What is stop-motion animation?
We can all remember making flip book cartoons on the corner of our maths exercise book, by drawing an object on each page corner, with one small change on each page. When the book is flipped, it seems as if the drawings have come to life. Stop-motion animation, at its most basic, means creating the illusion of movement by taking a series of still images, and then playing them in sequence. Flip book has moved on. When Tony Hart gave us Morph, that little character made of brown clay, it showed that photographers could make their own animations using the same principles, and with the advent of digital photography, a new generation of stop-motion animators was born. This article, while not attempting to go into the kind of detail a good online photography course would, will introduce you to the basics of stop motion photography. If you want to know more about getting the most out of your DSLR, look for a reputable provider of training, like www.institute-of-photography.com, where you can learn all about the technology your camera uses, and how to use it for all kinds of projects, including how to use some of the settings I will mention in this short article.
As for what subjects you can animate, the simple answer is anything. There really is no limit to what you can animate, as the 1986 animated two-minute film by Pixar, depicting two desk lamps interacting, shows. Desk lamps were a good choice to animate, because they had a number of features which resembled human movement – articulated joints, a head, limbs and so on. Most stop-motion animators today use clay models for their work, because it is very malleable and very small movements can be made easily. If you want to see it, search Google for “Luxo Jr.” and you can watch the animation that went on to found an industry. Pixar went on to create 13 CGI stop motion animation films, and a whole generation of children (and some adults) love the all the characters from Toy Story to Ratatouille. If you want to start using your camera to make your own stop-motion movies, start with something basic, like Lego, or small clay models.
Camera, Lights, Action
Make yourself a set, including any props and backgrounds, and decide on a light source. Light your set from above, using a lamp or other external light source, as long as it will stay at the same intensity for all your photographs. If you have anything, which causes the light to increase or decrease, it will be noticeable in your finished project, and will detract from your continuity. The beauty of setting everything up beforehand is that all you have to move is the subject (your character, moveable object or whatever you want to animate,) and the background stays the same. Having set everything up like this means you now need to turn your attention to the camera.
Most DSLR cameras will have a timer built into them, ranging from 2 seconds to 10 seconds or more. This, while it allows you some time to move the subject you are shooting, is not really up to the task of shooting perhaps hundreds of stills, while keeping an idea of what you have just photographed in front of you. Nikon and Canon introduced a feature to their DSLR cameras in 2007, called “Live View” which allows you to see a live, real time image of your shooting on the LCD screen of the camera, or to connect your camera to a computer monitor and see your shots live on a bigger screen. This is a great feature if you want to make a stop-motion animation, as you can replay your shots in sequence, effectively seeing your animation emerge as you take your stills. You can use “Live View” on its own to make stop-motion films, but together with some stop-motion software, it makes child’s play out of your animation.
Software to capture the moment
A number of easy options exist for this, including many free programs, such as MonkeyJam, and AnimatorDV: Simple+, or, if you use a Mac, Framethief or FramebyFrame. Download one of these programs, read your camera manual for how to use Live View and make your own short film. Nothing is going to teach you how to make better and better animations quite like getting stuck in, so experiment!
As with so many aspects of using a DSLR, stop-motion photography is meant to be fun. It is unlikely that you are going to be doing this, as a beginner, with any great pressure on you to make perfect movies, so just have a go, and enjoy yourself. As with any new skill, you will get more out of your DSLR camera than you bargained for, and your stills photography skills will improve along the way.