It would appear that a new (abusive) use of the word pixelation has cropped up. Go to YouTube and enter "pixelation" and you will be barraged with a collection of stop-motion animation videos. Can anyone help identify where this new usage started (modern etymology)?

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    You haven't adequately described what this "word abuse" consists of. I see a few videos where the obvious special effect is "stop motion", with no visible pixelation, but I suppose folks can name YouTube videos however they want. I'm guessing that some think it's "cute" and others simply don't know better. (And "pixelation" simply sounds sexier than "stop motion".) (Or it may have something to do with the specific tool being used to construct these -- it may be in "pixelation mode" or some such.)
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 13:17
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    What's the hardest kind of special effect? - "Stop-motion with pixilation." –Mike Jittlov, The Wizard of Speed and Time, 1989. See also, Tron. Wiki cites El hotel eléctrico ca. 1908 as an early example of a film using pixilation.
    – Mazura
    Commented Sep 25, 2015 at 1:36
  • So then it's merely a widespread typo of the intended "pixilation", which means mixing live-action and animation via stop-motion filming techniques?
    – Hellion
    Commented Sep 25, 2015 at 15:01
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    @Dan Bron: Excellent answer, detailed and very informative. Thank you.
    – O.M.Y.
    Commented Sep 26, 2015 at 4:18
  • @Hot Licks: The abuse is the (mis-)usage of the word to mean stop-motion animation. The hundreds of videos found with that term (with a very few exceptions) do not include any pixelation at all.
    – O.M.Y.
    Commented Sep 26, 2015 at 4:30

2 Answers 2


It's Not New, It's Misspelled

The confusion arises from homonymy: pixelation is a common misspelling of pixi̲lation, the formal term for this technique.

From Wikipedia, for example:

Pixilation (from pixilated) is a stop motion technique where live actors are used as a frame-by-frame subject in an animated film, by repeatedly posing while one or more frame is taken and changing pose slightly before the next frame or frames. The actor becomes a kind of living stop motion puppet. This technique is often used as a way to blend live actors with animated ones in a movie.

As to its origins:

The term is widely credited to Grant Munro.

So the term (and technique) is not new. Munro was active during the mid-20th century; you may watch one of his pixilation films, Two Bagatelles, produced in 1953, in the archives of the National Film Board of Canada (or, for the more famous of his pixilations, search YouTube for "Grant Munro Neighbors").

Speculation For Fun And Profit

It's not clear how Munro himself came up with the term.

It is tempting to speculate that pixilation was modeled after pixelation: pixelated images are conspicuously scored; divided into crude chunks; chopped up. That is, normal images (e.g. photographs) are continuous, whereas pixelated images are discrete:

"pixelated" photograph made of many smaller photographs
image credit: my modern metropolis

Thus we might conclude that Munro came up his term by analogy: since normal videos are continuous, pixilated (stop-motion) videos are discrete.

Except that cannot be the case, because pixilation predates pixel, which was coined in the mid-1960s.

Again, from Wikipedia's article on pixel (with an e):

The word "pixel" was first published in 1965 by Frederic C. Billingsley of JPL, to describe the picture elements of video images from space probes to the Moon and Mars.

However, Billingsley did not coin the term himself. Instead, he got the word "pixel" from Keith E. McFarland, at the Link Division of General Precision in Palo Alto, who did not know where the word originated. McFarland said simply it was "in use at the time" (circa 1963).

So, to find Munro's inspiration for pixilated, we must reach further back.

William Safire, in his New York Times column On Language ("Madam, I'm Odem": April 2nd, 1995) suggests the possibility that pixilated in the stop-motion sense may have been derived from the earlier sense of acting like a pixie: in other words, the jerky, unsubtle motions of the actors in a pixilated film made them appear tipsy:

[P]ixilation has been kicking around the language for a half-century to describe a technique of cinematographers and stage managers to make human performers appear to move as if artificially animated. Using a stop-frame camera, the pixilator can distort and speed up the motion of actors.

Based on that noun, the modern verb pixilate invites confusion with an earlier pixilated: "bemused, fey, whimsical" or "slightly and happily drunk." This is formed from the noun pixie, a mischievous sprite or fairy, who is pictured with a pointed, conical hat; it is not known if the pixie got his name from the pixie cap or vice versa.

Let's Not Get Too Crazy

But frankly, I think that's unwarranted speculation:

  • pixilated films are effectively a series of still images; photographs; pictures, and
  • pix has been used as shorthand for pictures for nearly a century¹

STICKS NIX HICK PIX image credit: St. Louis Post-Dispatch

I don't think we need a deeper explanation than that².

Kids These Days

As to why some YouTube filmmakers are ("abusively") labeling their pixilated stop-motion videos "pixelated", well:

Google nGram showing *pixelated* coming to dominate *pixilated* in recent decades image credit: Google nGrams, thanks to @Josh61

Can you blame them?

Anyway, as they have always done, some enterprising young people have taken advantage of this evolution, this brief moment in time when an ambiguity hangs in the air, to pluck it, and create a video which features both pixilation and pixelation:

PIXELATION, a short film, by BillyWothTallent
PIXELATION - Short Film, BillyWithTallent (YouTube)


¹ In his monograph A Brief History of ‘Pixel’, Richard Lyon notes "After the Australian magazine PIX started in 1938, the term pix became commonplace in photojournalism"; but that "the use of 'ix' for 'ics' appeared in the 'pics biz' by at least 1921, in Paramount’s Publix Theatres" and "Variety used 'pix' in headlines at least by 1934"

² Though it is interesting to note that Munro was an animator, known for his animations, so it's entirely possible he intended pixilation to be a portmanteau of pix (pics: pictures) + animation.

  • Okay, you're probably right about the mispelling, but what's the etymology of pixilation? Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 13:30
  • I speculated towards why Munro chose this title at the end of my answer. I'll do further research and see what else I can come up with.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 13:31
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    Note that an older sense of pixilation is associated with the word pixilated (from 1848, according to Merriam-Webster) and derived from pixie; it has the meanings "somewhat unbalanced mentally; also : BEMUSED" and "WHIMSICAL."
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 14:19
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    Thanks Sven, that's come up in my research too; the NYT suggests that the jerky motion of pixilated actors make them appear tipsy (slightly bemused, like a pixie). It's definitely worth reading the NYT column I linked to.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 14:21
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    The misspelling angle is especially amusing to me because for years at the technology magazines where I worked, I had to change pixilation and pixilated to pixelation and pixelated in manuscripts referring to the phenomenon of having visible pixels (on a screen). The problem was (and still is) that Microsoft Word auto-corrects to pixilation/pixilated because those words (in the sense of "beset by pixies") were (and are) the only ones recorded in U.S. dictionaries. The rise of pixelation in your Ngram chart represents a triumph of human beings (editors) over brute software (Word).
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 20:06

Pixelation is overall a much more recent word (1991) used to describe an effect in computer graphics. Even when you break it down to pixel, that too is quite modern (1969) and essentially means "picture element". We could break those words down further but in relation to digital imaging, it doesn't go back further than that.

Pixilation (1947) is also a fairly recent term used to describe what is better known as "stop motion", but it stems off of words that are much more dated. It started as pixilated (1848) but its spelling doesn't tell you much about it's meaning in the same way 'pixelated' does.

What I mean is that there is no such thing as a 'pixil'. However, the meaning of the word makes more sense if you spell it like pixie-elated because pixie (~1630) can mean "bewilderment" so the meaning of pixilated essentially becomes "elated bewilderment," or the word can also be seen as "pixie-led" as if to be led by a pixie as the etymonline entry seems to suggest.

Hope that helps!

EDIT: Dan Bron made an excellent suggestion that the new meaning of "pixilation" may not actually have any connection to the original meaning of bewilderment.

Unfortunately I cannot find any sources that describe Grant's Monroe's (the person who coined the word pixilation) inspiration behind the word. I did find some potential hints, however.

The best source for info I found on the matter comes from a book by Tom Gasek called Frame by Frame Stop Motion: NonTraditional Approaches to Stop Motion Animation.

He describes on page 34 how the effects like that of stop motion photography elicit "a sense of magic". Perhaps Monroe felt the same about the effect being like magic, and made the connection to the broken-down version of pixilated as "pixie-led" and decided to use the word as a metaphor- as if to say the production is led by magical pixies.

That could be too much of a stretch, but it makes sense to me.

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    While you're 100% right that pixilated has an older sense of "acting as if beset by pixies" (see the Safire column I linked to, above: he discusses some interesting angles on that topic), I was unable to find any evidence that this meaning influenced or was even known to Munro when he coined the term in the context of "stop motion". If you can find a link, I'd be very interested!
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 21:10
  • Excellent suggestion! I have included some details on the matter, however I didn't exactly find perfectly clear evidence behind Monroe's inspiration for the term, but I think I make a good argument as to why he used it.
    – shaunxer
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 22:30
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    Nice find! You have my vote.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 22:32

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