The Fundamentals of Stop Motion Animation

The Fundamentals of Stop Motion Animation

Have you ever wondered how animation movies are created? Stop motion animation has given life to our favorite characters such as King Kong, Jack Skellington, Wallace & Gromit, etc.
Animation done by using stop motion technique is a craft, in which a puppet or any imaginary inanimate thing, is brought to life, frame by frame. Stop motion is a combination of ancient puppetry tradition and modern technically advanced animation.

Concept of Stop Motion Animation

Puppets Animation
For making a flawless animated movie, in which, large number of puppets and objects move at different speeds and show multiple actions and expressions, lot of concentration, intimate coordination and knowledge about spatial choreography is required. In stop motion, the movement of the object is registered by contrasting against something that is not moving, whereas these objects or characters move in a real space. Animators who are working with puppets are better off, with lesser labor intense work, as compared to the animators who work with clay sculptures, because, animators working with clay or plasticine objects need to put a lot of effort and hard work to maintain the faces of the objects, by re-sculpting them between the frame intervals.

Building Puppets
The basic thing that is required when building puppets is a table-top space to work on. To avoid the object sliding around, or getting lost, use a cardboard sheet or wax paper on the furniture, or any flat surface. Building of the puppets should be done in a good and controlled environment, because, creating an art involves lot of dedication and pain. Start your puppet's design, by sketching the standing pose of your puppet, on a 8½ by 11 inches paper sheet. You can use a larger sheet, if your puppet is a large figure, but larger the puppet becomes, the problem of top-heaviness arises. Wire armatures, made up of 1/16-inch aluminum wire, provide good movement of the puppet and it is used in legs, hands and limbs where free movement is required.

Frames per Second
The frames are shot individually and played successively, to create an illusion of motion. The successive frame should connect to the previous frame in terms of color, composition, movement, etc., to make the animation, a successful one. If the two sequential frames, have no relation with each other, it will confuse the viewer's brain and no visual information will be represented. For example, if the object in the first frame is positioned left and the same object in the second frame is positioned to the right, then our subconscious brain infers, and assumes that the object has moved from left to the right. But, if the object in the second frame is positioned to the extreme right of the frame, there is no information as to how the object moved to the extreme end, as there is no smooth movement, information and link between the object's position. So, if you want to show an object's movement from left to right or a curved path from left to the top of the frame and then down to the right, minute details of movements should be represented flawlessly to make it a continuous animation. Usually, 24 or 25 frames per second (fps) is the rate used by the animators to make an animation. The changing rate of the frames causes an illusion of continuous motion to our brain. This is because, our brain will not be able to register the speed at which the camera moves from one position to another at this rate. The term which is used for the camera motion is called Whip pan.

Elements of the Digital Camera Used in Stop Motion

Digital SLR camera and DV (digital video) camera with fire wire are commonly used in stop motion animation. The images can be loaded on your computer with a timeline, and by using editing software programs, you can advance through your frames and check whether the animation is properly registered, without any mistakes. If you find a mistake in a particular frame, you can delete it and re-shoot the frame again. The images can be either in JPEGs or in RAW format. JPEG images are the standard formats, used in the digital cameras and is captured in high quality resolutions. Stop motion animators use lens in the range of 24 mm to 85 mm and they change the lens, according to the camera they use, for compatibility reasons. The elements of the digital camera, should be set to manual controls to reduce the problems due to fluctuations between the frames.

ISO determines the sensitivity of your image sensor to light. If you are shooting a dark scene, then you should increase your ISO to increase the sensitivity of light. If the ISO value of the digital camera is increased to high value, then it will lead to digital noise and poor digital photography. In Tim Burton's Corpse Bride movie, most of the scenes had low light and the director had many challenges to over-lit the dark set and do all adjustments to make the movie visually clear and beautiful. On the other hand, low ISO setting, when combined with shorter shutter speed will produce less digital noise. Most of the experienced stop motion animators maintain the ISO range between 100 to 200.

Aperture has the same function of the Iris of our eyes. By adjusting the aperture of the digital camera, we can control the amount of light falling into the camera. Capturing the light is measured in f-stop which can be half or double the previous stop. In other words, increasing the aperture by one f-stop means, doubling the light falling into the sensor. Shutter speed is faster for a camera with wide aperture, and slower for camera with smaller aperture.

Depth of Field
Depth of field decides the area or distance in focus. Shallow depth of field, means the focus is directed on the central part and the surrounding elements will appear blurred. Shallow depth of field, is caused by low f-stops and fast shutter speed. For a happy soft background, shallow depth of field is used and f-stop is maintained at f8 or lower than that. Wider depth of field will include the focus on the background elements too and is caused by higher f-stops and slow shutter speed.

White Balance
White balance is the measure of light temperature and is measured in Kelvin scale. Warm-feeling situations, such as dim candle light dinner, the white balance is set to low light temperature in the range between 1,000 to 2,000 K and for cool-feeling lighting situations, such as an overcast day, have the highest light temperature range between 9,000 to 10,000 K. In stop frame animation, higher color temperatures are used, as most of the scenes are shot indoors. You can make your shot look warmer or cooler, just by varying the white balance.

Camera Movements
Cameras are mounted on large-scale or small-scale rigs for tracking scenes, depending on the situation. Patrick Boivin, a simple and highly talented filmmaker, creates most of his tracking scenes in his stop motion movie by simply mounting his camera on a miniature train track and pushing it along the track of the object. His stop motion short films, such as Bboy Joker and Iron Man vs. Bruce Lee were a great hit.

Techniques Used in Stop Motion

The basic techniques of stop frame, when combined seamlessly with computer graphics (CG) and 3D technology, give the sharpest resolution to the movie. Formatting a quality animation made by stop frame, and making the audience to watch it for a span of 70 to 120 minutes is never an easy task. Only an involved and dedicated animator can do this job and it has proved to be a difficult job.
  • Split-Screen Matte Shot: This is one of the basic film composting techniques used in stop animation movies. In this type of shot, half of the frame is matted out by placing a black paper on the glass plate, which is attached to the camera lens and this creates a matte. The matted portion will not be exposed in the movie whereas the rest of the frame, which was not covered by the matte would appear.
  • Split Screen Technique: This is used to remove the unwanted shadows and other images of people working around the puppet or in the set.
  • Blue or Green Screen Technique: If you want to combine a live action with stop motion, then shoot the live action separately and then do the animation action work using your puppet with a blue or green screen behind it. Later, combine the live action with the miniature set action by removing the blue/green screen and replacing it with the live action background. You need to be careful and observant while combining the shots, because in some cases the green/blue background might reflect on the puppet.
Stop Motion Movies
In 1933, much-loved King Kong was brought to life through stop frame animation due to which, the emotions of the King Kong still remains in the hearts of the people. Many movies such as A Midsummer Night's Dream, A Town Called Panic, The Nightmare Before Christmas, etc., made a turning point in stop motion technique. 'The Nightmare Before Christmas' was remade and released on 2006 by Walt Disney pictures with 3D effects. The animated objects which were originally used in the previous version of the movie, were scanned and fed into the computer and the sets were again recreated in a virtual 3D environment. James Cameron's Avatar is one of the movies, which combined stop motion and 3D technology. Some of the latest movies using stop frame are, The Three Musketeers, A Town Called Panic (2009), A Miser Brother's Christmas, Monster Island, Elf, etc.

The growth of this type of animation is incredible, both in technology as well as creativity. Not only kids, even adults are fascinated about watching stop motion movies.