written by Mike Brent

The purpose of this entry is to help clear up a common misconception. We frequently hear people glibly referring to all stopmotion as CLAYMATION. Claymation(TM) is actually a term coined by Will Vinton to describe the process of using modeling clay (plasticene) for stop motion, allowing the animators great freedom in squash and stretch techniques, and in changing facial expressions etc. It is a specialzed subset of stopmotion, and used mostly for simple children’s type shows because any texture or detail will be mashed when you grab the puppet to move it. The puppets, being made of soft pliable clay, must be handled very carefully to avoid distorting them. In fact, to achieve good results, clay animators will usually wear clean gloves (to avoid transferring dirt from their hands onto the clay) and frequently have to remove fingerprints and tool marks from handling before shooting a frame. In fact, we often caution beginners (who think claymation is going to be EASY) that it involves some degree of re-sculpting between frames! But of course, it’s not hard to do simple claymation if you don’t care about these niceties - just don’t expect California Raisin results with nothing but a lump of clay!

I’m not sure how the term claymation became so prevalent, possibly because it just rolls off the tongue a lot easier than stop motion , and stop motion itself has never had very good PR. And I won’t even begin to address the equally prevalent misunderstanding that it’s all CGI! I’m assuming if you’ve found this site, you know better.

Now, to make this even more complicated.... Even what’s generally referred to as claymation usually isn’t done entirely in clay. There’s usually at the very least a wire armature inside the puppets, unless they’re extremely simple and squat, with no arms or very short thick ones. And often parts that don’t need to be pliable, like the chest or maybe the shoes, will be made of solid materials, giving the animator something he can grab without smashing everything flat. Examples of these hybrid type puppets would be Wallace (vest isn’t clay) the aforementioned Raisins with arms and legs made of wire and some ornamental details made from hard plastics and inserted into the clay. Some shows began in clay and later switched to the more forgiving foam latex, like Celebrity Deathmatch. By making the switch to foam latex, you make the puppets easier to handle but you lose the ability to freely squash and stretch the clay (however you can resort to trick film effects, like replacing parts in between frames). You can tell which is which by the way foam latex wrinkles when it bends (unless it’s skillfully sculpted to avoid it).

The other 2 common ways to make puppets that I’m aware of are foam latex and cushion foam. The foam latex method is very involved and takes a good deal of skill and practice to master, as well as some pretty expensive equipment. You need a good scale, a mixer and an oven, plus the multi-component foam itself is fairly expensive. You also need to buy a moldmaking material like Ultracal 30 plus some kind of waterbased clay for use in moldmaking. The cushion foam method involves cutting foam from something like a sofa cushion and gluing it onto an armature, then covering with clothing sewn from fabric. Of course, these methods can be mixed up in various ways, and you can make heads from a hard material like Sculpey or wood and hands can be wire dipped in regular liquid latex (not the same as the more complicated foam latex).

Here are a few sites where you can get an overview of the different methods involved:

Marc Spess’ excellent site focusing on clay puppets:

Nick Hilligoss’ demos and tutorials on foam latex and simpler cushion foam techniques:
Nick Hilligoss Making Puppets Album

And my own super-simple puppetmaking tutorial using the cushion foam technique for absolute beginners:
Simple Puppet Fabrication Tutorial

Ok, quick summary....

Nightmare Before Chistmas, the PJ’s, Bob the Builder - NOT clay! King Kong, the films of Ray Harryhausen and Jim Danforth - NOT clay! Celebrity Deathmatch... clay in the early seasons, but later switched to foam latex. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the rest of the Rankin-Bass christmas specials - NOT clay! Mark Twain, the California Raisins and the rest of the Will Vinton specials... clay but usually with additional hard plastics and wire and sometimes cloth and other materials added into the mix. Gumby is clay with a wire armature. Wallace and Gromit - clay, again with additions and with armatures inside. Some of the other Aardman films are more purist claymation... for instance Creature Comforts is largely if not entirely clay, with sets and props made from other materials. Chicken Run... was a hybrid puppet with a clay head and arms while the body was made of silicone.

So let’s try to stamp out or at least severely limit the overuse of this misleading term, shall we?


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