You’re probably very familiar with stop-motion animation, which is distinct for having three-dimensional objects move on their own, usually in a jerky fashion. Well, clay models aren’t the only ones that get to have their picture taken a trillion times to look like they’re moving — human beings can get in on the fun too! But it’s not called stop-motion in this case; it’s called pixilation. What is pixilation, you ask, and why is it spelled with an “i” instead of an “e”? Let’s answer those questions by learning a bit more about this filming technique, along with some examples.

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Pixilate Definition

What is pixilation animation?

Before jumping into a definition of pixilation, we want to stress that we are not misspelling the word. "Pixelation" with an "e" is a different thing all together; that’s when you zoom in on an image and you can make out the individual blocks (pixels) that it’s made of. In other words, it has nothing to do with "pixilation" with an "i," which we will get into below.


What is pixilation?

Pixilation is a filmmaking technique where live actors and objects are shot frame-by-frame to simulate movement. This results in an animated-looking movie, where a human, and the things around them, move without being touched. The actual can often appear jerky or smooth, depending on gaps of motion between in each frame.

Why is it called “pixilation?”

The name seems to come from the word “pixilated,” which itself is a reference to someone being under the influence of pixies (yes, the small magical flying ones). Due to pixilation often representing human beings seemingly moving around on their own, it makes some amount of sense.

Stop-Motion vs Pixilation

No doubt pixilation will remind you of stop-motion animation, and that’s mainly because they’re almost the same thing. The key difference is that stop-motion animation involves models, along with sets, that are 100% manipulated by a director/animator. Compare with pixilation, where a human being and their surroundings are manipulated, but that’s all. In both cases, everything is shot frame-by-frame.

Characteristics of Pixilation include:

  • Frame-by-frame filmmaking process
  • Jerky and unnatural looking movement
  • Surreal and fantastical subject matter
  • Due to the laborious process, short films and music videos are where this style is usually found
  • Usually only reserved for specific moments and VFX shots in full-length movies

Pixilation Animation Benefits

Using pixilation

Pixilation is often used as a tool for creating a unique and comical movie, and has its origins dating as far back as the 1900s. In some movies, like Hôtel électrique (1908), objects are used around the character in such a way that they are affecting them without any other person’s touch.

Very early pixilation animation

As that silent film demonstrates, pixilation can be used as a sort of VFX technique, in case you want something special happening to or with your lead actor(s). In this way, pixilation can also be used for VFX, either for practical, creative, or aesthetic reasons.

In a world of computer generated imagery (CGI), using pixilation as your VFX can make it stand out. You can see how to pixilate in the vintage video below.

How to Pixilate

As for what kind of stories you can tell with pixilation, they tend to almost always be in the form of shorts or music videos. In many respects, this gives the shorts or videos a unique quality that sets them apart from their contemporaries.

In some cases, like with Norman McLaren’s famed and controversial Neighbours (1952), pixilation is used as both a storytelling tool and VFX.

Norman McLearen’s pixilate classic

While pixilation presents the events of the short film in a comical manner, McLaren also uses it to contrast the more dire subject matter being presented. In this way, pixilating keeps us entertained while also taking us by surprise with its deadly serious message of loving one’s neighbour.

Pixilation Animation Movies

Famous pixilation animation examples

Pixilation can be used when shooting a music video, as plenty of famous ones have been done in this style. From artists ranging from the ever-viral OK Go, to the also ever-viral “Weird Al” Yankovic, pixilating has made many artist’s music ever more popular and interesting to watch and listen to.

Possibly the most famous pixilation animation example in a music video is one that also combines traditional stop-motion: Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer,” directed Stephen R. Johnson. It’s not that pixilation hadn’t been used before in a music video — Johnson himself had previously used it for Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere” — but as you can see for yourself, there’s a reason this video won nine (!) MTV Music Video Awards in 1987.

Award winning pixilation animation “Sledgehammer”

In the realm of more traditional short films, the filmmaker known as PES has made some very popular pixilate films. One of these films — Fresh Guacamole — is the shortest film ever nominated for an Academy Award.

The Oscar nominated pixilated short

And for all you anime fans out there, you may have caught some pixilation, mixed with traditional animation, in the ending theme to FLCL. What’s fun about this example is that pixilation is simulated during one of the traditional animation sequences.

FLCL ending theme with pixilation animation

Pixilation never exactly got big enough to be used frequently in major productions. But it has continued to serve as a tool for budding animators and filmmakers who want to create something unique and memorable.

Possibly most of all, pixilating is really only limited by your imagination. If you have a camera, editing software, and a whole lot of patience, pixilation is always at your disposal.


What is Stop-Motion Animation?

Now that we’ve talked about pixilation, why not dig into the wonderful and similar world of stop-motion animation? We not only cover the definition of stop-motion, along with its many different examples, but you’ll also learn how you can try it at home.

Up Next: Stop-Motion Animation →
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  • Rafael Abreu received his M.A. in Cinema Studies from New York University. He’s written reviews, scripts, and analytical essays focusing on all aspects of cinema. He can’t stop talking about aspect ratios.

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