Monday, January 25, 2016

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Stop Motion Animation

Usually in these “Cult-TV Theme Watches” I look at recurring ideas, themes, characters or tropes in the history of television.  They are often ‘in-show,’ however.   Today I look instead at a special effects technique that has recurred in cult-TV over the years: stop-motion animation.

Stop motion animation might be described as a technique that involves the manipulation of a filmed object, an individual frame at a time. Once those frames are run-together at normal speech, the manipulated object, moved incrementally, appears to move take and life.

The black-and-white horror/sci-fi anthologies of the late 1950s and early 1960s were among the first to take advantage of the stop-motion technique.  In a 1959 episode of The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) called “The Odyssey of Flight 33,” stop-motion is used to depict a dinosaur, an Apatosaurus.  A twentieth century plane crew – flung back in time – spies it from the cockpit.

The most terrifying “bear” of The Outer Limits (1963-1965) owes its very existence to stop-motion animation.  In the horrific, “The Zanti Misfits,” Bruce Dern and other actors grapple with exiles from Zanti, horrible ant-creatures with human-like faces.  These alien menaces skitter out of their spaceship, down walls, across the floor, and so on.  The stop-motion still holds up well, and these monsters have lost none of their scary nature over the decades.

In the 1970s, stop-motion animation moved to a different realm: live-action Saturday mornings.  In 1974, Land of the Lost (1974-1977) premiered, and the series concerns an American family of the disco decade trapped in a prehistoric pocket universe, Altrusia.  

The many denizens there -- Grumpy the T-Rex, Big Alice the Allosaurus, Dopey the baby brontosaur and so on – are all rendered mobile by the auspices of stop-motion animation.

For the second season of Space: 1999 (1975-1977) there was some discussion of using stop motion animation for the episode “New Adam, New Eve,” but it was not to be. Instead, the format reached the final frontier in Filmation’s Saturday morning series, Space Academy (1977). In the early episode “Castaways in Time and Space” (9/17/77), a crashed Seeker spaceship and its personnel, Gampu (Jonathan Harris) and Laura Gentry (Pamelyn Ferdin) encounter an alien creature rendered in stop-motion format.

The follow-up Filmation series, Jason of Star Command (1978-1980) featured several stop-motion aliens in both seasons of its run, as well.

In Great Britain, Doctor Who (1963-1989) utilized this format at least once, during the Jon Pertwee Era, in the serial “Invasion of the Dinosaurs.”  A stop-motion Loch Ness Monster also appeared in "Terror of the Zygons."


  1. Anonymous1:27 PM

    Nice to see some appreciation for terrific old school effects. Jason of Star Command featured some of the best animation: smoothly animated and beautifully designed /crafted models. Land of the Lost's animated dinosaurs were always more impressive than the hand-puppets used for live-action closeups.

    The Outer Limits Zantis...classic! The second season of Outer Limits used a stop-motion plant in "Counterweight". Doctor Who's Loch Ness Monster was so highly edited that's it hard to tell it's even a stop-motion critter. I don't think the rubber dinos in "Invasion of the Dinosaurs" were animated.

    The lizard in Space:1999's "New Adam, New Eve" was embarrassing. It would have been more appropriate in one of Irwin Allen's shows (that used stock footage of lizards from his 1960 "Lost World").

    1. Anonymous, good thoughts on this subject.


  2. John this is an awesome theme subject Stop-Motion Animation. In today's C.G. film and television world this brilliant method is still wonderful.


  3. Cosgrove-Hall made one of my favorite stop motion shows ever when the adapted The Wind In The Willows. Given how big a Gerry Anderson fan you are I'm surprised there's nothing from Dick Spanner P.I. in the mix here:-)

  4. John,
    I've been watching episodes of I Dream of Jeannie (my niece bought me a bunch of old shows on dvd for Christmas, including Captain Scarlet and various Doctor Who episodes as well). I was shocked to see the use of stop motion in various first season episodes for some of Jeannie's magic, such as pockets opening and closing, and words writing themselves. I'm pretty certain they dropped this after Year 1, but it was nice to see!

  5. Anonymous2:04 PM

    I Dream of Jeannie's first black and white season did have more ambitious effects than the later color seasons (such as Richard Kiel as a miniaturized genie).

    Interesting animation has also been done outside of the US and England. The work of Czech animator Karel Zeman deserves to be more widely known. In addition to his dino epic "Journey to the Beginning of Time", his 1958 "The Fabulous World of Jules Verne" is a visual treat that brings to life Victorian line engraving-style vehicles and scenes.A German animator provided the dynamic finale of attacking brain-creatures in 1958's "Fiend Without a Face". And of course, those memorable Rankin-Bass holiday specials were the work of Japanese animators.