DIY Stop Motion Animation- Seven Tips For Winging It

If I were the type of person who wanted a tombstone, I imagine the words “art is for everyone” would be chiseled into the surface.  I’ve written and said this phrase countless times.  It is one of my most strongly held beliefs.  Art is not just for paid professionals.  It is not only for people who have degrees in art.  It does not belong to people who are “good” at it.  It belongs to all of us, as I believe there is a profound and instinctual need to express ourselves creatively.

Last night, I finished a project that I think many will look at and think “why did you spend your time on that?”  It has absolutely zero potential to earn me any money.  There is no functionality behind it, like when you paint a picture that you later hang in your house.  While I picked up many new skills in the process of making it, they aren’t skills that look good on a resume. If anything, it looks like the type of piece a caffeine and booze driven college student might make for a final project.

So why do it?  What did I hope to gain?  Simple- it was fun.

About nine or ten years ago, I recorded a five song CD with my one and only band, Katty Pants and the Jumpsuit Brigade.  That experience was truly life changing for me, as I described in a previous blog.

There are two people who are responsible for re-introducing me to my alter ego, Ms. Pants.  My friend, Yves, asked me if I ever considered animating my collage work into a stop motion piece.  And my brother, Chris, said I should make a video for one of our songs (He was the drummer for the JSB.)  That was all the prompting I needed to forge ahead.

I have no formal artistic training of any kind.  I have never let that hold me back from creating.  Kind people have described my style as “raw.”  Others have described it as “crap.”  Both groups are probably right to a certain degree.  But the only critic you ever truly have to please is yourself, and I love this video.  Doesn’t hurt that my kids dig it too.  Kellen points to the computer and says “cuckoo” when he wants to hear it.

Since any knowledge I have gained has been learned from watching and talking to others, I thought I would pass along a few pieces of information I gathered from this process.  I hope they will assist you in creating your own DIY animation adventures!

  1.  Plan your time accordingly:  The video I made is around 550 individual pictures, most shown for half a second.  For each picture used in the final, I took at least four- two with a flash, two without.  I used a Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 to shoot, and edited on Windows Movie Maker.  It took about seven hours of shooting and editing to create the first minute.  I got faster as I learned the process, so don’t get discouraged by the amount of work involved.
  2. When first creating motion, try to only have 1-3 things that need to be moved:  Stop motion works by photographing a series of miniscule adjustments.  The more pieces you have moving, the more difficult it is to keep track of what is being moved.  I tried to only move a few things at a time, get them to a stopping point, and then move new things.  I always moved things in the same order, and said the order out loud as I was doing it, so I wouldn’t forget anything.  When in doubt, go back and look at your last frame (assuming you are using a digital camera) and see what you missed before moving on.
  3. Make the motions very tiny, and shoot many frames.  Of course, smaller movements help create smoother motion.  But they also help in lining up your audio and your visual.  Since I did not preplan to know how many shots a certain section of music needed, I often had to figure out a way to lengthen or shorten a scene, so that the timing was right.  On the sections I shot a lot of frames, I was able to add or delete frames as needed, to make the timing correct.
  4. Avoid shiny materials/Add texture instead:  I am a certified glitter girl.  If I could mainline glitter, I would.  But glitter and shiny materials are difficult and unpredictable to capture on film.  They often look blurry instead of pretty.  They can reflect light in a way that is distracting.  I created a sequence with a little blond girl climbing a tree.  I wanted her to look whimsical, so I made her dress out of silver, sparkly paper.  Instead of looking magical, her dress is blinding.  Had that sequence not taken so long to shoot, I might have redone it.  In the same sequence, I had a bird’s nest lowered into a tree.  I used real twigs to create the nest, and I thought the effect of texture was much more successful.
  5. Lighting, lighting, lighting:  This sounds like a no brainer, but in stop motion it is beyond crucial.  When looking at my still photographs, they are for the most part, in focus with crisp detail.  When I started playing them together as an animation, the detail gets blurry.  One of the vignettes follows a bear as he crosses some rocks.  I thought I was being smart, because I created the scene in a built in shelf- if I didn’t get it shot all at once, I could leave it there for a later time, and it wouldn’t get touched.  It was near a window and got a lot of natural light, so I thought it would look ok.  But in motion, it becomes very grainy.  I shot the doll in the bed outdoors on a slightly overcast day, and I think it looks a lot better.
  6. Pay attention to the small details:  In order to get the pipe cleaner stems to lie flat during the opening sequence, I had to tape them down.  I didn’t notice until I went to edit that one of the pieces of tape was visible in every single shot.  I had the choice to reshoot it, or to Photoshop the tape out of every picture.  I chose Photoshop, and by the time I painted/blurred the last frame, I wanted to punch myself in the face.  Don’t rush, take breaks, and go back and look at your last frame every ten shots or so, just to make sure you aren’t missing something.
  7. Unless you are a skilled artist, create tracings of your crucial pieces:  I started by drawing characters.  I then made a copy of the drawing on tracing paper.  I traced the impression on to the various papers I needed to create the pieces to form the character.  If a certain paper didn’t photograph well, or got damaged, I was able to make an exact replica in a couple of seconds, instead of drawing an entire new one.  It also left the original drawing untouched.

The most important thing- fill your project with details that make you happy.  My kids love to see their toys in a movie- they hold up “baby” and “dinosaur” so they can see themselves on the screen.  The title sequences were done on paintings they had done.  The characters were created from cartoons I did back in my factory days.  The bear was given to my husband by his grandfather.  Nearly every piece has hidden significance, so when I watch it, it’s like viewing my heart on the screen.  When you make artwork with that agenda in mind, your piece is sure to be a success.

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