The Craft of Stop-Motion Animation

Article by Daniel Nienhuis, Lead Animator for Flying Paper, May 16, 2012

Stop-motion animation takes a long time.  That’s the first thing most people say when I mention the technique – and it’s undeniably true.  There is, however, a secret about stop-motion; something that makes the act of snapping hundreds or thousands of nearly identical photographs bearable. Here it is: stop-motion is fun.  I don’t just mean that the results are fun, although there is certainly a unique charm to films created this way.  I mean that the method itself, despite being fraught with tedium and potential frustration, is immensely satisfying and enjoyable.  Seeing a few seconds of animation that you have created by hand – no matter how crude or simple – is incredibly inspiring and addictive.

For the uninitiated, stop-motion is one of the oldest film effects techniques.  All film and video is made up of individual still images called frames; generally, there are 24 frames in a second of film footage (as in something shown in a movie theater) and about 30 frames in a second of  video footage (as in something shown on U.S. television).  We see these still images as motion because of a phenomenon called “persistence of vision,” wherein the human brain fills in the gaps between the frames when they are shown in quick succession.*  Roughly speaking, when images are seen at the rate of ten or more per second, motion will be perceived.  The faster that frames are shown, the smaller the gaps that the brain has to fill in and the smoother the motion will seem.

This is science behind all of animation – and all of cinema.  It’s also the reason that a pioneering photographer like Eadweard Muybridge is considered one of the grandfathers of film, despite working in still images.  Looking at the images he produced, we are able to discern what persistence of vision won’t allow us to see – the gaps in the manufactured reality of film.

Sequential photographs by Eadweard Muybridge, circa 1878.

It is within those gaps that animators work.  Stop-motion animators create the illusion of movement by taking a physical object, photographing it, moving it slightly, and photographing it again.  If you could see the invisible gaps between the frames of a stop-motion film, you’d witness pairs of hands delicately manipulating or replacing objects, possibly making minute adjustments to lighting systems or camera positions, all while attempting to maintain the continuity of the scene as a whole.  Was this figure breathing in or out?  Were the clouds in the background moving to the left or the right?  An animator needs to break the fluidity of movement into discreet, frozen chunks, often for several things at once.

That sounds confusing and it certainly can be.  However, I’ve found that the act of animating can have an almost zen-like quality to it – you are operating in multiple kinds of time at once, in a sense.  I find it very easy to lose track of time in the real world while manipulating the recreated time of the animated world.  Needless to say, the surprising distraction of a phone call or doorbell breaks that illusion and it can be very difficult to find your way back into it.  Animation is best done in a quiet, still place.

For really smooth results, stop-motion should be filmed at a rate of at least 24 frames per second (the speed of projected film).  That means that for every five seconds of animation, an animator will snap a minimum of 120 photographs.  Animation at this rate requires incredibly subtle movements from image to image and a very deft touch.  However, since persistence of vision kicks in at a much lower frame rate, the choice ultimately comes down to aesthetic preference.  I actually prefer a small degree of “choppiness” in stop-motion; I think it’s part of the charm and style of the technique.  I find a rate of 15 frames per second to be ideal for my needs.

But all that sounds a little heady and technical.  Animation is fun!  And while mastering it is a lifelong pursuit, the technique is incredibly simple.  The tools are easily accessible: you need a camera, a stable workspace, something to animate, and a way to put the images together when you’re finished.  Virtually any camera will work, including the one on your phone or computer, provided you have a way to hold it steady.  I use a digital SLR, mounted on a tripod, with a remote shutter release.  This gives me lots of control, but you could also use an iPhone held in place between stacks of books.  I like to use a workbench as a steady filming location, but you could use any stable table, desk, or the floor.  Almost any video program, including the ones that come pre-loaded on most computers, will allow you to turn still images into video.  As to the object you want to animate, there is really no limit to what you can do.  Animators like Nick Park and Tim Burton use elaborate articulated puppets to great effect, but just about anything can be animated.  The animator known as PES uses everyday objects in surprising ways to create wonderfully absurd short films.

Tim Burton with Jack and Sally puppets for The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Western Spaghetti by PES.

I like to use homemade clay puppets with wire armatures.  First, I make flexible skeletons out of wire and epoxy.  I cover the skeletons with clay skin, hair, and clothing.  In places where I don’t ever want the clay to move – the forearms and biceps, the thighs and shins, the chest, and the base of the head – I bake it so that it sets.  On the joints, where I want to be able to manipulate the puppet – the knees, elbows, armpits, and leg joints – I leave the clay soft.  This gives me a firm, posable puppet that I can make cheaply and relatively quickly.

I first used this technique in 2005 for the short film Gramps’ Big Day.  That short film was also an opportunity to experiment with miniature set-design.  The props on Gramps’ were a combination of found pieces (doll house furniture, toys, etc.) and custom pieces (such as an old wristwatch repurposed into a wall clock).  The sets were built primarily from stiff foam boards, then wallpapered with scrapbook paper.  The floors were covered with squared-off popsicle sticks and darkened with wood stain.  Each of the rooms was built with removable walls so that the camera could film the action from the perspective of the puppets.  In stop-motion animation, it’s important to remember how the position of the camera can either enhance or hinder the illusion of life.  Placing the camera at the eye-level of the puppets helps create the impression that the subjects and their environment are life-sized.

Co-director Kyle Emery films a shot through a removable wall using a special camera rig on Gramps’ Big Day.

Gramps’ Big Day (2005), directed by Kyle Emery and Daniel Nienhuis.

In 2011, I experimented with combining stop-motion and newer digital techniques for the short film Strand.  Strand was intended as a sort of deconstruction of a narrative stop-motion short.  Instead of building full puppets, I used unfinished wire armatures.  I animated these against blank backgrounds and then superimposed abstract digital noise over the sequences.  One sequence was animated out-of-doors, where changing light and wind provided a level of unpredictability.  I also used heavily treated live-action footage that was filmed using a cell phone.

A wire armature from Strand.

Strand (2011)

For the documentary Flying Paper, I have been creating brief stop-motion animated segments using slightly more subtle digital assistance.  After some discussion with the film’s directors, we settled on a specific look for the animation: slightly unpolished and handmade in its appearance, with lots of crumpled paper textures.  For the opening shots of the trailer below, I built a kite out of paper, twigs, and wire; I then animated duplicates of those various elements coming together and the finished kite emerging from them.  The cardboard hands of the child assembling the kite were animated separately in a computer and then composited onto the stop-motion footage at the same frame-rate.  The title shot of the kite flying is actually made up of four layers: the stop-motion animated kite, the digitally animated hand holding it, a digitally animated sky, and the title text overlay.  By animating the shot in different layers, I maintain the ability to change and adjust the elements as necessary.  For example, one early bit of feedback was that the color and texture of the cardboard hands needed to be changed.  Had the shot been filmed in a single pass, this would have been a time-consuming fix, possibly even requiring a new shoot; by carefully planning the shot and building it in separate layers, I was able to make the adjustment in a matter of minutes.

The trailer for Flying Paper, directed by Nitin Sawhney and Roger Hill.

It’s more than a little remarkable that stop-motion animation has continued to exist and even thrive with the advent of computer-based techniques.  Studios such as Pixar and Dreamworks have used computer animation to great effect, delivering films that are visually stunning and emotionally engaging.  However, there is something uniquely compelling about stop-motion; the hands-on nature of the method seems to somehow shine through in the finished pieces, creating a quality that continues to inspire animators and audiences.  One final example: for the broadcast of this year’s Grammy Awards, the Chipotle restaurant chain launched a new stop-motion ad highlighting their philosophy of sustainable farming.  The two minute spot (directed by Johnny Kelly of Nexus) is poignantly lovely, simply and effectively telling the story of a farmer’s moral dilemma.

Chipotle’s Back to the Start commercial.

There is a pretty fascinating behind-the-scenes video as well, which is full of information about the specific joys and challenges that go hand-in-hand with stop-motion productions.  At around a minute in, there’s a particularly interesting bit of information: as part of the pre-production planning process, the entire commercial was created as a computer-animated “pre-visualization” before any stop-motion was ever filmed.  In other words, the studio animated the entire elaborate piece twice – first as a CG “rough draft,” and then again as a stop-motion finished piece.  The stop-motion required around four weeks to film, along with the creation of dozens of puppets and around 80 feet of continuous sets, not to mention special camera rigs and lighting setups.

The whole thing makes one wonder: why go to all that trouble?  Particularly in the high-stakes world of TV advertising, why would a company take on the additional cost and time necessary for a technique that should, for all intents and purposes, be considered obsolete?  The simple answer is that the charm and warmth of stop-motion still cannot be recreated by other means.  At the risk of espousing corporate cheesiness: despite technological advances, it is sometimes best to go “back to the start.”

I would encourage everyone with even the slightest interest in filmmaking or animation to give stop-motion a try.  Grab a camera and try animating pens and papers scurrying around your desk.  Or build a puppet from wire and clay or whatever else you can find.  Or get creative with pipe cleaners, or action figures, or Lego blocks.  Experiment.  Watch yourself in a mirror to figure out how the movements flow together.  Then load your stills into iMovie or Windows Movie Maker or whatever else you have handy.  Set each still to last for a tenth or a fifteenth of a second and then watch the results.  I can promise that seeing inanimate objects suddenly spring to life because of your intervention will make you smile.  You might just find that you love it – no matter how much time it takes.

Daniel Nienhuis is a freelance animator and video editor currently working out of central Pennsylvania.  You can view his work online at wataingi.com.

*Note: according to scientists, different optical illusions are actually responsible for the perception of motion – “persistence of vision” is still the most widely-used industry term, however.