Adventures in Animation Part II

After our successful impromptu foray in the world of stop motion animation the other week, we decided to give it another go this weekend. The Bag is really just an extended test but this time around we were somewhat better organised and as well showing you all the latest effort, I thought I’d share what we’ve learned so far for any of you out there how fancy giving it a bash yourself.

First up, bear in mind that stop motion animation is a time consuming process and so set up where you want to film carefully. Ideally you want a space where you can leave your camera, models and set in place and where they aren’t going to get knocked, nudged or otherwise disturbed from their positions.

Secondly when starting out, don’t worry about technicalities like frames per second as many video editing/animation programs will allow you set the frame speed when you process the frames into film. As you can tell from our two efforts, we’re not overly concerned with working to a set frames per second speed just yet as we’re still finding our feet in the medium. Basically, just walk before you can run.

Now the most important piece of equipment you will need, after the blatantly obvious (i.e. cameras and puppets) is a tripod. As you’ll see the quality of the shots composing The Bag is far superior to our first effort The Magic Trick having acquired a brand new tripod to shoot with. Now a word of warning for any would be animators out there – as with a lot of photography related gadgets and gizmos, you can spend a hideous amount on a tripod; indeed for a three legged beast composed of carbon fibre, flidor gold and unobtainium which has been hand tooled by the Elves of Zurich you can spend the same cash as you would on a high end professional camera. However for the purposes of stop motion, all you really need is a tripod that holds the camera steady, and for that a cheap model will suffice, provided it’s sturdy enough to carry the weight of the camera you are using and can be adjusted to a range of heights easily.

Now in the various tests we conducted so far, we’ve gleaned a couple of handy hints about using a tripod. First off the key thing in setting up the camera is how you set the tripod height, especially if you’ve gone for an inexpensive model. With most tripods, to set one to table height you will have the choice of either extending the legs or raising the central column to gain the desired shot. We found that using the legs provide far better stability and reduced the chances of slight wobbling when you press the shutter release.

Secondly, once you have got your tripod in place it’s a very good idea to mark the legs positions on the floor. We found that during the animation process, which involves a lot of moving from behind the camera to the animation set and back again, you will at some point end up inadvertently nudging the camera set up, so it’s very handy to be able to re-align the camera and tripod back to their original positions. It’s well worth thinking through how you arrange your workspace to avoid accidentally moving the camera, and not being a cack handed galoot helps too. However in the main, three bits of masking tape or similar on the floor will save you an awful lot of headaches!

On subject of shooting in general, when you are positioning your cameras, it really does pay to do a lot of test shots. Take plenty of pictures with your models in difference positions and establish where on your set you can move them without them going out of focus. Remember, as the camera must stay static for all shots, you don’t have the usual leeway for adjusting the lens focus as you do in still photography. It’s also handy to work out where the boundaries of the shot are and mark them on the table, especially if you are planning to have objects or characters walking in and out of shot.

Right, so you’ve got your camera, lashed up a set, some models to animate, and marked out your tripod position and shot boundaries so you are ready to go then? ‘Fraid not, as there’s the tricky problem of lighting rearing its head. Now as a stop motion animator, the sun is now your enemy. If it weren’t bad enough that that evil yellow face generally can’t be tossed to drag its arse over the horizon most days, when the busy old fool actually does decide to put a decent day’s work in he can’t relied upon to provide consistent lighting.

As you can see from The Bag, even though we had the set lit with an array of lamps we completely failed to guess that the ambient light streaming in through the windows would vary so wildly minute to minute. Now you could possibly bugger about with f-stops and shutter speeds to achieve consistent light levels but really it’s a lot less time and trouble to shoot at night. If you want to shoot in daylight hours, then the perfect set up would be a windowless room or fitting one with blackout curtains, but investing in gaffer tape and black bin liners is a cheap alternative to temporarily light proof an area.

As for the lighting itself, the exact type of lamps you will need will largely depend on the abilities of your chosen camera. For example, an SLR will give you lot more scope to use different levels of lighting than that point and press comedy your phone is trying to pass off as a camera. However even if you are an experience snapper and well versed in the blacks arts of aperture sizes and shutter speeds, for stop motion you will be wanting to avoid longer exposures wherever possible given the tendency of even the best made stop motion puppets to droop and sag. So then the brighter the lighting the better.

For the enthusiastic beginning, I’d recommend getting hold of several goose neck lamps – you know, the kind with a flexible articulated neck. And if possible acquire ones that come with a clip rather than the usual base. There are two advantages to using this sort of lamp – firstly you can clip the lamps in place means they will stay perfectly still, and secondly you have a large degree of freedom in organising the lighting effects you want; you can clip them to the edges of your animation table or even to an overhead frame.

Right then, having looked at some general technical basics, here’s the low down on the thinking behind The Bag. Apart from testing out the tripod, the main thing we were experimenting with was using models built with wire armatures and utilising supports in the animation process. As with The Magic Trick we both constructed a model.

For mine, the weird rat-penguin thing on the left, I was testing a simple armature made from some gardening wire – basically one piece of wire bent in two and twisted together leaving a loop for the head and another length of wire attached to this for the arms. Now I found that the wire I was using was actually slightly too thick for the size of model. And consequently I found it was a little too stiff to animate easily, or rather it worked well for head and body movements but not the limbs. The problem was it was hard to animate the arms without apply so much pressure that the plasticine deformed or the wire popped through. But the armature did keep the model a lot more stable and prevented the various appendages dropping off during the animation.

My co-creator Aaron opted for using an even more basic armature, essentially the same as mine but minus the arm pieces and instead used a variety of pieces of toothpicks to support various parts of the model during filming. And with this technique we created the jumping on and off the skateboard and the passing of the bag.

Of course the toothpicks were visible in a fair number of frames, but we let this pass as it meant we could also use the footage to test the feasibility of digital removing such things in post production. As it turned out it was a relatively quick process to Photoshop out any stray bits of wood in the dozen or so frames they were visible in. If you are planning to do something similar I highly recommend mastering the clone tool. Also take a shot of your set without the models so you can paste in sections to cover up areas with a lot of detail seamlessly.

And while buggering about in Photoshop, we decided to add a little traditional 2D animation in the form of the musical note that appears. Again with the magic of a digital editing program this was very quick and easy to do. In future productions, we plan on using a lot more of this and probably will attempt some animating drawing in the style of Ivor the Engine at some point down the line.

So then to round of this little tutorial, here’s a handy check list of things to remember. Yes, a lot is stating the bleedin’ obvious but there’s a lot to bear in mind when attempting some stop motion!

    1) Test your model designs thoroughly – make sure they move smoothly and aren’t going to droop or fall apart the minute you press the shutter release.

    2) Also remember to check the model’s stability in different poses – there’s nothing more annoying that a character keeling over and having to spend ages getting it set back in it’s original position.

    3) Ensure your set is robust and stable.

    4) Set up your lighting.

    5) Position camera and work out the limits of your field of focus – test models in a variety of different locations on the set.

    6) Mark out boundaries of the frame at the edge of the shot.

    7) Tweak lighting – the better you light your scene the less chance there is of getting blurred shots.

    8) Accurately mark the tripod position.

What we’ve discovered so far is that the longer you spend on the preparations listed above, the quicker and easier you’ll be able to progress once you start the animation proper. Once you start bringing your character to life, you have enough on your mind keeping track of all adjustments between shots without having to worry about refocusing the camera every other shot or finding that moving a character into a certain position will swallow it in shadow.

And finally, perhaps the best advice of all is to watch plenty of stop motion work – for beginners in the realms of claymation, I’d recommend checking out the various Morph shorts from Aardman Animations and The Trap Door - there are hoards of both on Youtube. These were done with minimal sets and basic plasticine models but show the full range of things that can be done small and simply. For beginners they serve as far better inspirations than the better known Wallace & Gromit films as these classics were produced by large teams of animators with resources that the novice is unlikely to have access to. Plus they are bloody funny too!

JIM MOON, 17th February 2010