When you think about stop motion animation, you probably think of things like Tim Burton's “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” Henry Selick’s “James and The Giant Peach,” or the 1964 classic “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” (Fun fact: Henry Selick also directed “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” so you’re mainly just thinking of Henry Selick.)
But while it may be most closely associated with artful storytelling for children, stop motion animation is actually rooted in some of the earliest forms of cinema—and is used today in a multitude of video formats, including tutorials, digital advertising, and short-form social media, to name a few.
Learning the basics may seem daunting and time-consuming, but with enough pre-planning and the use of basic technology, stop motion animation can be just the creative outlet you're looking for.
Read on to learn what stop motion animation is, the different types of stop motion video, and how to create a stop motion video using stop motion photography techniques.
What is stop motion?
Stop motion is a video technique where filmmakers photograph objects in a sequence, making minor adjustments. They then edit the photographs together frame by frame, which creates the illusion of motion.
Types of stop motion video
Stop motion video has many subcategories. Some different types of stop motion video animation are:
- Puppetry. Puppets, made out of cloth, are the main subjects in this type of stop motion film. In a full-length feature film of this type, puppeteers make thousands of puppets to create different versions of the same character in different poses. Examples of this style of stop motion animation include two Wes Anderson films, “Isle of Dogs” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”
- Pixilation. With pixilation stop motion, human beings, rather than inanimate objects, are the subjects. The actors play a scene one movement at a time. Pixelation can be combined with other techniques, like traditional live-action or object animation. This type of stop motion is often used in short videos, such as advertising campaigns. (And if you’re a filmmaker on a budget, take some inspiration from the deeply unsettling use of this technique to give human characters superpowers in “Tetsuo the Iron Man.”)
- Cutout. Filmmakers working in cutout animation use pieces of paper or fabric to create a flat, two-dimensional scene. Today, most filmmakers use computers, rather than physical pieces of paper, to create cutout animation videos. A well-known example of cutout animation is South Park, in which the creators originally used paper cutouts but eventually moved to computer cutout animation.
- Object. Object stop motion animation uses everyday objects, from action figures to kitchen utensils, to set a scene and create a story.
- Clay animation. Clay animation is similar to puppet stop motion animation, except instead of making characters from fabric, puppeteers make characters and scenes from clay. Two well-known examples of claymation are the TV series “Wallace and Gromit” and the film “Coraline” (what up AGAIN, Henry Selick).
What tools do you need to make a stop motion animation?
When brainstorming stop motion video ideas, be mindful of the materials and tools you will need–this technique is ALL about planning ahead:
- Camera. You will need a camera to photograph each frame of your story. Smartphone cameras work!
- Tripod. Using a tripod will help make sure your images are sharp and hold a consistent frame throughout the shooting process.
- Remote trigger. Remote triggers are not entirely necessary, but very effective, as they allow you to take images using a remote to avoid camera shake.
- Editing software. Using basic editing software is sufficient as long as it allows you to import and edit image files like JPG, PNG, and RAW files.
- Materials/Objects. Deciding what type of stop motion video you will make will determine the types of materials you will need. For example: will you be using household objects, or creating something from scratch, like puppets?
How to create a stop motion video
Fluidity and frame consistency are what make a well-produced stop motion video feel and move like a video instead of a sequence of edited photos. To achieve that effect, you need:
- A sufficient volume of photos. The number of photos you need for a stop motion video depends on how long you want the video to be and how smooth you want it to look. To estimate, use this formula: (Frame rate / 2) x length of video (in seconds).
- A camera held completely still. A very important component to stop motion animation is consistent framing by keeping your camera perfectly still. To do that, you must lock off your tripod and make sure the frame stays the same throughout the scene.
Step 1: Create a storyboard
A storyboard is a reference guide for a film or video that is either sketched or written out that helps guide you and the filmmaking team through your project. You don't need to be an artist to create a storyboard, and having one will definitely save you time and assist you with your production.
First, take a piece of paper, turn it horizontally and create boxes that represent each scene or action. You can also use note cards. In those boxes, sketch out what your scenes will look like to the best of your ability. Box one will represent scene one, box two will represent scene two, and so forth.
If you prefer, you can also write out your scenes by simply describing what each shot will look like. The point is to have a guide, be it storyboard or shot list, that helps you think through the logistics of your imagination and keeps you on track while shooting.
Step 2: Set your scene
Pro tip: Make sure your location is well lit and stable. The size of your location can range anywhere from a tabletop to a sound stage.
- Arrange your objects so that they are set in place for your first scene.
- Use controlled lighting instead of natural light to avoid light changes.
Step 3: Set up your camera or phone
- Secure your camera or phone on a tripod. Position it in landscape view for a more cinematic aspect ratio, or keep it vertical if you’re creating stop motion videos for social media like a true masochist.
- Position your camera at the scene and find the right frame by adjusting the height and distance. Make sure there isn’t anything unwanted in your frame or obstructing your view.
- Once you have the frame you want, lock off your tripod by marking where the feet of your tripod are as an indicator. Using a remote trigger will give you the best results for camera stability.
- Adjust your camera settings for exposure, shutter speed, and white balance.
Step 4: Take a picture
- Make sure the objects are in focus before taking your first photo.
- If everything looks good, take a few photos of your current scene without making any changes (about 12–24). This redundancy will be important later when editing the video because most editing software allows for 24 or 30 frames per second—having surplus photos for each scene will allow you to adjust the amount of time each scene remains on screen. Remember this, even when the fatigue hits: more is more!
- Check your LCD screen or phone for focus, object placement, and lighting before moving on to the next step.
Step 5: Make a small change
Changing the position of your objects in small increments is what gives stop motion video its unique effect.
- Take each object and move it slightly into the next position.
- Make sure your objects are secure before you take your next photo.
Step 6: Take another picture
- Check for focus and take another 12–24 photos of your scene.
- Make sure you are checking your frame for consistency and lighting.
Repeat the steps above until you are finished with your story. Take a moment to appreciate the hard work of stop motion artists creating feature-length films. Drink some water and maybe rest your eyes before moving on.
How to edit a stop motion video
To edit your photo sequence into a stop motion video, you have several options: You can use a dedicated stop motion app or you can use video editing software. To do the latter, you’ll need to:
- Upload your photos to your computer or a hard drive.
- Go through your photos and remove any unwanted images. Look for photos that are not exposed properly, photos where the framing is inconsistent, or the image is not in focus.
- Open up your editing software and create a new project.
- Before you import your images into your editing software, locate the settings dedicated for timeline adjustments.
- Find the setting called “still image default duration” or something similar. This setting will allow you to adjust the duration of your photos. You will also be able to adjust your frame rate settings during this time. It's very important to confirm your timeline frame rate is set to what you need it to be. Either 24 frames per second or 30 frames per second depending on what you've decided in pre-production.
- Set your images for a duration of 0.12 seconds at 24 frames per second. This means that when you import your images they will playback at twelve frames per second.
- Next, import your photos into your project. They will appear in your project panel.
- Select the first image and then use your keyboard or mouse to select all of the images. This will keep them in order.
- Next, drag your photos onto your timeline.
- Extend the timeline to see how many photos fit into one second. If you made the correct timeline adjustments before import, you should see 12 photos for every second.
- If you are experiencing lag, go to your sequence settings and “render” your timeline.
- Some editing software will allow you to “nest” or combine all of the images to create one track as opposed to you working with individual images. This is not necessary but can be helpful as editing video clips is easier than editing individual images.
- You can always adjust the speed of your video by using the “speed/duration” setting in your software.
- Next, you can edit your stop motion video and include additional effects like text and audio.
- Once you've finished video editing and adding any effects, you can export your video.
The biggest thing to remember when creating stop motion videos is frame consistency and capturing enough images to fit the duration that you need. To avoid major setbacks when making stop motion videos, always remember to take enough photos for each scene, keep the settings and lighting consistent throughout, and make sure your framing doesn't change.
The bottom line
Stop motion animation video can be a fun way to tell a story—it breaks the monotony of basic video playback and forces both the creator and the viewer to see and experience a story from a new point of view. While creating stop motion animation can be time-consuming and requires a lot of pre-planning, the payoff can be remarkable.
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