I recently finished a stop motion project for my Experimental Animation class at CCA. The assignment was to animate in 3 dimensions. I had a lot of fun doing a cut-out animation for that class, so I decided to try my hand at doing clay stop-motion with a puppet. This is how it turned out:
This project turned out to be much more challenging than I thought it would be. The process was actually quite frustrating for me, most likely due to my somewhat amateur setup. Nonetheless, I am pretty proud with what I accomplished and the assignment was a great learning experience and I think it will help me out in the long run.
The first thing I did was come up with a concept. I decided to animate someone waiting to meet somebody at an airport. I did a rough design for the character and thumbnailed out the shots and the character’s general movement. The character’s design was somewhat inspired by the Aardman short Off Beat. Besides being an awesome short, I really liked how they treated the face and expressions so I incorporated that into the design. I then create a 2D animatic to figure out the timing of my shots and movements.
The next step was to create the armature for the puppet. I had some armature wire left over from a maquette class I took a number of years ago, so I used that to build the puppet. I found a armature tutorial video on youtube, which helped me in constructing it. Here’s how the armature looks:
After I finished the armature, I started building the background set. I needed to be able to transfer it back and forth between home and school, so I came up with the idea to make it out of foam core. I bought some 1/2″ thick black foam core for the floor and 1/8″ white foam core for the walls. I then cut the white foam core with notches that fit into grooves I cut in the black base. It wasn’t too stable, so I made supports out of foam core that would keep the white walls vertical. I used construction paper to add the detailing to the walls. This is what the set looked like when I got it all set up in the school stop motion lab:
One of the issues I ran into when I went to shoot was that my puppet was very top heavy, so I had to figure out a way to support him. The week before I started shooting, we had a guest speaker, Tim Hittle, an animator at Pixar who started his career doing stop motion. He said to support the characters in the films he made, he used fishing line. That would have probably worked, but there was nothing in the lab to hang fishing line from and the media center didn’t have any lighting c-stands to check out. I came up with the idea to stick a wire support through the “wall” that would hold him up. I had some really thick armature wire, which is what I ended up using. I also stuck nails up through the bottom to hold the puppet’s feet in place.
The camcorders set up in the lab are old Mini-DV camcorder, which don’t have the best quality, so I checked out a Sony HD-DV camcorder from the school media center. Luckily, the lab has an awesome camera stand for shooting stop motion, as seen here:
Before animating, I planned out all of the actions with thumbnails and timing charts so I could get the type of movement I was looking for. I took my animatic and broke each section down and figured out the timing and spacing between each key pose. I used Randy Cartright’s Animation Timer app on my iPhone extensively to figure out exact timing. After the planning phase, I finally started animating. I animated the shots sequentially, starting with the first. Animating on the first shot was an eye opener to how hard and demanding the process was. Getting small pose changes was really hard and the wire armature always seemed to want to go back into the last position it was in. It ended up being like a tug of war between me and the puppet. I would pose one part and get it looking good, then when I would pose another part, but then last part wouldn’t be right. Or, I would make a small change to the arm and the whole puppet would shift. I also ran into an issue with posing the hands. The wire armature I built was not allowing me to pose out the fingers the way I wanted, so I ended up having to cut off the hands all together and just sculpt them straight out of clay. This worked much better, but without that wire support, they were much harder to keep in place. The last day of shooting was the worst by far. I needed to end it by having the puppet walk off screen past the camera. At first, it was working, but once he got passed the point where the wire back support wasn’t reaching, the nails in his feet weren’t enough to hold him up. On top of it all, his hands were starting to fall off! So, I had no choice but to throw in the towel after the first step. I would have like to finish it completely, but there was no way to do it without adding more wire supports, which would have taken away from the illusion that its a character acting and not an animated character. The project was fun at times, but for the most part I was pulling out my hair and cursing the stop motion gods. I was able to shoot the whole short in 4 days, one shot per day. It probably would have been more enjoyable if I had more time to do it, but I had a deadline, so I had to rush it a little.
After doing this project, I definitely have a much greater respect for stop motion animators. I don’t know why they choose to subject themselves to such torment. I’m sure a professional setup is much easier to work with, though. I also realize more now, the importance of planning. I think the short would have turned out a lot worse if I didn’t plan as much as I did. I am very happy with how it turned out, considering my lack of stop motion experience and the amount of problems I ran into. I think i’ll stick with hand-drawn and 3D for now :)