real value,” says the green guy’s creator, Art Clokey. “Gumby was expressing my love for children by telling stories from the heart.”

NBC gave Clokey a contract to produce a series from 1956-1963. Gumby and his orange horse Pokey became icons.

Not many people realize that Clokey was also the creator of another curious series of that era: the moralistic Davey and Goliath. “The Lutherans saw Gumby on WPIX in New York and called me,” Clokey says. “It was shown more than Gumby, actually. The church gave the films to the stations for free. It was an act of service to society.”

Gumby’s Long Shadow

Clokey, now 76 years old, is still zealously engaged in clay animation. Gumby has his own personality cult and was immortalized in an Eddie Murphy skit on Saturday Night Live.

Davey and Goliath references have recently popped up everywhere from The Simpsons and Mad TV to the work of Todd Haines, director of the glam rock chronical The Velvet Goldmine. (Haines also made the now-banned Karen Carpenter Story, a very dark comedy told with hand-held Barbie dolls.)

Finally, the prolific team of Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass produced Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snow Man and several other holiday classics. Premiering on NBC in December 1964, the Rudolph special promoted the appliances of sponsor General Electric with a soundtrack LP featuring narrator Burl Ives. Rudolph and Frosty were big hits with kids, and the Rankin and Bass specials remain holiday perennials.