Trying to find a simple way to animate the surface of a lake that will allow me to focus on animating two characters rowing a boat across it. I am not overly concerned with realism and will accept something a bit cartoony.

The attached clip shows a brief test I did this afternoon using plastic wrap over a blue painted table top. With a bit of practice this might do the trick, but was wondering if there were any better ideas out there.

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Years ago, "How do U animate water" was one of the classic questions.  Dozens of things have been tried.

A friend did swimming pools with a clear plastic film over some KY Jelly, on top of clear perspex.  He rippled the surface with his fingers every frame.  The squishy jelly underneath deforms and the plastic moves with it, but you don't get your fingers goopy.  It worked surprisingly well for the rapid, fairly random little wavelets you get in a pool with many people disturbing it.  Smooth waves progressing across the surface would be harder.

I have an ambition one day to build a rig with rotating cams to put under a blue cloth, all geared together, which when rotated will make parts of the surface rise and fall in a smooth motion.

It can be done with rows of painted cut-out waves, too, each row moving slightly differently.

I have sometimes cheated, and done a cgi water surface in 3d animation program Lightwave 3d.  I map the image of the stop motion boat onto a rectangle, with a matching set of transparency maps to make the background go clear.  The cgi water reflects the boat, broken up by the rippling waves.  For other angles, I place the screen of just the puppets in a 3d cgi model boat, so it intersects the water in the right places.  Again, the water reflects the boat and the flat screen images of the puppets.  If the boat turns, the puppets had to be animated turning, then the flat screen is rotated so it always faces the virtual camera and doesn't distort.  I wanted to spend my time animating the characters, not the water, but this may not suit the pure stop motion aesthetic you might be going for.  

Thanks, Nick! My goal is to spend my time animating the characters and not manipulating and keeping track of the waves. I also like to be "done" when the last frame is shot and not face long sessions in post.

I like the plastic wrap because it reflects like water and looks "wet", but it is hard to control and can look too random.

My next idea is similar to your cams or cut outs. I will make some long, low profile "waves" and mount them on long thin slats. These will be painted the same color as the table and placed on the table top under the plastic and boat. The slats would then be slid across the table frame by frame creating an undulating water surface. The movement could be pre-marked on the table so thinking is at a minimum on what to do next. Just move them to the next mark.

Here's another attempt: Rowboat on water

This time I used a 0.7 mil thick clear painter's tarp, which did not have as much shine but covered the entire table with one sheet. I made 3 plywood slats 1/4x1 inch, painted them blue and placed them on the tabletop under the plastic sheeting. These were animated moving toward the camera while the boat moved across the screen, bobbing as it encountered a wave.

Good test! The moving slats work very well for those long waves moving towards the beach.  I imagine that sometimes the shape of the boat bottom would not fit the shape of the wave, so a gap might appear.  Maybe something that looks like sea foam around the edges could cover that, like fluffy cotton or dacron.

I can think of extra complexities, like the slats being somewhat flexible (Like the jointed wooden snakes that only flex sideways, only in this case they only flex up and down so you can still push them along from the sides) and an undulating surface or rails underneath for them to slide on, so different parts of the same advancing wave move up and down a bit.  But while that doesn't complicate the animation process, it does increase the making time a lot.  And what you have there looks very good as it is.

The movie Finding Neverland had a great sequence with what looked like cutout waves as used on stage, except I think they cheated and used cgi to make and move the layers of cut-out waves. A friend used a simpler row of cutouts for her student film, Seabound, years ago, but I can't find any trace of it online.  The painted rows with the tops cut in a wavy shape slid left and right, alternating so when the even numbered rows went left, the odd numbered rows went right.  then they eased out and reversed direction.  I thought a slight undulating action might have looked better than straight sliding.  The limitation is that the boat had to fit in side view between the rows.

One I had forgotten - A really nice wave action, looking like wooden slats rather than trying to look like water, is in Dik Jarman's film Dad's Clock.  Here the boat is also slatted so it fits in between the wave slats, in keeping with the skeletal/mechanical minimalist look of the film.  The mechanism might be an option for putting under the plastic sheet, with the boat on top and able to move freely like your test shot.  I think it was made so he only needed to turn one crank a bit each frame, so it is more time making, but less to worry about while animating.    

Thanks for the link to Dad's Clock. Fascinating bit of set and animation. So many ideas! I may get hooked on making water and forget my story...

As far as the gap between my boat and the water surface goes, I will try attaching a a ring of the same plastic sheet to the bottom of the hull. Then add some filler such as you suggest to create a slight bow wave, wake and ripples where (eventually) the oars enter the water.

I am also adding a layer of sheetrock joint compound to the slats to smooth the edges and build up some wave forms. This should help prevent the straight-edge look to the oncoming waves. Unfortunately, I won't be able to get back into the basement studio until next week, so I'll have to wait until then to try it out.

Sounds like you have a pretty good system worked out.  Looking forward to seeing how it comes out - and the all-important character animation and story too of course!

I am picturing a sort of conveyor belt with the slats, so you don't have to move each one of them individually. The belt would travel back under the table top.  Then the plastic sheet sits on the slats, attached at the back so the slats slide under it.  But just sliding individual slats would be far quicker to set up, at the cost of more time animating.  Damn, I shouldn't still be obsessing about the waves, its the story that matters...    

:)... that's what I keep telling myself. I like the conveyor belt idea. It would save a lot of time.  Going under my table would not work because of the support structure. But if the slats could be easily detached and reattached at the back of the table that would be wonderful!

Belt idea is one complication too many then. How many slats would be needed for the longest shot you are likely to do?  If you have that many, they can just hang down the front and pile up, then get re-set next shot.  If you take off and re-attach, it could be a section of them rather than individual slats.  A strip of canvas or an old roll-up blind could make a good base to stick slats onto so they all drag along together.

Not ready to give up on the belt idea. Fortunately I can't get to my shop or studio for the next several days or else I'd be building things prematurely. Unfortunately, my brain keeps working and wakes me at 3AM. My studio space:

The table top is 6 feet wide by 4 feet deep (forgive the old school units. As you can see I'm also still using tungsten lights). There is a gap of about 2 feet between the rear of the table and the backdrop. There are three slats on the table, a pulled-back plastic sheet and the rowboat.

I see two conveyor "tapes", one at each end of the table, out of camera view. The slats would be pulled along by a small wooden block glued to the tape (see sketch below). There should be no need to fasten the slats to the tape. I think the three slats are sufficient and probably need to be further apart and move more slowly than shown in my test. When a slat reaches the front of the table, it is removed and recycled to the rear, where there will be another small block waiting on the tape. Movement increments could be marked on the tape instead of the table, keeping me from running around the table moving slats for each frame. Now I can't wait until next week to try it out!

This took longer to get to than I had hoped. The wave movement looks good. The speed of the boat and the wave tops need adjusting. I'm probably ready to stop experimenting on this scene and get to animating the characters.

https://youtu.be/RoA028aulMM

Good to hear!  Are those slats underneath cut with an irregular edge?  they look good, no straight line at the front.  The action of the boat responding to the wave is great!

This is the way the slats were arranged at the start of shooting (with the plastic sheeting pulled back). Only the middle slat was modified. That is the one the boat goes over. The boat also has bits of plastic wrap at the bow and stern to hide the bottom of the hull. That mass of plastic sheeting at the back looks like it could turn into a real breaker with some animating. Hmmm....

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