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In 2009, Noella Borie was already at work on a script that she hoped to turn into a feature film. As an animation director at the creative digital studio, Click 3X, Borie knew how to bring art to life on screen. But with this personal project, she wanted to venture into new territory, and after seeing the movie Coraline, she knew just what that would be: stop-motion animation.
What is Stop-Motion Animation?
Best known for its use in classic movie and television fare like The Nightmare Before Christmas or Gumby, stop-motion is an animation technique that makes physical objects (like pose-able puppets or wads of clay) appear to move on their own by photographing their movement in small increments, frame by frame, and then animating those into a single sequence. While its most popular examples involve clay and puppets, stop-motion can be done with nearly any 3D medium, whether it’s building blocks, toys or even people.
With Borie’s imagination stoked and her mind made up, she set out to make her stop-motion dream a reality. What she discovered, though, was that there was little instruction available for the stop-motion newcomer. Undaunted, she took matters into her own hands and began experimenting with it.
In 2013, she released “Faceless Neil: Out of the Darkness,” her first film made entirely with stop-motion. With five years of experience under her belt, now, she still remembers what it was like to wade into the genre for the first time. Which is why she was eager to share these tips and tricks to make your foray into stop-motion a success.
How to do Stop-Motion Animation
1. Know Your Story
Because stop-motion animation can be quite an involved production, it’s important that you have a solid script to begin with before you ever pick up a camera or start preparing your props. Borie actually mulled over the script for “Faceless Neil” for years before bringing it to life. While that isn’t practical for most projects, the takeaway remains: Fleshing out the script first smoothes and streamlines the rest of the process because you will have already worked out any kinks.
2. Sketch It Out
Once her script was set, Borie went to work sketching it into blank storyboard frames that she printed from her computer. As she worked her way through the script, every frame was meticulously named and numbered (such as “SC001-002”). This was vital because those storyboard frames become the blueprint that Borie constantly referenced while filming. With the storyboard complete, she scanned every frame into her computer and animated them into a rough video format, which allowed her to see how the storyline flowed in real-time and catch any additional tweaks before filming.
3. Set the Scene
With the storyline fleshed out, it’s time to start bringing it to life. This will mean assembling all the props you’ll need for your storyline, characters and set. For Borie’s project, that entailed having puppets fashioned by professional artists; however, it can be as simple as gathering a set of blocks or a box of art supplies. One thing to keep in mind is how your elements will coordinate (rather than conflict) with the background, so that the viewer’s attention is not distracted.
4. Looking Like a Natural
For any animation, the way your pieces move should be seamless, and especially so with stop-motion animation. Viewers can get distracted and lose interest if the movement is jerky or unnatural. Borie was meticulous about ensuring her puppets’ movements looked real by rehearsing each one thoroughly before shooting and even lip-syncing their speech. Lighting is also key to getting the scene to communicate the mood that you’re intending and also to make sure everything is visually clear for the viewer. You will want to take some test shots to make sure that the lighting is working efficiently.
5. Shooting It
Finally, once all your pieces are in place and you have a good idea of how you want them to work together, you can start photographing each frame. Borie used a Nikon D90, however, any kind of digital camera can be used, and some stop-motion animations have even used smartphones to capture images. You will need to have the camera poised in a static position by using a tripod or stand, so that as you change each frame, the camera does not bounce or jerk around. Borie suggests filming frames with similar camera angles at the same time (rather than strictly chronologically) for efficiency and to limit the amount of time-consuming set-up changes needed.
6. Putting It All Together
Borie used the animation software Dragonframe (which is specifically created for use in stop-motion) to help her organize and prepare her frame shots for animation. It is designed to be used along with certain Nikon and Canon DSLRs. Borie recommends it as the must-have program if you are serious about stop-motion for commercial advertising or filmmaking. However, there are various other programs available, as well as apps you can download to turn your smartphone into a virtual animation station. (One recommended app to try is Lapse It Pro, available for use on both Apple and Android devices.) She then imported all her photo files into Adobe After Effects, where she was able to edit and eventually animate them into a seamless video sequence.
7. Adding the Finishing Touches
As with nearly any animation or design project, there will need to be some Photoshopping done to clean and polish up your work. Borie tried to limit the amount of post-production work needed by not using a green screen and always photographing her characters directly in the set, but some of her puppets’ movements required rigging that had to be erased afterward. It is also at this point that you can layer any music and audio into the video file.
Additional Resources for Stop-Motion Animation:
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