Ten Essential Stop-Motion Animated Shorts

Ms. Dana Culling releases her biggest piece yet for The Movie Sleuth. Please read her wonderful list of stop-motion animated shorts. 

Stop-motion animation brings together the artistry of the centuries-old traditions of puppetry and the simple beauty of animation’s motion dance. As an art form, it stands on the shoulders of ancient traditions of figure manipulation, and much of the time, throws itself headlong across the Uncanny Valley – thus landing itself squarely in worlds which are rare to reach in other genres and modes of storytelling.

Stop-motion is a genre often played with alongside other methods of animation – it is not uncommon, for example, for puppet animation to be augmented with CGI, or traditionally cel-drawn animation. It is a painstaking process by which characters and their microcosmic universes are given breadth and depth in a world not terribly unlike our own; the minutest of aspects must be crafted with a precise level of detail.

But there is room within the genre for imperfection. Indeed, within many of the best stop-motion works exist a certain grit, a very human element of grime and dust and fingerprints. These are works of the flesh and physical world, dented by the love of their crafters and hewn from clay, wood, fabric, metal, silicon, and many other three-dimensional materials. The stories they tell are equally visceral, and as much a part of their creators as the pairs of hands which endow them with life.

In this list is included a miscellany of stop-motion short films, from various cultures and across different years. Each of these films employs meticulous craftsmanship and months of defined work whose detail is often to maddening scale. There are, of course, many feature-length stop-motion films which are worthy of attention – but this list concentrates itself on those stories which are unfolded in miniature; with mere minutes of running time and, in many cases, without dialogue, these are films which set the standard in a very real sense – and are the reasons films like Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa, or Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, for example, could come to be. They are perhaps among the best of the best, showcasing the beauty and intuitive nature of stop-motion itself.

Over time, The Movie Sleuth will revisit stop-motion animation, and list several more worthy films to add to this list.

So as not to give any sense of ‘numbering’ these films in terms of quality, this list is organized alphabetically by short film title.

Balance – Wolfgang and Christoph Lauenstein, 1989

This bleak contemplation of human selfishness and the difficulty of maintaining balance between desire and survival won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short in 1989, and its final frames capture almost perfectly the hopelessness and desolation it captures so adeptly throughout. 

Prisoners kept in stasis on a floating platform must move in synchrony to keep the ground flat beneath them, lest they fall to their deaths when the plane shifts and tilts. They seem unfazed by this until one of them casts his fishing line out into the void and brings a music box on board, throwing off the weight distribution and slowly beginning to reveal the diabolical greed and egoistic self-preservation in each of the prisoners, each himself an island in the strange dimension. As their need awakens, their solidarity begins to crumble until the final, heartbreaking scene.

The joyless, colorless atmosphere is brightened only by the red of the coveted object, the stilted movements of each of the puppets is softened only when he can appreciate the beauty it possesses. The very ambiguity of the premise and its characters – are these individual men, or are they symbolic of the parts of a single person? – provides what amounts to some brilliant, if heavy-handed, symbolism.

Crooked Rot – David Firth, 2008

Perhaps best known as the creator of the Salad Fingers series, David Firth’s stop-motion films tend toward even more macabre and strange territory. Often dealing with his own inner demons of depression, mental illness, and the suffering inherent in dealing with such issues, the images in his animation can be downright disturbing.

Crooked Rot is a static nightmare circus, a portrait of self-loathing and personal hell which works oddly as well if taken as a metaphor for the constant noise and bombardment of modern culture. Its painful imagery straddles the line between the internal and the external, mounting a war between perception and object amidst the terror and helplessness of humanity.

Firth’s surrealist style and sensibilities in the use of sound create a wildly dystopian brainpan, through which the reflection expresses itself as the reality, and through which the din of nihilism speaks in harsh obscurities and wild-eyed schizophrenia.

Door – David “Deadsy” Anderson, 1990

Created in a vortex of multi-media, Door is included here because its most striking scenes are produced in stop-motion. A surreal collaboration between Anderson and author Russell Hoban, who both penned and narrated the short in dizzy, frenzied disarray, the film utilizes photographic manipulation and film pixilation in addition to stop-motion to get inside the emotional implications of relationships and connections between people, the mysteries between them and the worlds within them.

With broken, disjointed visuals and a script out of Hoban's most deliciously terrifying stupefaction, the film carries itself much like a lucid dream. The nature of memory, the unlocking of the subconscious - these, and the strangeness and painful loneliness implicit in the relationships we weave and sever, dervish through scenes reminiscent of Norman McLaren; the decoupage of imagery is as keenly honest as it is hectic, demarcating in visual language the murky magical realism of Hoban's words.

Anderson's animation is a perfect visual vehicle for Hoban, populated as it is by themes of restraint and locked secrets, tiny blink-and-they're-missed moments of sheer psychological symbolism and scenes of existential horror. Door is a universe unto itself, much like Hoban's novels, built with the dark whimsy and apocalyptic anguish of his most treasured works, yet written specifically - and perfectly - for the genre.

The Insects’ Christmas – Wladyslaw Starewicz, 1913

An early master of the medium, Starewicz’s work carries a wild elegance, a decorated modus of imperfection which highlights the blemished beauty of the natural world. Much like Nature itself, there is a stark delicacy within this film, belying the mysticism inherent in the world of its winter woods and the strange, alien beauty of its brand of holiday joy.

The delicate magic of this quiet little tale is carried by a tree ornament of Father Christmas, who descends from his watchful place amid the evergreen branches of his home to sprinkle his winter spells across the tiniest of the forest creatures. Starewicz treats Nature as her own character, imbuing her with a gentle grace as the insects revel in their wonderland. Festooned with beaded boughs and the merry enchantments of its host, The Insects’ Christmas celebrates the oft-forgotten world which hides in the space beneath our feet.

Starewicz’s technique is one of heightened detail and dreamlike atmosphere; as ladybugs and grasshoppers cavort through the snow at the command of Father Christmas, and the courtly frog comes to join him in his reverie, there is a sense that, even amidst the season of darkness and death throughout the wood, the smallest sparks of enjoyment might still come to warm those who deserve it most.

Ruka (The Hand) – Jiří Trnka, 1965

Celebrated as the “Walt Disney of Eastern Europe”, Czech puppet animator Trnka ended his onscreen life with this incredibly lovely film, which was completed just a few years prior to his death. A symbolic statement against tyranny and the literal creative stifling presence of a hand of authority, Ruka pits the meta-concept against what is perhaps an even more strident example – a puppet who is a sculptor.

The titular Hand – a live-action representation of both censorship, and, one gets the impression, public whims when it comes to art and popular concepts. As the Hand demands the little puppet artist recreate its own five-fingered glory, the creature begins to sink into an existential crisis and despairs of the work it wants to – but is not permitted to – create.

The greatest irony is that Ruka itself was subjected to censorship in his native country for many years, but whether one chooses to see a political allegory decrying the severe hand of government or the difficulties inherent in being a true artist pigeonholed against the desires of the masses in order to make a living, Trnka’s film is a testament to his talent and the genius of the medium of puppet animation.

The Sandman – Paul Berry, 1991

This film is commonly found on “best of” lists of creepy animated shorts, and with good reason. Berry, whose work will be familiar to anyone who has seen The Nightmare Before Christmas or James and the Giant Peach, released this gorgeously atmospheric short film a year before Nightmare was in theaters.

Berry based his version of the Sandman’s tale on a German short story, Der Sandmann, written by E.T.A. Hoffmann in 1816. While it is not a direct adaptation of the Hoffmann story, some of the Freudian thematic elements of uncanniness are present in this dark little piece.

Its titular character a demonic Man-in-the-Moon, the film preys upon our most basic childhood terrors of what lurks in the shadows as we fall asleep. The haunting piano leitmotif slithering alongside the birdlike Sandman through the moonlight is chilling enough – but the ending may be something seen in nightmares, if indeed sleep is possible after seeing it.

Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions – Henry Selick, 1991

Selick, like Tim Burton before him, is better known as a director of feature-length stop-motion animated films – but this earlier foray into his filmmaking is equally bizarre, merging the movements of living dolls with tonally unusual music and an oddly endearing premise.

Live actor Mark Steger portrays “Slow Bob” Potemkin, who is transported by mysterious reptile grotesqueries into a world of cut-out paper horrors – the “lower”, or second, dimension – as a pair of conjoined twins spy on his rising psychosis from a peephole before descending upon his temporal doom with glee. Stylistically reminiscent of Selick’s contemporaries Paul Berry and even, to an extent, Tim Burton, it is the almost Dadaist cousin of their films on this very list.

A strange and ominous little film, Slow Bob’s journey into heroism in the Lower Dimensions was intended to be the pilot for a surrealist animated series, but it was not to be. Selick chose instead to focus on feature-length films, joining Burton and Berry in making The Nightmare Before Christmas before going on to work on the films he is perhaps best known for -- the feature stop-motion adaptation of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, and the feature-length Coraline, both of which carry his signature visual style and penchant for disjointed storytelling.

The Stain – Marjut Rimminen / Christine Roche, 1991

The Stain, a dissection of family secrets and the complexity of emotions in familial relationships coat the heart of this multi-media animated short film with a sinister melancholy. In broad strokes and rhythmic, sing-song narration which narrows its focus as the tale unwinds, the hidden depths of an insular household bloom in a series of stark opposites.

The sheer brightness and candor of the outside world is contrasted stringently by a dark patina within the home and within the hearts of the protagonists. Severe lines and jerky, almost violent animation bring to life a culmination of terrible secrecy and silence.

Brutally beautiful, The Stain takes common tropes from Rimminen’s feminism and sheds light onto a deeply personal microcosm; its brilliance is in the deft maneuvering it manages around politics in order to tell the deceptively simple story of dishonesty, jealousy, and anguish that can exist within bonds of love.

Tephrasect – Justin Curfman, 2004

The austere, filtered world of Justin Curfman’s Tephrasect is illumined by a snowy dream logic, sifting through the grit and silence from the powdery residue of mechanical moths’ wings. Better known as a musician and painter, Curfman’s animation brings a less insular eye to the artist’s vision – and to his talent as a builder of layers.

Curfman’s puppets are both built and maneuvered with careful and beautiful disharmony; the solemn vacuum of their interactions and the skewed lunacies of their perspectives unfold with a restraint that is almost gentle. Coated with the deft broad symbolism which delineates Curfman’s best work, it meanders through the subconscious and glues itself obstinately without saying a word.

There are moments – particularly highlighted by the music of Curfman’s Feeding Fingers project, which at the time of this film’s production was as yet two years away from forming cohesively – during which Tephrasect strips away its own brash expectations, nestling narratively in the space between sentiment and sorrow. Curfman’s genius is in the suspension of poetic complexity – at its most honest, his puppetry is existential brutality, dashed through with a queasy emotional voice still developing its nuances.

Vincent – Tim Burton, 1982

Charmingly reminiscent of Edward Gorey and Maurice Sendak, this early rhyming tale is a surprisingly sweet mini-fantasy made when Burton was still working as an animator at Disney. Narrated with almost childish glee by Vincent Price, it is the very picture of the deliciously creepy side of a precocious child’s imagination.

Eight-year-old Vincent – whose visage is quite similar to Victor in Burton’s Frankenweenie – fantasizes that he embodies the dark spirit of his namesake, inhabiting the delightful madness of a young boy’s literary make-believe world. His monstrous machinations are told in verse written by Burton himself, in a celebration of the curiosity and audacious oddness that define creative children.

While not as well-known as Burton’s theatrical feature stop-motion efforts, the short stands as a testament to his gift of combining horror tropes and innocent adorability in his characters, and proves itself as the roots of his puppet design aesthetic. Those acquainted with the most popular of his animated films will find the familiar and the beloved in Vincent, both in substance and in style.

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These are merely a handful of some of the wondrous, incredible stop-motions works out there – and we will return with another list of ten more essential stop-motion animated short films soon, so stay tuned.

-Dana Culling