Inspiration, Pro Tips

Stop-Motion Master Class: Inside the ‘House of Monsters’

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There’s always been something magical about stop-motion animation — whether it involved Sinbad battling skeletons, Rudolph finally taking flight, Wallace and Gromit fighting Were-Rabbits, or a young boy evading Boxtrolls. And now there’s another enchanting stop-motion treasure we can add to the list: the delightful web series House of Monsters.

A self-described mix of “Nightmare Before Christmas meets Looney Tunes,” House of Monsters­ was created by Dawn Brown, a set designer who has collaborated with major directors including Tim Burton and J.J. Abrams. The series (which you can watch on YouTube) imagines the hijinks that would ensue if some of the world’s most famous monsters all lived together under one roof. Featuring narration from Christopher Lloyd, beautiful set designs, and charming characters, the series does what all great stop-motion can: puts a big smile on your face.

We spoke with Brown — who collaborates on the series with conceptual artist Warren Manser — to discuss the art of stop-motion animation, why it’s easier than ever to learn, and how House of Monsters got the great Christopher Lloyd to sign on.
 

Preparation Is Everything

Stop-motion is not something you can improvise. You have to meticulously plot out and storyboard everything along the way. “Everything is planned in advance. The story is 99% done before we shoot a frame,” says Brown. “I mean, down to the second. The timing of the jokes, the pacing, all that is figured out ahead of time, so that by the time the puppets are on the stage — the lights are on, the camera is ready to go — I don’t have to think about that anymore.” It’s all to facilitate one thing: the freedom to focus on character. “All I have to think about is the character’s performance,” says Brown. “If I have three seconds to share a look of happiness or a kiss, then that’s the only thing I have to think about.”

Dawn Brown, creator of House of Monsters
 

Getting Christopher Lloyd on Board

House of Monsters began as a few shorts, and then — thanks to a successful Kickstarter — was able to graduate to a web-series. One mission afterward was to find a very specific voice for Dr. Gaulstone, the mad-scientist father figure of the series. “On a chance, we reached out to Christopher Lloyd’s people and put together a visual presentation package,” says Brown. That package included concept imagery of Dr. Gaulstone, whose look was inspired by iconic (mad) scientist types like Albert Einstein, Boris Karloff, and — of course — Lloyd’s own Doc Brown. “That’s what we showed to Lloyd’s people, who said, ‘This is a perfect fit for him.'”
 

The Future of Stop-Motion Isn’t Clay

Those who love claymation classics like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Wallace and Gromit may be surprised to find out something about House of Monsters and other modern stop-motion: “There’s no clay at all,” reveals Brown. “Most everyone is using silicone, which is soft and flexible. The heads are hard plastic, and the hands and bodies are silicone and foam latex.” That means House of Monsters — like other stop-motion — has benefited from another recent innovation: 3D printers. “A great asset for us this time around was getting the Formlabs 3D printer,” says Brown. “It helped us really raise the quality of the puppets.”

 

Stop-Motion Can Be Self-Taught

Stop-motion might seem intimidating to pick up, but the 21st Century has made it much more accessible. “You can learn anything in the world that you want to do through watching videos on the internet,” says Brown, who stands as proof. All her stop-motion abilities are entirely self-taught, thanks to those who shared their wisdom via videos and books. And now that she’s carving her own path in stop-motion, she believes it’s important to pay it forward. “I feel really strongly about that,” says Brown. “That’s how we all grow as a community — by sharing our experiences.”
 

Never Sacrifice Story to Cut Corners

When ten seconds of footage can take an entire day to shoot, it could be tempting to consider making story changes to eliminate animation challenges — like a bat turning into a full-bodied vampire. It should never be a temptation you give into, though. “The first objective is to protect the story,” says Brown. “Don’t compromise on the script or the idea that you want to communicate. You’ve got to find a way to make it happen, and then back into that however you can.” If that seems daunting, there’s no need to be discouraged. “With the tools that are available to indie filmmakers today, it’s pretty amazing what you can come up with,” she adds.

 

Make Post-Production as Easy as Possible (with Pond5)

With so much time taken up by the animation, it can be helpful to find ways to make post-production as simple as possible. Brown is a big fan of Pond5 in that department. “I’ve used other stock music sites before, and they’re very expensive and the licenses are very complicated. But Pond5 is so simple; it’s so easy to use. Going through the library for music, we discovered the variety of sound effects and visual effects clips, and it became a one-stop shop for us over the past couple of years.”
 

Why It’s All Worth It

Stop-motion animation isn’t easy. It requires a lot of creative problem solving, an unwavering vision with an equal measure of determination to see it through, and most of all, incredible patience. But the House of Monsters creator says the payoff is always worth it. “The feeling when you watch the playback of the animation coming to life, and you start to see these little characters take on their personalities, when you know it’s just foam and wire and rubber — when you see that start to happen on the screen, it’s all worth it,” says Brown. “It’s very inspiring, and we just want to keep pushing and doing more and more.” Which is good news to us, because we can’t wait to see more House of Monsters and what else Brown and her Monster Shop have in store.

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For more of Dawn Brown’s work and behind-the-scenes videos, be sure to check out her YouTube channel and her production company, The Monster Shop.