Why Stop-Motion Animation?

Stop-motion animation is a great way to tell a story and capture your audience's attention and imagination. Stop-motion animation uses a series of captured images and the artful suspension of disbelief to create the illusion of life! If you watch TV, watch videos online, or go to the movies, chances are - you've seen stop-motion animation at its best. Movie studios like Disney, Ardman, and Laika (just to name a few) have given us movies like The Nightmare Before Christmas, Wallace and Gromit, Paranorman and Boxtrolls, and there's a number of fun and entertaining stop-motion TV shows and ads out there that have wow-ed audiences for years.

Think about it - to create a stop-motion animated video, there's people... sometimes just "a" person involved. They move their object a little bit, then click a couple photos. Then they move it a little bit more, then they click a couple more photos. They do this over and over... sometimes for hours and hours... or for big movies, for months and months. All for the purpose of creating a believable performance and an engaging story.

A stop-motion animated film can consist of something as simple as a ball of clay rolling around on a table and morphing into a chair... or as complex as a crowd of cheering pirates on the deck of a ship! For the ball of clay - the animator has a pretty simple job. But when you get into animating people or characters... well. That's not so simple. For our purposes, we're going to keep this SUPER duper simple. But know this - when you watch a movie like The Boxtrolls, there's hundreds of people working on that production. And the character models used by the animators are puppets that have a skeleton called an "armature" underneath that allows them to be placed in various positions and hold each pose.

Talented animator creating a stunning performance at Laika on the hit film, Boxtrolls

It's Demanding, Yet Forgiving

Stop-motion wows an audience for lots of reasons, but one of the biggest is that it seems like such a daunting task! And it is. It's time-consuming, sometimes frustrating, and requires a lot of drive and patience. Audiences know that this medium looks different from the other forms of animation they've seen - and because it's not as prominent as CG and hand-drawn animation, they're often willing to accept (and even embrace) subtle inconsistencies and wobbles. (Lucky for us, right?) Fingerprints in the clay don't seem like such a big deal, and in some cases can even add to the charm! Wobbly frames and inconsistent lighting may sometimes be a problem, but in many cases - the fact that someone went to the trouble to create such a work of art allows a certain "forgiveness" by the audience and if done artfully can add to the appreciation of your film. Click here to watch Presidents' Day promotional short film, to see a stop-motion watercolo

Tom Davis animating on the Real Art Presidents Day promo video (with Cody Brown in background) . Photo by Kel Lind, Real Art

OK - So How Do We Creat Stop-Motion Animation?

For the purposes of this classroom demo - I'll preface everything from here out with the following statement. Professional animation studios have teams of many talented animators, editors, sound designers, producers, directors, photographers, lighters, modelers, sculptors... the list goes on. Don't compare yourself to Disney right now. Start small - accept that you're on a small (or zero) budget, and move forward. Big studios pay thousands of dollars in software and hardware alone - not to mention the hours professionals spend learning the ins and outs of that software and hardware.

From here on, let's assume you have ZERO budget and a very small team of one-to-three members for your video.

Now let's get down to business...

What Materials Do We Need?

First you need a plan - write your story and ideas out on paper... sketch in your notebook... have a game plan so you can get rolling as soon as you have your equipment setup. You'll need materials to animate (clay, paper, felt, toys, props, etc). You need a way to capture your performance frame-by-frame and watch it in sequence. Then you need to bring that sequence into an editing application to cut it together. You'll probably need music or sound effects. And you'll need to output a video that can be seen on multiple devices and shared with your audience.

So...

  1. Plan - Storyboards, sketches, be loose and scribbly. Only you and your team need to see and understand this.

  2. Materials - Will you be using clay? Paper cut-outs? Toys? Candy? Props? DON'T FORGET TAPE TO HOLD THINGS DOWN!

  3. Capture - Are you capturing this on your cell phone? Tablet? Laptop and camera? What app will you use or software? Lighting?

  4. Edit - Once you've captured your animation, how will you splice it together? What app/software will you use?

  5. Sound - Are you performing your own sound effects and how will you record them? (This goes hand-in-hand with editing.)

  6. Output - How will you share this with your audience? Your editing software/app should be able to output a video to share.

I know, I know... these are questions - you need answers. This is meant to make you think about what you're going to do. There are many ways to go about this. Next, I'll give you some suggestions and tell you how I'd do it.

You can find Sculpey at Wal-Mart in the craft department or your local craft store.

Software/Apps for Capturing Stop-Motion

Big studios pay big bucks for their software. Here's some freebies that will do just fine!

You can shoot your stop-motion animation on your cell phone or tablet device with free apps!

Go to the Google Play store or Apple store and choose from a multitude of free stop motion animation apps. Just search for Stop Motion Animation, and you'll get immediate (FREE) results. Stop Motion Studio is a good one. PicPac Stop Motion & Timelapse is another. Stop Motion Builder is decent too. All of them will give you the tools and tutorials for capturing your animation. They also allow you to "share" your creation, so you can email the video to yourself for editing or "share" it to your google docs. Don't forget - this is just your captured footage. You're going to edit this stuff together later! Use duct tape if you have to and tape your tablet into position. Build a stand out of legos if you need to for your cell phone. You want your camera to stay anchored down.

You can shoot your stop-motion animation on your computer or laptop with free software!

This is an option that's a little more involved and time-consuming to get started, but it's a good option. Stop Motion Studio (mentioned above) has a Windows 10 app that you can install and use on your computer. It's a bit clunky, but it works. The FREE software I like best for this is MonkeyJam and can be found at monkeyjam.org. IF you're using a computer, you need a forward-facing camera on your laptop OR an external webcam and tripod. If you're using a webcam and tripod - use duct tape to tape the tripod's feet to the floor or table. You want it to remain stable and sturdy and not get bumped!

With any software or apps you use, make sure you and your team read the "how-to" instructions and/or watch the demo videos that come with them. Do a YouTube search for that software and see how other people us the apps/software to make their films.

One thing to REMEMBER: always look for your project settings and set the frame rate (fps) to 24 frames per second (24fps).

I'll say this again - Big Studios use expensive software, cameras, lighting, computers, and sound-stages. You're not competing with them. Do this the easiest way possible for you. Frustration is your enemy at this stage.

Screengrab from Stop Motion Studio app

MonkeyJam is free and can be downloaded from monkeyjam.org

Let's Get Rolling!

Before you start clicking away and capturing images, there are a few techniques to keep in mind that will help. Way back in the old days of animation, some Disney animators came up with what's known as The 12 Principles of Animation. While these principles are instrumental for everyday animators, there are just a few that we'll touch on here for your project.

1. Timing: You'll shoot your animation at 24 fps (frames per second). That can go by pretty fast! So... when you shoot each image of your animation - TAKE TWO PHOTOS of each pose. So it'll go like this... "Click. Click... move your object... Click. Click... move your object... etc." And make sure you take a bunch (24) of still images at the beginning and end for padding.

2. Easing In and Out: Think of a ball rolling on its own. It would start out really slow and work up to full speed, then slow down toward the end of its run until it finally comes to rest. This is easing in and out. There are times when you wouldn't want this... but most times you do. Before you start filming your masterpiece, play around with different kinds of easing to get comfortable with the idea!

3. Anticipation and Follow-Through: Think about when you throw a baseball. Does your arm go from completely still to fully forward in one quick, jarring movement? Nope. Your arm pulls back - holds there for a second to build up energy as your body leans back into it, then as your body shoots forward your arm follows and swings through, releasing the ball toward the end. Then your arm follows through - it doesn't just stop.

4. Squash and Stretch: This if one of the most fun things involved in animating. Think of a bouncy ball bobbing up and down to music. Or a fat cat dropping off of a table onto the floor... how the cat flattens out when it hits the floor, and then elastically snaps back into its original shape. Squash and stretch adds a fun factor to your animation. Try it! (Just a little bit goes a long way.)

I could go on and on. But this is enough for now. For a more advanced study of the principles of animation, check out this link:

https://ohmy.disney.com/movies/2016/07/20/twelve-principles-animation-disney/

Here's a great example of easing, timing, and spacing.

Here's a great example of Squash and Stretch.

Tips and Tricks

You'll get the hang of this quickly, and hopefully you'll have a ton of fun in the process. Not everybody turns into Walt Disney overnight, but a little effort can go a long way, and maybe you'll discover a passion for the art of stop-motion! Here's a few tips and tricks that can push your animated video a little further.

Try breaking up your movie into a series of "shots" that vary in camera position. This will add appeal to your story and aid in creating a more sophisticated feel.

Think about exaggerating your movements. If you have a ball of clay that bounces into the scene and stretches up to look around... how far does he stretch? Try pushing him a little further... really let him streeettttcccchhh. This is animation - and it's a medium that allows you to go beyond natural physics and boundaries. If your project allows for such, why not push it as far as it can go?

Sound effects go a long way! Sure - a cute little ball of clay bouncing into your scene is awesome... but add a "boing boing boing", and suddenly this feels less like an experiment in animation and more like a finished, entertaining movie. Remember - we're going for The Illusion of Life, and anything that helps sell that is great!

Embrace the medium. Fingerprints in your clay? Leave them. Lighting seems like it changes a little over time! Who cares? Everything looks good, but that one little place where the whole frame nudges just slightly to the left and back? Don't overthink it. This is a medium where little hiccups don't spoil the whole thing... in fact, letting some of that human element remain in your work lets your audience know that "someone did this by hand!" ... and who doesn't want that?

Embrace the medium, use the tools you have at your disposal, and have fun!

How Do I Make Something Leave The Ground?

You had to ask, didn't you? OK so sometimes you've got someone or some THING that needs to hop off of the surface. How do we do that? Well. Here's the down and dirty. You need to insert something into the shot to hold your item off of the surface, and then when you're done shooting your animation, you need to "Photoshop" that thing out of each frame. This assumes three things. First - it assumes you took a CLEAN shot of your environment before your items were in the shot. (You'll need this to cover up your support item in Photoshop later.) Second, it assumes your capture software or editing software lets you extract individual frames. Third - it assumes you know enough about Photoshop to clean up those images and get rid of your support object. Sounds like a lot, doesn't it? Watch this video - this animator does a great job of showing you the process!

Last, But Not Least...

Editing and publishing your video. Much like the apps and software used to capture your animation, you'll find that there's a lot of editing applications out there that allow you to put pieces of footage together, add sound/music, insert title cards, and output your video. While this demo isn't intended to be an in-depth study of editing, let me just say this. You've done the hard part already - capturing and storing your animated videos. Now you just need to string those shots together and render out a video you can post online and share with the world. Whether you're using Windows Movie Maker, Adobe Premier Pro, Adobe After Effects or iMovie... pick your video editing software the same way you picked your capturing app/software - according to price and ease of use. Watch some YouTube videos on your editor of choice, and ask your instructor for help putting your final video together and sharing it with your audience.

iMovie is a free application that many Mac and iPhone users enjoy. Is this the right application for you?

(All images and videos on this page are intended as educational materials for a one-time class presentation at Brookville High School. All opinions are that of Tom Davis, and all images and videos on this page are Copyright their original owners unless otherwise noted.)

© 2020 by Tom Davis. tom@tomdavisart.com