Stop Motion Puppet

If you’ve not heard of the stop motion technique, you’ve definitely seen its presence throughout the film industry in literally every decade. From the original 1930s King Kong to last year’s Boxtrolls, stop motion continues to be a beloved technique for animators and movie goers. Working in stop motion isn’t easy, but the results are worth it.

Like any animation, it’s done frame-by-frame, but instead of drawing a new frame you’re manipulating physical models within real sets. You pose your model, run a frame through the camera, move the model incrementally and repeat — over and over again. It’s a slow process to be sure, but the results add a unique style and feel to a project.

Prep Time

There are a number of good reasons to use stop motion in a project, but doing so isn’t as simple as setting up your tripod and shooting. Even the most basic animations require a hefty amount of foreplanning to execute. As with any project, it starts with the script.

Writing for an animation isn’t different from normal scripts, but you have more opportunities to let your imagination open wide. Your restrictions are no longer what you can accomplish with actors and locations, but what you’re able to craft. This freedom can be intoxicating but shouldn’t get out of hand. Stop motion offers a wealth of possibilities, but it’s incredibly labor intensive.

Stop motion is a form of animation, and as such you must keep the basic principles of animation in mind.

While it’s possible to have an epic battle scene with thousands of characters, animating such a scene with individual models will be time consuming. By all means, explore unique ideas you otherwise couldn’t when developing your story, but keep in mind the amount of time necessary to animate.

Storyboard examples
When each shot or sequence may take hours to complete, proper planning becomes vital to the success of your production. Tools like storyboards can help you organize your shots in advance so that you don’t waste time on scenes that won’t make it to the final cut or miss important shots that should have been completed before tearing down your setup.

Every video should be planned out (shot sheets, storyboards, etc) to some degree, but for animation it’s far more crucial. Stop motion requires hours of work for mere seconds of usable footage, so having a solid plan of action for every scene is necessary. After all, you wouldn’t want to spend hours, or even days, working on a shot you don’t need. Do your best to compose everything how you want it before diving into animating.

Building Your Characters

Once preparations are taken care of, it’s time to figure out what you’ll be animating. The materials you use depend on the kind of characters you have. Since there aren’t traditional actors, it’s up to you to create characters who not only resonate with audiences but won’t kill you to animate. Try out a few designs for your characters before setting it in stone, because once production begins, you won’t be able to make changes.

Modeling clay has long been a preferred choice for stop motion animators since it gives you the freedom to create non-traditional characters, but you can use just about anything: from action figures to LEGOs. Regardless of what you choose, make sure it’s something you can easily manipulate and will hold its position.

To that end, armatures are a great to use for your characters. Clay models are softer and won’t be able to hold their position over time. Armatures prevent this by being a skeleton upon which you build the character. They keep the model from sagging between shots and assist in making more minute motions for your character.

Puppet in process of construction.
Your puppets are perhaps the most important element of your stop motion production. Take time to make sure that they both look the way you want and are easy to manipulate during your shoot.

Armatures don’t have to be complicated, nor expensive store-bought ones. Even bending wire into the basic shape you desire (great for more fantastical characters) and building your model around that is preferable to nothing. Using household items like toys may negate the need for armatures. Either way, ensure it fits within the world/story you’re making.

Making Them Real

More than moving appendages, your characters have to express themselves. You need to engineer the facial expressions of your characters in order to convey their emotions. With modeling clay, it’s possible to control facial features frame to frame as you do every movement, but that comes with it’s own set of headaches. As an alternative, it can be easier to create multiple heads for your characters with various expressions and swap them out between frames as needed.

This saves valuable time and only requires extra effort at the front-end to craft and organize the sculpts. They come in especially handy when dealing with dialogue, which should be recorded ahead of animating.

On the Set

Your characters need somewhere to go. Placing them in a void doesn’t make for interesting storytelling or visuals, so you’ll need to build sets. Like your characters, how you craft sets is entirely up to you and the script. Just make sure they’re large enough to hold your models and give you freedom to film from a variety of angles.

When you’re working with miniature sets, it’s easy to forget the details, so keep in mind the little things. For instance, when building a bedroom set it’s important to remember what makes up a bedroom. Beds need sheets and pillows, closets are typically filled with clothes, most dressers have knick knacks on them, etc. These details are often overlooked in the process of crafting sets, but add a great deal of visual flair to your scenes. Stylistically, there are good reasons to overlook these, but doing so needs to be a conscious decision, not because you forgot.

Stop motion set.
Constructing detailed environments in which your characters can exist will make your story feel more real. While your stop motion sets will likely be much smaller than the average live action set, make sure you still include the props and set dressing that make a scene feel complete.

As with anything you film, lighting is a crucial element, but when you’re using miniatures it requires more thought. Not only are you lighting for filming, but you’re having to light your set in a realistic way. For interiors, like the bedroom set, you need to think about where the light is coming from. If a lamp’s visible in your shot, but the light is hitting from the opposite side of the character, there’s a visual disconnect viewers will quickly recognize.

Lighting is just as important in stop motion animation as in live production. Appropriate lighting brings life and drama to your scene, so give it plenty of thought as you prepare your sets for the shoot.

Getting Down to Business

The sets are made, models are ready, and the shots are planned out. It’s nearly time to begin shooting. As with any project, the equipment you use to capture footage is an important consideration. For stop motion, it’s possible to use either a camcorder or still frame camera. The choice is yours. If you already have a camera you are familiar with, then it’s probably a good idea to stick with it.

Regardless of the camera you use, one thing is crucial: it needs to be entirely still. Nothing messes with your animation more than the camera moving when it’s not supposed to. Having a solid tripod is a great start, but taping it down once you’ve established your shooting point isn’t a bad idea.

One of the things that can make your life immeasurably easier in stop motion is to connect your camera to a program on your computer (i.e. AnimatorHD, Dragonframe, iStopMotion, StopMotionPro) so you can use the onion skin technique. This handy tool creates a semi-transparent image of the previous frame captured, so you can see, through the camera’s perspective, exactly how far you need to move your model. It’s a helpful guide where normally all you’d have are your own eyes to rely upon.

Maintain Your Principles

Stop motion is a form of animation, and as such you must keep the basic principles of animation in mind. These ideas have been around since the advent of the medium and are crucial in making any animation feel realistic for audiences to enjoy.

Stop motion set.
While it is certainly possible to create an entire film using stop motion animation, sometimes the best way to produce your desired effect is through a blending of media. In this image, a green screen helps propel this cardboard space ship towards another planet.

This has nothing to do with style or tone, which can be unrealistic, but more to do with physics in the real world and how people perceive motion. Stretching and squashing is the easiest example, and the idea behind it is to give ‘weight’ to characters or objects. Imagine bouncing a ball. As it hits the ground it’ll squish together and then stretch outward as it goes back up.

This same idea can be applied to characters jumping up and down (causing the legs to flex and extend) or coming into contact with other elements in the scene. Characters and sets need to physically react in appropriate ways. Failing to adhere to the basics can cause audiences to be uncomfortable, keeping them from focusing on your video’s content or cause them to stop watching altogether.

Post-Production

When it comes to post-production, the good news is that your normal editing programs will work just fine for stop motion. What you need to concern yourself with more is how the footage is captured. We mentioned a few programs already in regards to onion skinning, but they also work for capturing your footage and saving it in a format that’s easy to edit.

Stop motion software.
Using specifically designed animation software can help speed up the animation process and make movements more precise. Programs like Dragonframe, seen here, also help you keep your footage organized for post-production work.

Generally speaking, the same editing principles apply, with the key difference being that you won’t have nearly as much extra footage to play around with. One of the biggest things you need to address aside from correcting timing issues will be the sound design. Dialogue is recorded separately and the footage is captured MOS (Motor Only Sync, or “Mit Out Sound” if you believe some legends), which means you have no ambient noise whatsoever to work with.

It’s entirely up to you to craft the sounds of the world within your story, and everything from footsteps to background noises need to be accounted for. This goes a long way toward making your creation feel real. Poor sound design on your animation can be just as off-putting as not adhering to animation principles.

Go over your animation a few times in the editing bay. Do several cuts, try things out, and make it the best possible presentation before you export it to your format of choice. You put a lot of time and effort into the animating itself, but don’t cut corners in editing because of it. Take your time and make it sharp.

Sidebar: Technological Advances

The art of stop motion is an older technique, but new technologies continue to provide excellent ways to expand the medium and make it more accessible for newcomers — can you imagine how handy onion skinning would have been decades ago? One of the newest advances that’s helped animators in a big way is 3D printing. A 3D printer converts a computer generated model into a tangible thing. While the technology has widespread uses, it’s the ultimate time-saver for stop motion.

Hand modeling is a time-consuming endeavor, but doing so in the computer with software is a much smoother process that allows for a greater amount of experimentation. Where changing something in a physical sculpt requires the loss of hours of work, you can make changes and go back with a keystroke in the computer.

More importantly, 3D printing helps when you’re making multiple facial expressions to swap out while animating. Instead of making each head sculpt by hand, you can quickly alter the design in the computer and print. While stop motion will still require plenty of hard work, access to a 3D printer can be a life-saver in pre-production.

Sidebar: An Animated Vision

Director and animator Josh Funk created “The Spaceman” as a playful expression of his childhood imagination.“‘I used to make cardboard spaceships as a kid,” Josh explains, “and I wanted to make a film that incorporated childhood themes and as many practical effects as possible.” The film was created using stop motion animation, miniature sets, large cardboard sets, animatronics, and CGI and represents Josh’s second stop motion effort. His previous film, Wormholes, was created using exclusively stop motion techniques.

Director and animator Josh Funk

Though stop motion is sometimes viewed as a prohibitively labor intensive process, Josh holds a special fondness for the medium: “I’ve always been a fan of stop motion animation and in awe of the amount of dedication that goes into finishing a project in this medium.” It’s through this impressive level of dedication that stop motion animators such as Josh earn uncompromising control over their projects. “I can create elaborate sets that would be costly for a live-action film,” says Josh, “there are no actors to worry about scheduling with, and anything I can imagine can be created through puppets. It really feels like art in movement.”

Still, complete control does not always equate to ultimate perfection — but this doesn’t bother Josh: “I enjoy the flaws in this form of animation. For example, if you look closely at The Spaceman you can occasionally see the fur move from where my fingers were adjusting the puppet. There is a performance happening in between the frames.”
“The Spaceman” has so far garnered two awards at the IndieFEST and Best Shorts competitions and will be headed to several more festival by year’s end.
We want to offer a special thanks to Josh for giving us a behind-the-scenes peek at his work in the images featured in this article. Watch “The Spaceman” and keep up to date with Josh’s latest projects at www.joshfunk.com

Jordan Maison is an editor and VFX artist whose plied his talents in web content for Disney Studios as well as movie and videogame websites.

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