Intro to Stop-mo


You can make ‘Brickfilms’ with Lego or use other ready-made puppets such as Playmobil, Barbie or Actionman.

If you want to make your own characters from Plasticine for claymation in the style of Aardman’s Morph and Wallace & Gromit then you will need to consider what size to make them. Too large and you will need a huge set or backdrop and plenty of room to get your camera back far enough to get everything in the shot. Too small and it becomes difficult to model facial expressions (and you will need magnifying lenses to screw onto your usual lens whenever you want to do a close up).

You may find it easier to film characters lying on their backs or sides to solve one of the hardest problems you will face – getting your puppets to stand and walk without toppling over.

Tip – Lying characters down on the background is especially useful if you want your puppet characters to fly or swim without having to use green-screen trickery, wires or rigs (we are happy to help with green-screen trickery if you want).

In the video above Kelda (5) demonstrates stop-motion animation at a My-Animation session in Cobbett Hub and Library, Southampton. With the camera suspended above a background image that is flat on the table, she can happily animate (at impressive speed) without risk of her models ever falling over – because they already have!

We have special tripods that can get the camera up high. Having the camera out of the way makes it less likely to be knocked and makes animating more accessible to wheelchair users, especially if the tripod is placed on the other side of the table and the animation is effectively filmed upside-down!

Tip – Kelda is “shooting on twos” – taking two photographs/frames between moving her puppets to speed up the process. UK DVDs are recorded at 25 frames per second (films at shot 24 frames per second). “Shooting on twos” speeds up the process as very few people would notice the slightly more jumpy result and now we *only* have to move the puppets 12 times per second of animation. It is standard practice even for professional animation such as Aardman’s “Wallace and Gromit”.

The traditional solution to getting your characters walking is to have little bolts sticking out of your characters’ feet, and have holes in the set base so you can put the bolts through and fasten them with butterfly nuts. This ‘tie-down’ system is slow and awkward. A variation is to have very powerful ‘earth’ magnets on the puppets’ feet and have an iron base to your set. Lego characters can just walk around on the studs of a base-plate. Blutack is a regular go-to solution to keep things from falling over…

Some puppets may need an ‘armature’ – often just of twisted wire. Florist’s aluminium wire is a good choice as it is soft, will not rust and is easily obtained at a garden centre. Eventually, all the bending back and forth will snap the wires so having at least 3 strands is good. If you bind masking tape around the body, legs and arms EXCEPT where you want your joints to bend your character will move more realistically and the plasticine will stick better too.

The most popular plasticine brand for serious animation is Newclay Newplast, available in 26 different colours. It usually comes in fairly large blocks but is hard for children to work with as it is quite firm, so we often use actual ‘Plasticine’ or softer unbranded packs from craft shops such as The Range.

Tip – if you want to soften plasticine then knead it like dough – adding a little vaseline helps, as does a few moments in a microwave or oven.

Professional armatures and puppets are often made by Mackinnon and Saunders

Automating camera moves and lighting or shooting in 3D

Stop-motion animation can be incredibly time-consuming but there are ways to automate lighting changes and camera moves: Each time a frame is photographed, the software also sends a signal to other equipment which can make the lighting a little brighter or darker or move the camera or part of the set a tiny bit before the puppets are moved and the next image is taken.

This is especially useful if you want to film in 3D as the camera can be automatically slid sideways to take the second stereo image. So when the left hand (eye!) image has been taken the camera will be automatically moved across by a distance equal to that between the eyes of the puppets and the right hand (eye) image shot. To save unnecessary movement this is done as Left_move_Right; adjust puppets and then shoot Right_move_Left; adjust puppets and then shoot Left_move_Right and so on in a pattern of LR; RL; LR. Dragonframe automatically saves these images to the correct Left and Right folders and these are later combined in the editing process.

Professionals such as Laika and Aardman use Dragonframe software hooked into a dedicated lighting and/or motion controller but Dragonframe can also be connected to a cheap microcomputer such as an Arduino board and stepper motors.