Get a primer on animation in Sean Brodbeck’s online course on Motion Graphics and Animation from HOW Design University.
When it comes to bringing a story to life on the screen, designers have a huge toolbox from which to draw. One staple in that collection of techniques 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.
Recently, we gave designers the basics about how to make and use stop-motion in their work. But to stoke your creativity even more and inspire you to get started, we scouted out five of our favorite stop-motion design projects from around the world and talked to the designers behind them. We found out what inspired them to use stop-motion for that particular project, as well as the challenges they had to overcome and their advice to other designers who want to use this medium. Perhaps after checking out these examples, you too will be inspired to give stop-motion a try with your next project.
Firm: Viva Design Inc. (vivadesign.com), Santa Barbara, CA
Client: Santa Barbara Zoo
Santa Barbara Zoo contacted Viva Design Inc. to create a 30-second commercial that would attract more visitors to the zoo and its website. Because the zoo’s target audience was preschoolers and their parents, the team decided stop-motion would be a great fit for the spot. “Many animations for kids look very clean in 3D or vector forms,” says Viva Design’s creative director, Ulrike Kerber. “We wanted to create a look to separate it from other kids’ commercials.” More specifically, they wanted a look that was more natural and handmade.
To do so, the team used common household materials that the kids could recognize from around their house to bring the animation to life. For example, they used chips to create the lion and almonds in the giraffe. But they didn’t just use lunchbox materials. They animated sequins, glitter, buttons, yarn, clay, and even hair in the piece. “There is no end in creativity when it comes to stop motion,” Kerber says. “As a result, the look is tactile and rich and not as flat as many preschool media and scholastic materials.”
Some of the materials did pose issues, though. “Once, we ran into difficulties animating play-dough because it does not stay in shape. There is a reason why it is called claymation and not play-dough-mation,” Kerber says. “I also do not recommend animating cheese, because it starts to melt and smell. We animated it really quick and were glad it was done!”
Firm: Pinckney Hugo Group (www.pinckneyhugo.com), Syracuse, NY
Client: Onondaga County Resource Recovery Agency (OCRRA)
Onondaga County Resource Recovery Agency (OCRRA) wanted to create awareness for their recycling program and explain some of the benefits that consumers may not be aware of—from converting waste to energy, to composting, to improving the environment. They turned to Pinckney Hugo Group to bring that vision to life.
“We used stop-motion animation as a creative and different way to get this idea across,” says the firm’s associate creative director, Scott McNany. He explains why stop-motion was right for this project: “First, there was nothing like this running on television at the time so we knew we’d have a chance to standout. By creating and animating colorful props, we were able to have fun and brighten up an otherwise unglamorous subject. Also, using cut paper for our props seemed like the perfect medium for a commercial about recycling. Much of the paper was re-used from something else and ultimately all of our props could be recycled.”
To animate the scraps, McNany recalls how the team had to think through every detail: “Each tiny shadow, sparkle or intricate detail added to any prop makes a difference,” he says. “Similarly, the key difference to great stop-motion animation is thinking about how objects would act in reality and mimicking those slight movements in the animation—each subtle movement is important. For example, a car doesn’t just stop, it actually moves slightly backwards after stopping due to momentum. A dropped object will accelerate while it falls due to gravity and bounce when it lands, again because of momentum. Trying to incorporate the actual laws of physics helps improve the overall effect of the video—it can be time consuming, but it makes a big difference in the finished product.”
In fact, natural physics proved to be one of the project’s challenges, since the paper they were working with often wanted to move on its own. “We used everything from tape to thumb tacks to super glue to keep props in place. We connected to a monitor and used a software program that allowed us to see the live view, shoot remotely and review throughout the process to keep the continuity intact.”
McNany provides some advice to other designers interested in trying stop-motion: “Give yourself plenty of time to do it right. Any extra efforts and time spent will be worth it. Nothing is done perfectly on the first try. So, after your first attempt, implement what you leaned and do it all again until you love it.”
For the past few years, Svigals+Partners have collaborated with Randall Hoyt Design to create an annual series of multimedia campaigns to connect with Svigals+Partners’ clients, colleagues and friends. Each campaign has featured an animated short and custom paper mailer as an expression of the firm’s core principles: collaboration, community and creativity.
And every year, the teams have found stop-motion to be the perfect medium to do so. “We’ve returned to stop-motion with each campaign because it is the right tool for our message,” explains Barry Svigals. “Each specific frame or ‘stroke’ (like a brushstroke) contains many creative decisions. Stop-motion is revealing without being explicit, evocative instead of expletive. It doesn’t tell you everything. The spaces in between each ‘stroke’ are an opportunity for engaging the viewer’s imagination. That’s really the fun of stop-motion. In a way, you get to see how it’s made while you watch—like pulling the curtain back. It seems like magic.”
Not surprisingly, the greatest challenge of the project was how time-intensive it was. “Whatever time you think it will take to do the project, triple it,” says animator Randall Hoyt. “In general, each scene was shot at least three times: Once to figure out how to shoot it, a second time to shoot it correctly and a third time to perfect it. There were many instances when a casual position change in the placement of elements meant that the whole sequence of 50 or more images needed to be reshot.”
Because of these kinds of challenges, Hoyt encourages designers to not only consider the right kind of project for using stop-motion but also the right kind of client. “There are many great opportunities in stop-motion that you may not visualize beforehand,” he says. “Having the trust of the client and the freedom to take advantage of a sudden realization that will make the animation even better, is wonderful.”
LEGO Adventure in the City
Designer: Rogier Wieland (www.rogierwieland.com), The Hague, the Netherlands
Client: LEGO China
Rogier Wieland travelled to Shanghai, China where he met some children who were playing with LEGO Duplo blocks. He watched as their imaginations ran wild and talked to them about what they were building.
“There was a young boy named Qui Qui who made a strange looking object and he told me it was a large house,” Wieland recalls. “On top of it was the house of a snake. When I asked him how he would get there because I didn’t see any stairs, he answered, ‘With his rocket.’”
Inspired by the boy’s unbridled creativity, Wieland brought Qui Qui’s play session to life in this stop-motion short where LEGOs are the feature characters.
“We used stop-motion because I wanted it to look like playing,” Wieland explains. “I wanted to play with the possibilities of the material. I was looking for an approach that makes the viewer think, ‘I can make that, too.’”
Doing so involved more creativity and imagination on the part of the design team than it did technical or computer skills, Wieland says. That was especially the case when it came to creating the dinosaur: They initially designed the dinosaur and its movement in 3D and then built it with actual LEGO bricks. Plus, the dinosaur was quite large. “There was only one solution,” Wieland says. “That was to buy a shitload of LEGO bricks and build 17 slightly different dinosaurs instead of one movable one, and replace them each frame. Now that it’s finished I’m happy we had to do it like this, because I appreciate the result much more.”
That leads Wieland to the advice he has for other designers interested in trying stop-motion: “Don’t be lazy! Stop-motion takes more creativity and imagination than it does technical or computer skills. But I don’t like it when it’s the opposite.”
And here’s a video showing more about how the animation was made:
Canon Ixus & Powershot Football
Firm: Animate the World (www.animatetheworld.eu), Breda, Netherlands
Client: Canon Europe
To announce the press launch of two cameras from Canon, Animate the World wanted the products themselves to be the star players—literally. They used stop-motion to have the cameras leap off store shelves and start playing a game of football after the shop owner leaves the store for the night.
“We like using stop motion because you can work in the real world everybody knows but add life and change the way the objects and people behave to make it surreal,” says the design firm’s owner and animation director, Jelle van Dun. “We could have done the same thing in CGI, but then we would have lost the tangible feeling you get from using the real objects. And we would also have lost the charm of the less-than-perfect animation; everything would have been too clean.”
One of the greatest challenges of this shoot was gravity itself. “But we solved that with all sorts of custom made riggings,” van Dun says. For example, to shoot the sequence where the cameras leap off shelves, they used flexible arms as rigs and braided fishing lines so the cameras would suspend in the air, which they then erased in post-production.
As for what van Dun would recommend to other designers interested in trying stop-motion, he encourages a lot of one thing: “Practice, practice, practice. Oh, and practice some more!”