If you’re an optimist, then one positive of 2020 has been the opportunity for some of us to focus dedicated energy on creative pursuits that may have otherwise been out of reach. In my case, I was lucky enough to have some time to explore the magical world of stop-motion animation.
I’m about two thirds of the way through a stop-motion short, and while it seems to be stretching out exponentially, spaghettifying into some kind of black hole of eternal near-completion, I am thoroughly enjoying myself. It’s probably one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done, and as well as incorporating photography and storytelling, it gives you the opportunity to jump into practical craft if you’re building the sets too.
It is a complex pursuit though, and learning on the job is a given. My enthusiasm in the early stages got me off to a good start, but when I found myself up at 3am everyday, going down the YouTube rabbit-hole of tips & tricks videos, I realised how much I still didn’t know. So, if you’re relatively new to it all like I was, I hope these tips might help save you some valuable hours!
1) Try to storyboard in advance
I’m a big fan of storyboarding in general, but with live-action filmmaking you may not have access to your locations and actors in advance, so you’re doing a lot of the heavy lifting in your head when you try to imagine the end product. That’s not the case with stop-motion. I found it incredibly helpful to get a feel for the scale of things, how I would be framing them in camera, how I was going to light the sets… All things that you can (to varying degrees) experiment with and keep records of before you start. Breaking down the story visually beforehand definitely helped me to stay on track.
2) Focus on production design
If you watch any really good stop-motion animation, be it a one-minute student short or an award-winning Laika Studios production, they all have great production design in common. It’s a relatively simple and fun way to add value and immersiveness to your film. It’s amazing what you can do with foam board, cardboard, fabrics, paints, twigs, stones, doll’s house furniture (check your size scales!), and a variety of paints. There are countless tutorials on YouTube on these subjects, here are a few I found useful:
3) Don’t build your figure out of plasticine
I had done enough research before I started to know I needed a decent armature. So I bought one, gave it a body of plasticine, and a chicken skull for a head that I’d bought from eBay. My girlfriend (foolishly!) agreed to make an outfit for my figure and it looked amazing. But it was a bad combination. Plasticine doesn’t stand up to the repeated manipulation, especially if you’re filming in more than one or two sessions. It crumbles and breaks, it falls off, it constantly has to be remoulded when you knock it or scratch it, or drop your figure. The plasticine gets on the fabric for the suit and you can’t get it off. All in all, a continuity nightmare. Instead, maybe start with lego, or action figures, or better still, try this method as described by the brilliant Edu Puertas (whose YouTube channel is filled with brilliant nuggets of useful information)
How To Costume Your Puppet
4) Watch plenty of other stop-motion videos
One of the most beautiful things about the medium is that every animator will have come across a problem and solved it in their own unique way. Yes, you will accidentally watch shorts of such talent and skill that you will feel like a worthless worm, but when the self-doubt subsides, you will remember the little tricks and workarounds you saw, and they will arm you well. Here are a few excellent shorts that I’ve enjoyed recently:
Lost & Found
5) Keep lots of little tools close at hand
You will find levels of resourcefulness that you never realised you had. You’ll come across practical problems so specific and miniscule that you’ll have to laugh at their fiendishness. A great variety of household items will prove useful: pins, tweezers, blu tac, gaffer tape, brushes… I even used old leaves and the hair from a hairbrush to create a ball of tumbleweed (I know, eurgh). But my MVP was white card, cut into varying sizes and folded so they could stand up. These made perfect little reflectors and flags when you need to get a bit more light into an awkward space (on this point: also remember to wear consistent colours, ideally black or dark grey, as the set will pick up colours or light bounce from your clothing).
6) Find a way to make your character emote
One of my personal pitfalls was that I didn’t think through how my character was going to emote. There are several ways you can achieve this – if you’re a good enough animator, you can create incredibly expressive body language with your characters that can generate a lot of nuance. Otherwise you might want to have interchangeable mouth movements for different situations (see ‘Robot Chicken‘), moveable eyebrows that can illustrate anger or sadness, or even alternative versions of the same head with varying expressions. This may be the hardest thing about stop-motion, and the more you do it the better an animator you’ll become. So keep practising!
I am learning everyday, so if you strongly agree/disagree with any of these tips, or would like to share your own pearls of wisdom, please comment below.
Thanks for reading, and happy animating!