Monday, March 31, 2008

Behind the scenes

For the benefit of Hazel (my sister who lives in Belgium), who wants to see how I'd made my first two animations, I am going to do a 'behind-the-scenes' look at the processes involved. I learned all the techniques and information I used, from three fantastic websites :,, and

The first thing I did was make the puppets. My first puppet was short, sturdy and going to stay still, so he was made solely from clay.

For my clay puppets I used Lewis' Newplast (hard, slightly dull range of colours, used by professional animators), Tallon Fun Plastic (quite soft, cheap, ok colours, aimed at kids) and Flair Plasticine (soft, good range of bright colours, aimed at kids). I used the harder Newplast to make the main bodies of the puppets, and used the softer clays for adding features and detail and building the removable mouths. In retrospect, the soft clays were a little too soft for this, especially under hot lights, and the Newplast was a little to stiff for easy movement, so in future I plan to make my puppets from Newplast and Plasticine blended together to the right consistency.

The second puppet was taller and I needed to move it's legs and tentacles, so I made a wire armature to support the clay and allow the puppet to be tied-down. I used 1/16" aluminium armature wire (available on the internet from specialist art suppliers), Milliput two-part epoxy putty and two M6 size nuts. I twisted two strands of the wire together before making the basic armature shape, then covered all the parts of the armature that needed to be rigid in epoxy putty (I did use a bit too much epoxy putty). For the feet I made loops in the wire, put a nut in the centre of each foot and covered it in epoxy putty, leaving the nut holes clear on the underside of the feet.

After the epoxy putty had hardened completely (4-6 hours), I covered the armature in clay to make my monster.

The next step is making eyes and mouths. The eyes are just white plastic beads with the pupils and the inside of the holes painted with acrylic model paint. They sit in sockets made of soft clay, so the eyes can be moved around with a pin.

The mouths are trickier, I made ten replacement mouths for the first puppet and thirteen for the second. The mouths are based on the Preston Blair phoneme series which shows the mouth shapes people use to make different sounds. I made a different mouth for each phoneme shape, plus a rest shape and a smile shape. The mouths are all made from black card mouth shapes, white card teeth and the lips are made from plasticine. They are fixed to the puppet with a tiny blob of white-tack.

I also had to prepare my set and work area. I blocked out all natural light by taping cardboard to the windows. The set was made entirely from things I had lying around. I fixed a carpet tile to my work-table with two mini G-clamps, the rest of the set was made of a cork notice board (the frame provided the skirting board in the set) covered in coloured paper and foam letters. This was then white-tacked to the wall behind the carpet tile. I used an angle-poise lamp clamped to the table, with a 100watt daylight simulation bulb, to light the set.

The first animation did not have proper tie-downs, but for the second one I had to drill two holes through the carpet tile and table to fix the puppets feet to the set floor. I use an adjustable trestle table to work on, so I can drill as many holes in the top as I want, then just replace the sheet of wood! To fix the puppet to the table using tie-downs, I push a long M6 bolt with a wing nut on it, up through the hole in the table. I screw it into the nut in the foot of the puppet, then tighten the wing nut under the table to secure the puppet.

Before I started animating I recorded the audio tracks, and edited them to make the voice sound like a child's. I used software called JLipSync to work out the sequence of mouth shapes, then made a 'dope-sheet' which told me exactly what the puppet should be doing in each frame.

I used a webcam fixed to the table, my laptop and a frame-grabbing programme called Monkey Jam to shoot the animation. The first animation was shot at 24 frames-per-second (the same rate as traditional film), the second was shot at 25fps (European video rate). The set up was far from ideal, as I sometimes had to reach over the webcam to adjust the puppet which had disasterous consequences on a few occassions. In future I will attach the camera to a full sized tripod further from the set, to avoid knocking it mid-animation.

Then it was time for the animating. The replacing of mouths is straight forward, but you have to check that the top teeth line up with the previous mouth, otherwise the mouth bounces around the face and it just looks odd. The body movements were trickier, and working with tie-downs took a bit of getting used to. The first animation was about 600 frames long, the second was slightly less. Each animation took about eight hours to shoot, althought I'm sure I'll get quicker with practice.

Edit it all together with sound in Windows Movie Maker, and ta-daaaa, a finished stop-motion animation!

So that's it I think. That is how to make a stop-motion animation in your spare bedroom with no special equipment. Have a go, it's tons of fun!

Friday, March 28, 2008

Animation number two...

This is 'My hobbies', it's the follow-up to my first animation.

I've finally been able to make my second stop-motion animation. I'd waited days until Daz was working away for the night. I can't have him turning on electrical appliances whilst I'm animating because it makes the light dim which makes the video flicker.

Well it turned out that I may have well animated with him in the house, because my animation ended up being plagued by flicker anyway! First I thought it might be because the sun had begun to come up towards the end of shooting (I shoot at night because I work better) and my room isn't 100% light proof, but it had also begun to get light towards the end of the first film, and there's no flicker there.

I think the flicker is partly down to working with high winds and lashing rain outside causing the power to surge and dip. The most flickery part of the video (close to the end) was shot between 6.30 and 8am, and I think that every person in the area turning on toasters and boiling kettles might have caused some havoc with the electricity supply.

I also had trouble with my webcam, which seemed to develop a mind of it's own half way through, and increase the colour saturation. It doesn't even have a funtion to change saturation so I couldn't correct it! It also seems to 'bleed' darker colours into lighter ones if they are put next to each other. There is probably a technical term for this but I don't know what it is.

Making this animation was much more of a challenge than the first one, and although I don't feel it is as successful as the first, I did learn far more whilst making it.

The first and most important thing I learned:
lip-syncing an animation to a recorded soundtrack - EASY
giving a puppet natural looking body movement - HARD
I need to spend a lot of time looking at the way humans and animals move before I do it again.

The other things I learned:

Don't animate at breakfast time.
Don't cover circular epoxy putty feet (with tie-downs) in a thick layer of plasticine. When you try to screw in the tie-down bolts, the foot rotates and the wire leg twists inside the clay instead of tightening the nut.
Don't animate on a wobbly table.
I need to concentrate on being less clumsy.
Don't wear a baggy sweater when animating. Loose sleeves cause havoc.
I need a better set up, because currently I have to animate side-ways on, and I have to reach over the camera to adjust the puppets. I found out how impossible it is to line up a camera again after knocking it mid animation.
I need a better camera.
I need an angle poise lamp which doesn't gradually droop as it warms up.
I might need to find a way to keep the light level constant. Dimmer switch and a lux meter maybe?

I can't wait to animate something that isn't made of plasticine. I enjoy working with it, but it has so many bad points, mainly to do with maintainence of puppets. Plasticine gets dirty, hairs seem to be magnetically drawn to it's surface, the colour from the mouths transfers to the body and you have to scrape it off and smooth it over, bits drop off under the hot lights and it's impossible to get them back in the same place, the armature wire comes to the surface if you aren't careful, some brands are rock hard and refuse to bend, other brands go too squishy under hot lights, you catch the puppet with a fingernail and it takes five minutes to repair the surface.

I can't wait to animate something woolly!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The camcorder had to go back...

Boo hoo. The camcorder had to go back. I'd go so excited by finding a 3CCD camera at such a low price, that I forgot to check one vital feature - was it possible to get live DV streamed from the camcorder to my laptop. With most of the similar models of panasonic DVD camcorder it is possible. With the one I bought it wasn't. It had to go back to the shop, so I'm still using my cheap and cheerful chinese webcam for the forseeable future.

I'm still on the look out for a 3CCD panasonic camcorder, but I'm going to go with miniDV format because apparently the picture is better, although this might be down to the compression used for the recording format, which I don't think matters if you are using it to transfer live DV. The other advantage is that most of them have a webcam function (live DV out). Problem is, good 3CCD miniDV panasonic camcorders are pretty expensive (by my standards), even secondhand. I am going to be saving up for some time.

Friday, March 21, 2008

I splurged on a camcorder...

I bought a camcorder today. It was a bit more expensive than I'd been planning to pay, but I can justify it to myself, I think. I'd been looking at new entry-level Panasonic Mini DV camcorders, because they are cheap but come with manual focus, exposure and white balance. The problem is, they will only ever give pictures that look like they've been shot on a budget camcorder.

Anyway, I found a reconditioned Panasonic DVD camcorder on ebay. It's a few years old, but instead of being a budget camcorder it's a higher-end home camcorder and has far better picture resolution and 3CCD (which apparently is a good thing). It was £30 more than a new entry level Panasonic, but it should last me a lot longer because I won't have to upgrade it as soon.

It arrives (along with a tripod) on Tuesday. Very exciting!

I also hope to try and shoot two more classroom based monologue animations over Easter weekend, this time with basic armatures, and.... wait for this.... MOVING ARMS!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


So, I find myself aged 26 as an unemployed art graduate with Asperger's Syndrome.
What's a girl to do?

Lock myself in a dark room with a camera, a computer and a selection of puppets with the aim of teaching myself stop-motion animation up to a professional standard within a year - nothing like setting myself a challenge!

The plan is to get myself a showreel together by this time next year (this is very optimistic, but I need a target to aim for) with a view to getting onto a postgraduate professional development course in stop-motion animation, followed by a career in prop and puppet making (fingers crossed) and freelance stop-motion animation. That's the plan anyway - not that any of my previous plans have ever worked out.

Why stop-motion animation? Well my wide range of skills and talents include 2D and 3D art and design, puppet making, basic metalwork, creative writing, digital graphics editing, basic engineering and problem solving. Add to that my abnormally long attention span, general perfectionism and obsessive attention to detail, and in theory you have a natural stop-motion animator.

I've been designing and making creatures for a long time, usually hand-crocheted stuffed monsters, but also in modelling clay and other materials, so it seemed a logical next step to give my creations life and personality through stop-motion animation.

I loved watching stop-motion animations as a child, from Bagpuss and Postman Pat on TV to films like The Fool Of The World And The Flying Ship and Harryhausen's great creations (although I had no idea that any of these were filmed in stop-motion at the time). My passion for stop-motion continued with the work of Aardman Animations and films like Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride, along with the occassional animated shorts that would be shown on TV. Recently the fire has been fuelled by my re-discovery of 1970s British kids show The Clangers.

I finished post-production on my first animated short yesterday. I enjoyed making it so much and got so involved in the process that I shot the entire thing in one night, and didn't get to sleep til 8am. It was the first time in my life that I had the feeling that this is what I'm supposed to do.

This blog (along with my youtube channel will be my way of recording how the plan is going. Wish me luck.

Here is my first ever piece of stop-motion animation, 'What I Did At The Weekend', made from scratch in the spare bedroom. It was inspired by my Mum who teaches six and seven year olds, and the anecdotes she comes home with.

The monster is made of green Newplast and very cheap Tallon Fun Plastic, and was about 5" tall. The mouths (there were 11 of them) are made of black and white card and Fun Plastic. The eyes are plastic beads with painted pupils. The set was knocked together out of coloured paper, foam letters, a sheet of cork, a carpet tile, some g-clamps and lots and lots of White Tack (like blu-tack but white, obviously).

From the initial idea and puppet making through to post-production, the short took less than 3 days to make. Shooting itself took about 8 hours straight.

It was shot at 24 frames per second (with the mouth moving on 2s) with a very cheap generic 2 megapixel webcam and all FREE software. I used Monkey Jam frame-grabber software. The sound was edited in Wave Pad. The lip-syncing was worked out with JLipSync then put onto a more detailed dope sheet. Everything was edited together in Movie Maker.

My next short 'The Invasion Is Coming' is currently in pre-production.