I have always loved stop motion animation, ever since I was a kid I was intrigued. TV programmes of the time were littered with stop motion, such as the rather excellent Morph to the now very controversial Rolf’s Cartoon Club. So here I am now, a 30 something year old male, and I decided to try it for the very first time.
Raquel and I were given a lovely present recently, a salt and pepper set that hug each other when together. Raquel mentioned that when they are apart they seem to almost miss each other and look much happier when they are together. It was then that my brain got working.
First off, have a look at the final film, then I will bare all; the problems I faced and how I solved them, the highs, the lows and what I learnt; my aim is to both inspire and help anybody thinking of doing stop motion animation in the future.
Within a few days, I had a script drafted and had drawn out a storyboard; as you would for any film you make. I wanted it to be dramatic, paying careful attention to shots, to give it a cinematic look, not even thinking about the limitations of a shot or how I was going to achieve them.
Next came the hard part, I found out that mathematics was involved; being dyslexic, maths comes easy to me. I first had to figure out how long I wanted each shot on the screen for. I did some research by watching a few films and timing how long each scene was on the screen. Once I knew the length of each and every shot I wanted, I then had to break it down. I edit most films in 25fps (frames per second), which meant that I would need 25 photos for every second of film; for example if I wanted one shot on the screen for 3 seconds, it meant that I had to take (25 photos x 3 seconds) a grand total of 75 photos for the 3 seconds of screen time. I did this for every shot on my story board. I started to realise it was going to be one of the toughest productions I have ever done!
Day 1 – Excitement turns to frustration
I awoke early to get the best day light; I set up my first scene, a nice simple start; at least that is what I thought…
I knew I had to take 25 photos for this scene, which equates to 1 second of screen time, but what I hadn’t thought of was how much to move the character for each photo? There were only two possible options I could see:
- Use maths, a ruler and protractor, measure how far I wanted to move my character, then divide that measurement equally into 25 markings, so I could use it as a guide.
- Wing it.
Having already spent 2 days planning, I was excited and wanted to get on; there was a long day ahead of me. I chose door number two. The trouble with door number two is you are not quite sure if you are going to get the character from Point A to Point B in 25 moves, which would inevitably mean a few do-overs.
Another issue I faced a lot was being unable to get the camera where I needed it. For one particular shot I needed to take a surface away; though I don’t think the landlord would have approved. It took me a while but I realised I was approaching the problem all wrong. Yes, the way I was shooting was different, using photos instead of moving pictures, but essentially, it was still a short film. If I had this problem with life size actors what would I do? The answer came to me, “Smoke and Mirrors”. This meant instead of taking away the counter, I raised Pepper up, by putting him on a plastic Tupperware pot; this then gave the illusion that the camera was lower than the counter.
As I went on, thinking outside the box and seeing problems as a filmmaker not as a photographer made the production more fun and adventurous; I even put the camera in a cupboard raised slightly on a German sausage to get the angle I wanted.
The final annoyance of the day was doing a 3 second shoot, this meant taking 75 photos. All was going well, until shot 59; I accidently knocked over the star of the film. I couldn’t tell exactly where he was positioned last; I didn’t want to take a guess as it could ruin the illusion of him coming to life and moving, so I had to start again.
By 5pm the light had gone and I had only done half of my shoot, which was only around 25 seconds of film! I was forced to call it a day.
Day 2 – Ready for anything
I had learnt a lot from the day before, and felt more prepared, and this time I had a helper, my lovely fiancée, Raquel. I was eager to start, so I cracked on before I had finished my morning coffee; today I was going to tackle the harder shots.
First up was the jumping scene; how was I going to get Salt to jump from the microwave into the fruit basket, bearing in mind that it was all going to be done through a series of photos? We wracked our brains and tried various methods that failed: ribbon, sticky-tape, fishing wire and toothpicks in the eyes, until finally we used a chopstick. By jamming it in Salt’s eye, Raquel rested her hand on the microwave and used it as a lever to raise Salt in the air, step by step. Now obviously this is not easy to do; the hand naturally wobbles and moves but I needed Raquel to raise Salt about 5 millimetres for every photo. With a fast shutter speed, a few failed attempts and a few arguments due to lack of communication, we got it!
Proud of our achievement we had a cuppa and prepared for the hardest shot of all. If I could pull this one off, frankly, it would be worthy of some kind of award. The idea was to be focused on Pepper, who was going to look away as Salt was flying through the air in the background. In a Eureka moment, I used a piece of clear glass, smoke and mirrors and clever camera angles. Raquel had the toughest job of holding up the glass on an angle, keeping her hands out of the shot whilst pulling fishing wire attached to Salt a few millimetres at a time for every shot; it took only two takes!
There was supposed to be a scene similar to the character Hans Gruber falling out of the Nakatomi Building in Die Hard (McTiernan, 1988), where Salt falls from the fruit basket handle into the fruit, but alas we were unable to find a way to achieve it. Fishing wire was the obvious choice with the camera looking down on the basket whilst slowly lowering Salt, but Salt kept swinging and turning. We had to be creative with the shot instead, only showing a part of Salt falling and allowing the viewers to use their imagination to fill in the gaps.
The final shot of the day was the hug as the camera pulled away; a relatively easy one: turn Salt and Pepper a little, take a photo, zoom out a smidge, turn Salt and Pepper a little, take a photo; repeat this process many times. It was good to end on a simple scene that looks impressive.
Day 3 – The results are in the Edit
Cobbling all the photos together was simple enough, though on the bigger screen there was a resounding issue; this issue has a name, its name is lighting. On the small screen of the camera, the lighting looked the same, though the reality is, the sun moves over time, people walk past the window blocking sunlight and also it seems that both Raquel and myself obscured some shots unwittingly with our shadows; this leaves you with a flickering sensation. Bottom line is, set up your lighting artificially.
Another minor problem is the photos are not all the same, even though I went through every effort to stabilise everything and lock everything off; when you press that button there is a slight movement of the camera. I would suggest using a remote shutter release for every photo, not just the ones where you are unable to get to the main button on the camera.
I noticed that some of the movements appeared to judder because I didn’t use maths to move the characters evenly, so sometimes they appear to move quickly and sometimes slowly. I did as much as I could in the edit to steady shots and sort lighting, but it is still noticeable.
If I was to do this again, I would definitely do it with more crew members, have some fun while doing it but make sure you are all communicating before pressing the shutter release. I would plan more, plan better, plan cleverer and then re-plan, don’t just rush into it lightly. I took three full days, two of which just to shoot a minute of film; you need to be committed and patient and expect to bodge things up a few times.
I salute you Ardman for your time, patience and skill; though I bet it would be interesting being a fly on the wall. Overall I am very happy with my results of my first attempt, what do you think?
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Company Director – Tatu Pictures Ltd