Make a Stop-Motion Movie, Part 1

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I grew up loving classic stop-motion animation--stuff like Gumby cartoons and classic Ray Harryhausen movies like Clash of the Titans. And over the years, I've tinkered with making my own. The problem? Stop-motion animation takes a long time. It's a slow process composed of setting up a shot, taking a single frame, moving your subject a teeny little bit, and then taking another photo--over and over and over again, once for each frame of film. It takes years to make a stop-motion film (just ask Tim Burton, who makes movies like The Corpse Bride and The Nightmare Before Christmas).

So my challenge to you this week and next: Make a complete stop motion animation in a half hour. Of course, our 30-minute production will have a pretty short run time. The movie I made--just to prove it could be done--runs an impressive 11 seconds. Even so, it tells a story. Want to try? Just grab any digital camera and keep reading.

Imagine the Story

Your first step in stop-motion filmmaking is to make sure you have a story. It doesn't have to be fancy or complicated. In fact, the shorter your story and the simpler your idea, the better it will fit into our 10- or 15-second film.

For inspiration, I looked around my desk for props. I immediately saw the toy dinosaur that my son gave me for Christmas. There was also a small astronaut figurine, origin unknown (though I suspect it was a gift from a coworker during my Air Force days, long ago).

The story? Dinosaur sees astronaut. Dinosaur chases astronaut. Dinosaur catches up to astronaut off-screen, where it appears that the ancient reptile has a person-sized snack. Then, a surprise ending that will hopefully elicit a small chuckle.

Set Up the Shot

The next step is to film your movie. It's absolutely essential to mount your digital camera on a tripod so the viewer's position doesn't change from shot to shot. Set up the tripod a few feet away from the tabletop or desk where you will be filming, and arrange your characters in their first positions (that's some theater jargon for you).

To get your small props in focus, it can help to start by prefocusing the scene on your main subject (press the shutter release halfway) and then set the camera to manual focus mode. When you switch to manual, the focus will stay locked on your prefocus setting. All your subsequent shots will keep that focus, even if you move your props in and out of the camera's focus zone. This technique should work for most cameras, but some point-and-shoot models might not keep their focus setting from shot to shot, so you'll need to experiment.

If you have a remote trigger--a little gadget that plugs into your camera and lets you take the picture without touching the shutter release--use it. Even better, some digital cameras work with an infrared remote that does the same thing. These gadgets help you take successive photos without handling the camera, which could disturb the framing or create a blurry shot.

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

Once you take the first shot, it's just a matter of moving one or more elements in the scene--slightly--and taking another photo. Remember that how much you move your subject will contribute to the impression of velocity and acceleration in the final film. If you want to create the impression that a car is accelerating, for instance, move your toy car in tiny increments for the first few frames, then successively larger increments after that. It'll appear to speed up and zip away. Make your movements too big, though, and it'll just look jerky.

Plan Your Frame Count

How many shots should you take? That depends upon how smooth you want your final film to be. Cinema relies on 24 frames per second, but TV uses 30. We're trying to make a quick-and-dirty film on a PC, so we can get by with fewer frames than that. Plan on shooting about 8 or 10 frames per second, so you'll need something in the neighborhood of 100 frames for a 10-second movie.

Assemble the Movie

Like any good stop-motion Saturday morning serial, I'm going to leave you with a dramatic cliffhanger. So far, we've shot all the individual frames, and now need to assemble them into a continuous film on the PC. Can it be done easily? For free? Tune in next week to find out.

Here's a hint: The answer to both of those questions is "yes."

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This story, "Make a Stop-Motion Movie, Part 1" was originally published by PCWorld.

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