Since the first development of motion-capture cameras in the late 1880s, audiences have offered their willing suspension of disbelief for the sake of enjoying the illusion. There may be no truer case than with stop-motion animation, where inanimate objects seem to move freely across a scene and come to life before our eyes. To create the illusion, still images are played back at a specific speed or frame rate, and when the frame rate is high enough, the viewer’s brain stitches them together to create the experience of fluid motion.
Why It Works
The idea behind stop-motion animation is the same as with live-action cinematography. Images are captured in a sequence and then played back in quick succession to create the illusion of movement over time. The difference between the two techniques is in how the images themselves are captured.
In a live-action movie, a cinema camera is used to capture motion in real-time with a continuous shutter constantly exposing frames. Stop motion, on the other hand, makes use of a still-image camera to capture a single image at a time. The character movement is then made before the next photograph in the series is taken. The movement itself is never actually captured — just the result of it. Then, when the image sequence is viewed at a high enough frame rate, the experience of movement is achieved.
How to Create Your Own Stop-Motion Animation
While making stop-motion films can certainly be a tedious and time-consuming task, the process is so straightforward that you can also create your own simple animation with a smartphone in less than five minutes. It really can be as simple as you want to make it. Whichever path you choose, here are the steps you should keep in mind.
Step 1: Choose a unique character
The great part about stop-motion is that just about anything can become a character. Drawings, clay or silicone sculptures, toys, plates, food, and even people — they can all become captivating when brought to life by the illusion of movement.
Step 2: Set your camera and light your scene
When you’re starting off, it’s a good idea to set your camera in a fixed position, like on a tripod, to minimize the movement. Make sure your scene and subject are in focus, and try to avoid bumping the camera or moving it between shots. While it’s not necessary, it’s a great idea to use a remote trigger to fire your camera’s shutter, so you don’t risk disrupting the camera position. The goal is to have the camera angle remain consistent in each shot, while the character’s position changes from one frame to the next.
A note about lighting: Proper intentional lighting plays an important role in creating a specific mood. Be sure everything is lit and exposed correctly. It’s best to use a controllable source of light, as any unintentional lighting changes can cause unwanted shadow movement across the image.
Step 3: Capture an image, reposition your characters, and repeat
In order to achieve a smooth motion from one point to another, your character(s) should be repositioned by a consistent distance from frame to frame. The further a character is moved between increments, the faster it will appear to move when played back. Likewise, if it travels a shorter distance between increments, it will appear to slow down. In animation, the process of speeding up or slowing down is called ramping or cushioning.
Ramping is one way to make your character movement mimic how things move in real life. They usually don’t start at their full speed or come to an immediate stop. When you approach a stop sign while driving, you slowly brake and ramp down your speed. The same should be true with character movements. If they start and stop abruptly, it won’t feel as real as if they ramp up or slow down.
Step 4: Play back the image sequence
Import your images into any app that will play them as an image sequence, and voilà — you’ve got a stop-motion animation. Just about any app designed to create or edit videos should work: Adobe Premiere, Final Cut Pro, After Effects, Photoshop, or even iMovie will do the trick.
If you want to take your stop-motion project to the next level, however, there are a few things to keep in mind to achieve the most desirable results.
Create a Clear Path of Travel
Try and make your character move in a linear motion. That isn’t to say it needs to move in a straight line. Your characters can freely spin, zig-zag, jump, fall, disappear, reappear, and explode, but you want them to have fluid transitions from one frame to the next. If they don’t remain inline along their path, the motion will seem bumpy or jarring when played back.
Make Multiple Movements
At first, it may be best to reposition a single element between intervals, until you feel comfortable making the illusion work. Once you get that down, try repositioning more than one limb at a time. You can also move more than one character. For instance, you can have He-Man cross the street with She-Ra in the foreground, while the Ninja Turtles beat up Foot Soldiers in the background. (That’s what I’d have happen.)
Add some camera movement
Try adding some camera movement to create more depth. Just like you’d use a pan or tracking shot with a cinema camera, the same technique can be applied to stop motion. In this case, rather than only moving the the characters between shots, you also move the camera position or angle. As with character movement, gradually moving longer distances between increments will make the camera appear to ramp up speed, and moving shorter distances will make it appear to ramp down.
The term “onion skinning” comes from traditional animation, where animators would draw an image on thin tracing paper (onion skin), allowing them to see through to the previous drawing below. This gives the artist the ability to ensure a smooth transition from one drawing to the next.
Modern stop-motion animation software includes a similar feature, where the previously taken image is superimposed over the live camera view at a reduced opacity. This “onion skin” allows the animator to see a character’s previous position while actively repositioning it. If you’re serious about diving into stop motion, a quality onion-skinning feature like Dragonframe or iStop Motion is something you’ll certainly want to have.
Once you understand the basics of the stop-motion process, you can get as creative or detailed as you want about character movements, scenery changes, or adjustments to camera and lighting. For more tips of the trade and an inside look at an awesome stop-motion web series, check out our Stop-Motion Masterclass post featuring Dawn Brown’s House of Monsters.
Looking for even more inspiration? Check out our collection of royalty-free stop-motion animation clips on Pond5!