I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

A Brief History of Stop-Motion: Cinemagician Hermia Tyrlova

by Sakunthala Panditharatne
Nov. 23, 2011
The oldest surviving stop-motion animation is called "Fun In A Bakery Shop." It’s about two and half minutes long. Nothing much happens, and what does happen is sort of hard to make out, but it’s involves shape-shifting dough. The film was released in 1902, when film was not yet considered art, but a frivolous high-tech distraction -- sort of how video games are seen today. "Fun In A Bakery Shop" was more a technical demo than a work of art, which is perhaps why Thomas Edison was the one to release it. Edison’s company also put out the first direct manipulation animation in 1906, but it would be decades until this technology was used for creating real art.

Jason and the Argonauts (1963) was a stop-motion landmark. It uses puppets, but not in the same way as Thunderbirds. It was one of the first films where stop-motion was used in the same way as a special effect, to supplement live action. Instead of a curious novelty, stop-motion animation was a technique for creating a chilling battle scene. Stop-motion skeletons rise from the sand and fight the protagonists with spears, fighting to the death (or whatever the skeleton-equivalent is). Unlike most early stop-motion films, the scene has a very odd, creepy feel.

Hermia Tyrlova’s film, Uzel na kapesníku, has a tone of it’s own. It sort of feels like a children’s TV show, except a little more surreal. It’s very simple and sweet; the main character is nothing more than a knot in a handkerchief. The shots are as colourful and as long as those in a Wes Anderson movie, and they have a similarly quirky feel. You can see her influence on other Czech animators, especially Jan Svankmajer. For this reason, she’s sometimes called “the mother of Czech animation.”

The kind of stop-motion animation we’re familiar with today is sometimes called claymation. The word ‘claymation’ was trademarked by filmmaker Will Vinton in 1978 to describe a technique that has existed since 1908, when the first stop-motion clay film called "The Sculptor's Nightmare" was released (you can guess what that was about). However, claymation wasn’t popular until the 70s, and since then there's been more and more of it, from Wallace and Gromit and Vinton’s The California Raisins to, in this decade, award-winning claymation films like Chicken Run and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Even more recently, Coraline was the first ever stop-motion clay film to be shot in 3D.

People say film became an art after Citizen Kane. When did animation become an art? Citizen Kane was released in 1941, but film studies was not taught as a subject until 1975, and Hermia Tyrlova made her animations in the 1950s. Even if animation was considered an art, it was a new one. Although stop-motion technology wasn’t at all new or groundbreaking, using it to tell strange, warm stories was. And without her, Czechoslovakian animation would be very different.

Sakunthala Panditharatne is a maths student and pseudo-Bohemian loser. She spends maybe 80-90% of her time programming, writing and starting awesome projects, like her tumblr, theimaginaryhackathon.tumblr.com . The rest of the time she spends watching Malcolm in the Middle. She likes long, complicated novels and believes in the power of self-organization. Dave Eggers used to be her hero, but she’s kind of past that phase now.