Stop-Motion Animation Tutorial (long)

This past week has been a whole lot of fun, and a lot of work.

I made a 3  minute stop-motion animation for the Kootenay Real Estate Board, using cut paper for the characters. A friend (Hi Sean!) asked if I would share how I do things like that, so here you go:

Lisa’s Ideosyncratic Method For Making Stop-Motion Movies

Step 1:

Script. This is absolutely essential. Use the Script development time to figure out who you are talking to, what you want to say. Keep in mind that a typed, 12 point font, full page double spaced is about 1 minute of speaking time for most people. Keep it simple, targeted and on point. This isn’t the time to be verbose and poetic – unless that’s what your film is about. The film we made was informational, so we kept things pretty succinct. The script we ended up using for this was about 3 pages long. Our original recording was over 3 minutes, which pared down to just 3 minutes and change for the final work.

Writing the script can take a long time, and many iterations. Get some input and feedback as you’re working on it. Make sure that it says what you want it to say, and that you have an inkling of how you will illustrate it in graphics. If it’s really cerebral, think about how you are going to represent that in accessible visuals. The visuals and the script have to support each other, so it is best to keep each in mind while working on the other.

Your film might not have a script. It might have a sound track. Please use only music that is licensed for use in such things, be aware of copyright issues, and skip ahead to step 3.

Step 2:

Sound. Bear in mind – this is just how I work. Other people will probably go about this in a different order, or with different priorities.

For me, getting the sound track dialled in is the next important step. I can start to see the video take shape in my mind as the soundscape is coming together. Get someone to read who is not rushed, has nice, natural pauses between sentences, does not slur, and enunciates well. I typically use AUDACITY (open source) to record sound for my films because it is simple to use, and allows me to ‘clean up’ little sounds like ‘uhm’ or the little click that our mouths make as we open them to speak. I usually use a good microphone with pop filter to record the sound, but this round we used a head mic with foam on it to lesson the dreaded ‘ssssss’s and breath sounds.

I exported my sound as a WAV file for use in editing the film in Adobe Premiere Pro.

Step 3:

Character design. This step and step 4 could actually come in either order, but I came up with my character design before the storyboards in this case. It gave me something to anchor my visuals to as I worked out what the movement and flow of the video was. Because the script was thorough and succinct, I knew who my characters were and had an idea of what I wanted them to look like…and what types of things they were going to have to do.

Step 4:

Storyboard. There are all kinds of storyboard templates available for free on the interwebs. Go ahead and look, using your favorite search engine. I’ll wait.

Break your script into scenes. Draw each of the scenes on each of the boxes in your storyboard. This, like the script development, is a great place to take your time. Iterations and input here will save you all kinds of headache later. If you can’t figure it out in the storyboard phase, chances are you are not going to be hit with a bolt of inspiration when you run up against the same roadblock during shooting…I mean, you could have some amazing insight in that moment, but it is unusual and unlikely. And, if you’re like me and need the approval of the client before moving ahead, you are better not to leave any of the frames empty.

Use the storyboard time to figure out what is going to move where, the sequencing, the transitions. I make notes on my storyboards for the types of scene transitions I’ll use such as ‘cross dissolve’ or ‘dip to black’.

Step 5:

Create your characters. I made my characters out of heavy card – the kind marketed for scrapbooking pages. It makes for more stable little character parts that don’t curl too much with handling. This is really important. The characters and setting need to be reasonably durable to put up with the amount of handling they will receive.

Thanks to thorough storyboarding, I knew what each characters hands had to do at different points and was able to cut out many, many little hands for each hand position in the film. I also cut out a variety of mouths, as many people changed expression during the course of the film. Eyebrows are handy for changing expression, too, but are fiddly as heck to work with. It is worth it, but you have to be dedicated to the level of tedium it requires.

Step 6:

Set up your space. I have a studio space that I can close the door on – really important to ensure that no cat walks over the set up, or no random gusts of wind can interfere with shooting.

I set up my Canon T5i on a sturdy tripod, which I then clamped in place. The camera lens gets set up parallel to the table surface. I plug my camera into a laptop that allows me to use the laptop monitor as a remote veiwfinder, and to activate the shutter without having to touch the camera itself. Next, I set up large, diffuse light sources on either side of the shooting area to ensure even lighting throughout. This is really important. Good lighting makes the difference between something hard to watch, and something really quite pleasant.

Use an image size appropriate to what you expect your finished outcome to be. Don’t shoot each of the frames in huge resolution sizes. It will just give you headaches and crash your software later.

I set up my characters on the surface and did a series of test shots, making sure to set the white balance and focus manually. If you use autofocus, the poor camera will be trying to focus on your hands when you are moving character components around and you’ll go through your battery really, really quickly. Not to mention have to re-take many of your pictures.

Lay out all your characters and character components in an organized way so that you can readily reach them in the order you will be using them. Refer to your storyboard, have it close at hand. It’s the backbone of everything you are going to be doing over the next while.

The photo here shows what my set up looked like after finishing the title sequence. You can see the characters and background pieces that are ready to be implemented, and that lineup of little left and right hands on the far side of my table. The monitor on the computer shows only what the camera sees – as you can tell from the photo, the actual field being filmed is much smaller than the table space. Having that monitor there lets me place things precisely where I want them to be in the frame.

Step 7:

Take pictures. Many, many pictures. The first 9 seconds of this film has more than 150 pictures in it. Move each component only a tiny bit before taking the next picture. Larger movements make the finished piece look like the character is moving faster, but also looks more jerky, usually. Small, smooth increments are most effective. Review each picture as you go, delete any that aren’t right and re-take them in the moment.

Here is a little video of how long it ACTUALLY takes to set different pictures up. (Sorry about my tablet’s auto focus) No, I didn’t have that music playing, I was listening to an audiobook – a 3 minute film takes many, many hours of shooting. It was well over a minute before I took my first picture of the incorporation of the new character. – In fact, the first photo was taken at 1:15. Everyone had to move a bit, and the next photo was taken at 2:27. Bear in mind that the more characters and action you have, the more time it will take to set up each individual shot.

Step 8:

Editing. I’m going to get a bit vague on you here – I’m going to assume you already have some editing skills, some preferred software. I use Adobe Premiere Pro CC right now, and find that it works for what I need. I import the pictures to it, in sequence, and shift and change the length of each fram to the length I want. This allows me to control the timing of specific things – like when the narrator says ‘seller’, I can time the images so that the Seller (figure in blue) comes into the frame. It’s important to the integrity to the film to have things like that hit the mark. It will make your film make sense. If the sound and visuals are not coordinated, you’ll have some soup. Lovely to look at, but soup all the same. To really convey meaning – ensure that your visuals coincide with your sound.

Your software will give you all kinds of options for rendering, each best for a certain kind of use. Choose the one that best suits the purpose of your movie. A YouTube movie does not need to be rendered in 4K – it will make you crazy, crash your system and give you endless frustration. Calibrate your finished product for the places it will most likely be viewed – these days, often on mobile devices.

Step 9:

Share. Get it out there! Share it with those who will enjoy it and pass it on!