Stop Motion Animation – Stop Motion Animation is the technique of moving objects in front of a camera and taking a picture every time the object is moved. That is essentially the easiest explanation of the art form and technique. But to truly understand stop motion animation it is important that we dive deeper and get a broader understanding of the technique.
Stop Motion Animation is often called by many other names such as Stop Trick, Stop Frame, Stop-Motion or Stopmo. There are also many other types of stop motion and styles along with trademarked names used by studios to define their filmmaking techniques (example: Dynamation, Animagic, and Claymation)
Lets first talk about what a camera is. A camera is a device that uses glass to focus light onto a surface inside the camera then turns that light into an image. The light that enters the camera originally bounced off an object where that object displayed color data which the camera has interpreted and displayed in the captured image. So basically light and camera’s are the key ingredient in making a photograph. Traditionally camera’s used film and lights were huge heavy electricity guzzling balls of hot gas contained in a sphere of glass. Now they are much cooler and less harmful to your electrical bill.
There are lots of types of stop motion animation, but what you should know is in essence they all use the same technique. That technique utilizes tricking the human eye and brain into thinking there is movement when in all actuality there isn’t. If you take any object and place it infront of a camera and take a photograph, than move that object ½ an inch to the left and take another photograph, and than continued ot do this over and over until you either got bored, the object left the screen, or you ran out of space on you camera. You would have achieved the very basics of stop motion animation. To view this animation you’d need to bring the images into the computer as whats called an image sequence, and than play the images back using a software like after effects to view the images as a sequence of animation.
Now of course theres this little issue with frame rate, video compression, color balancing, editing, sound, and all those other fun little things that go into making animation and films, but that’s all for another time in another article. What I can help you understand here is that animators and studios tend to either animate on ones or twos. So if lets say your frame rate is 24 frames per second you can take a single photos/frame then move the object or you can take two photos/frame and then move the object. What this does is basically determine the speed and accuracy at which an object moves. Animating on twos fill up time very fast and requires less tedious work for animators and studios on a tight deadline, but animating on ones can also have its benefits by giving a more life like accurate feel to the animation. Honestly, when you get deep into animating puppets for yourself you will most likely use both ones and twos. For example you may make a walk cycle on ones, but switch to a run cycle or twos or vise versa. I’ve seen animator animate a puppet on twos and when the puppet does a freakout they switch to ones and then after the puppet freaks out they hold for a long period.
So that leads me into another part of the whole animation thing, HOLDs. Holds are where there is no action going on with the object. This usually applies to secondary characters where the main character may be moving and talking and to prevent the background characters form drawing the eye away from the action the animator with make the secondary or background character hold its pose until it’s required to move. Of course you can add a little life using blinks or body shifts, but a general rule is don’t distract and upstage your action.
Now with animation there are all sorts of fun things with performance and one of them is easing in and easing out of a movement. The best example I can think of, because this is how it was taught to me is the pendulum effect. If you take a ball on a string a hold the string but release the ball while it’s in the air the ball will swing back and forth. The starting point of the ball we will call point A and the opposite end of the travel of the ball we will call point B. So starting at point A the ball is at rest. When released it will initially move small increment and then increase over time to larger increments until it gets close to point B. When the ball passes the halfway point in its swing it will move shorter and shorter increments until it reaches its point B resting position. It will rest there for what we tend to call a beat and then move back to point A. When the ball move away from a point this is called EASING OUT. When the ball moves closer to the point this is called EASING IN. This very basic principle of movement is the cornerstone of technique for realistic animation. Everything eases in animation, you just have to determine how much or how little easing is required.
WHAT TO ANIMATE?
Stop motion animation doesn’t limit you to only working in one medium or technique. The beauty of it is that you can use anything and everything to animate. If it moves you can animate it. If it doesn’t move you can then draw all over it and animate your drawings. People or furniture are a good start to trying out your animation techniques on. Posing your friends or chairs is always a good way to get a better understanding of what you are doing.
Clay is a great medium to use in stop motion animation. Van Aken clay is the preferred choice but Play-dough is also good if you make sure not to animate fast and put it away before it dries out. Van Aken however due to it being made out of oils allows you an almost unlimited amount of time infront of the camera and under the lights animating.
Toys are also a very fun medium to animate. I have to warn you though that once you get deep into trying to get your toys to hold their positions or stand up you may either quickly get frustrated and give up or might just start tearing apart your action figures and re-engineering them with wire and tape. I would suggest aluminum wire, museum wax, and double sided tape are great for helping you figure out those little problems with holding the puppets and objects in place.
So you got your camera and your light and your objects to animate. Now what? We’ll to make your life so much more easier I suggest getting into the habit of using a Frame Grabber. Stop motion animation isn’t hard if you practice but the learning curve is more difficult if you can’t see what you are doing. A frame grabber alllows you to control your camera along with being able to view and see what your camera sees. There are a number of frame grabbers out there with the industry standards being Dragon Frame or Stop Motion Pro. There are however alternatives like AnimatorHD (one my favorites) or Frame Frog, iStopMotion, or if you want to go really old school Frame Thief. Frame grabbers allow you to use a technique called Onion Skinning where you can see the frames you just shot that are displayed in a ghosting technique. This allows you to see the distance you’ve moved your characted along with giving you a live update of your movement.
Another great reason to use frame grabbers is that they will play back your animation or in some cases even let you edit or export it into a viewing format that can be uploaded to the internet. Professionals however take the RAW image sequences and place them into a compositing software for conversion then edit that output in an editing software like Premier, Avid, or FinalCut.
Historically Stop Motion Animation is one of the earliest filmmaking techniques in the history of cinematography. Many people attribute Eadweard Muybridge with the very first consecutive frame by frame filmmaking technique. His method of having a horse trigger a series of cameras as it would run through trip wires which exposed each camera and thus taking a picture at that very moment. When the pictures are placed in order and played back, they will show the illusion of movement. Animation is the illusion of movement and thus Stop Motion Animation is the illusion of objects moving. There is a lot of debate as to what is stop motion animation and what isn’t. It is however safe to say that any object moved shot to shot and photographed in front of a camera is definitely the photographic technique known as stop motion animation.
The very first officially recognized stop motion animation film is by Albert E. Smith and J. Stuart Blackton for Vitagraph‘s The Humpty Dumpty Circus (1898). This short film depicts children’s toys coming to life. Artists such as Georges Melies, Wladyslaw Starewicz, Willis O’Brian, and Jiri Trnka would become the forefathers of the art form by pioneering many of the techniques we still use today in modern stop motion animation. It should be noted that between the early 1900’s and the 1960’s stop motion animation was used all over the world with Eastern Europe being epicenter for many major puppet animated films where western society had embraced more of the 2D cel animation produced by Max Fleischer and Walt Disney. This is very evident in the fact the Jiri Trnka’s Emperors Nightingale was considered a commercial success world wide along with box office success in the United States where he was dubbed the Walt Disney of the East.
By the 1960’s stop motion animation techniques were the go to for major visual effects productions, television commercials, and even seen in television shows. Ray Harryhausen tends to be the name everyone associates with filmmaking at this time period since he single handedly built the visual effects for whole films all produced in store fronts in Culver City, or his Hobby House located in the back yard of his parents home. Having trained under Willis O’Brien, Harryhausen had amassed a depth of knowledge and skill which allowed him an unparalleled level of artistry with in the animated and monster effects realm. He would call his style of stop motion animation Dynamation. This technique involved the use of rear projection and camera matting techniques to simulate the presence of monsters, animals, dinosaurs, and aliens all interacting with live action actors.
Also, in the 1950’s a television show featuring a little green clay character saw big success. Gumby created by Art Clokey was a first for its time where this little ball of clay would come to life on the television screen and turn into a little green boy named Gumby. His wild adventures in toyland and storyland would have children glued to the television asking for more. By the 1960’s Gumby was a household name.
In 1964 Rankin Bass released their first animated special titled Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Rankin Bass was a small production company that was created by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass. They called their style of stop motion animation “Animagic” so to better promote their companies production technique. Due to the larger than life success of Rudolph the production company would go on to produce many more successful films including some 2D animated films. Year Without Santa, and Mad Monster Party are two really good references you should checkout if interested in seeing more of their work.
By the 1970’s stop motion animation was in full effect worldwide. In Eastern Europe major childrens television shows were being produced. In the Western Societies you’d find commercials, monster movies using the techniques. This time period was especially unique do to the work of Will Vinton and Bob Gardner for their work on the short Closed Mondays which won them an Academy Award. Vinton would go on to create Vinton Studios and trademark the term Claymation which would soon become a household name. Also around this time Peter Lord and David Sproxton would create the character Morph and launch their studio called Aardman Animation. These two studios would go on to be powerhouses with in the world of stop motion animation and would define a whole new level of technique and quality in animation.
The 1980’s would become the peak of stop motion animations success. ILM (Industrial Light and Magic) would go on to create all new stop motion animation techniques using modern technology. Their work on the Star Wars franchise in the 80’s would be the benchmark for all future films. From AT-AT to Tauntauns, VFX would never be the same. Stop motion animation was in everything at this point. Mtv would have it displayed in almost every station id they would produce. Music videos would utilize the technique to grab a more artistic and younger audience. Surprisingly feature films that didn’t have monster or aliens in them would use the technique to display a method of perspective shifting called forced perspective. For example the truck driving off the cliff in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Arch where you can clearly see a small stop motion puppet person falling off the cliff with the truck. The 80’s were a magical time for animation studios. Commercials like the California Raisens, or the Dominoes Pizza Noid which were both produced by Vinton Studios would be everywhere from billboards to t-shirts. Feature films were also being produced in stop motion animation like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer also produced by Vinton Studios, or I Go Pogo directed by Marc Paul Chinoy.
In the early 1990’s stop motion animation was alive and well with many shows lik PeeWee’s Playhouse or Sesame Street using the techniques to further inhance their audiences experience. In 1993 one of the worlds most famous stop motion animation films was release title The Nightmare Before Christmas. This film produced by Tim Burton and directed by Henry Selick would become one of the most beloved and inspiring films in stop motion animation history. Not only would it be a huge commercial succes as Disney’s first stop motion feature, but it would also elevate or even launch the careers of many who worked on the production. By the mid 90’s things were starting to look down for this classic traditional animation technique. With the arrival of CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) productions were quickly looking for quicker faster and cheaper ways of producing content. Though it is very much a myth that CGI would be cheaper than stop motion animation or 2D animation. It would however become the new toy for productions to show off and the appeal of having something very different would take over the entire animation industry.
With the release of Jurassic Park and Pixar’s Toy Story it became obvious that the industry was going to change. Computer animation would take over and stop motion animators would either transition into computers, scrape together odd animation jobs here or there, or retire from the industry completely. It was a dark time for visual effects stop motion animation. The effect was so bad on that industry that it never recovered. Something else happened though that you may find strange. The production that did survive, those little television shows or the feature films that would pop up here and there helped in developing the new technology and techniques that shaped our modern stop motion animation industry.
In the new millennium digital cameras (DSLR’s) allowed a cheaper and quicker way of photographing objects. Very quickly the stop motion animation industry adapted this new technology and with the help of hardware framegrabbers like the LunchBox, the game was officially changed and stop motion was back. Once the framegrabbers became software based and editing and compositing also became a computer based process the industry exploded into a new renaissance. Robot Chicken was one of the first television shows to utilize this new technology along with LAIKA studios feature film Coraline taking it many steps further using new 3D stereoscoping photographing techniques along with 3D printing rapid prototyping techniques. The revolution officially woke up. Now stop motion is everywhere. It’s once again being taught in schools, it’s being seen in television and films on a daily bases. There really is no limit at this point to what stop motion animation can achieve for artist.