Hi everyone,

I'm directing a side project in which there is a sequence where I am hoping to simulate the look and feel of a stopmo film. I truly hope this won't be contentious here, and I promise I am not looking to cut corners or do any amount of disservice to the craft of stopmo filmmaking by not using physical puppets.

In order to achieve this, I am attempting to list some guiding "principles" to aid my animator(s) in achieving this. I am not an animator by trade myself, so I am looking to you all to guide me!

So... here's where I'm at. I had a chat with a friend, a 3d animator, and asked him how he would go about simulating this look. His answer was simple: to animate on 2's, or even 3's, and simply flatten the curves between frames. If you google search you'll see that digital animation forums have been parroting this basic advice for years.

With all due respect, I don't believe this goes nearly far enough to capture the look and feel of a stopmo film, and I am positing that beyond just the technical aspects and framerate, there are artistic hallmarks of stopmo films that are critical and intrinsic to the style. Here are some of them as I see them:

  1. Jitter / noise / "human error"
    I notice that even in the high budget full length stopmo films, there is plenty of human error in joint movement between frames. Because these are puppets being posed by hand, there is no perfect interpolation between bone positions. Also, you might get a sense that a wrist had to "wiggle" a tiny amount as that was perhaps what the animator held onto while moving the fingers, for example. It is this kind of micro-imperfection that I believe is what tells the brain that these are real, inanimate things being brought to life one frame at a time, even at 24fps.
  2. Economical posing and weight transfer
    Something else I notice in stopmo films is that in order to save time animating, not every body part of a puppet will move depending on the action. For example legs/pelvis may stay mostly or entirely stationary if only the face and arms/hands are gesturing. In digital animation we're so used to "realistic" weight transfer and movements having ripple effects across the entire body; inverse- and forward-kinematics will also ensure that movements of a joint effect others up the chain. But in stopmo puppets, sometimes there's a perceptible "lag" between body parts, which gives the animation a very signature cadence and rhythm, and seeing body parts stay perfectly still is also a "tell" to the brain that this is actually a physical puppet with forces being applied (or not) to some or all of it. Would you agree/disagree with this observation?
  3. Not all animation principles are used
    This is me speaking entirely out of my depth, but my basic point is this: puppets have real physical constraints in the form of their armatures, and depending on the style and materials (like Henry Selick's films for example) the puppets won't display certain properties like squash and stretch, at least not normally or without post production. This, beyond all the physical properties of photographing real puppets, is a key differentiator between stopmo and cartoon animation.
  4. A distinct lack of blurring and smearing
    Basically, because these are photographs being played back in sequence, there is a noticeable lack of motion blur, smoothing, smearing, etc between frames, unless added in post.
  5. Lighting and atmospherics are small scale
    In digital animation, we work with theoretically infinite and unlimited spaces where we can use the power of modern computing to simulate the real world and massive outdoor spaces. But...stopmo doesn't work like that, does it? These are sets being built and animated on small stages, tabletops, etc. The way stage lighting bounces and diffuses on a small puppet will be different from the sun shining on a human actor. This is all to say that simulating small scale and tight confines is key to the look. Furthermore, while there may be depth of field and other lens effects present, there won't be as much fog or atmospheric perspective.

I believe that is all for now. I really appreciate any advice, guidance, thoughts, etc you all can share.

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Interesting, I'll try to think it through.  You're not wrong, though I don't like to see stop motion simulated by reproducing the worst of it rather than the best.

Please, don't animate on threes!  Twos if you must.  Depends on the style, if it is creature effects in live action it is normally shot on ones.  But styled puppet films that are not trying to look real, like Aardman's, can work well with twos.

(1).  Jitter/noise:  In recent years, the jitter has been very much reduced.  This is largely due to the use of frame grabbers, that let you see your move and the last few frames, so to some extent it is up not the animator how much jitter is acceptable.  I like it to be fairly smooth, with ease-in and out and consistency between frames, but even when I position the puppet well, I do still get clothing/fur twitch from handling the puppet.  You'll see that in Wes Anderson's films, as an acceptable (or even nostalgic) artefact of the stop motion process. But Laika, aiming for something much slicker that can stand next to cgi, has pretty much eliminated it.  Costumes are designed so they fit snugly and don't twitch.  Hair is styled and stiffened.

Even some of the animation pre-framegrabber, using surface gauges, is remarkably smooth.  But if you are thinking back to King Kong 1933, it has great character but is not smooth or as slow as the movements of a creature that large should be.  Harryhausen's work is smoother but not perfect, and not very much like live action, it has it's own distinct character.  A certain sense of the animator making deliberate choices in the movements.  Some characteristic poses like the arms-back position of his biped monsters.  

(2).  Economical posing:   Yes, there is a stylisation of movement in most stop motion, and when it is rotoscoped/tracked to a live action performer it does look different.  And there are limits to how tiny you can make movements and still maintain an even measured amount, so some small adjusting movement do tend to be left out - the risk is that in doing them, they become too big/fast and distracting.  But mostly we try to do the weight transfer, the anticipation and follow-through of the body.

(3).  Not all animation principles used:  Had to look them up, so I'll go through them.

1.  True.  Squash and stretch requires the ability to deform the model in a way that 2d drawings and cgi can do, but most stopmo puppets (and real people/animals) can't.  But puppets can do the things that squash and stretch are an exaggeration of.  The body can stretch insofar as it extends out in a line, even if it can't actually elongate like a piece of rubber, and can fold up on landing to give the illusion of squash.  Cartoon squash is just taking it a bit further.  But unless replacement parts or puppets are used, it can't do the full cartoony squash and stretch.  (Laika, again,  does use 3d printed replacement faces to do the full-on distortion that stopmo traditionally does not do.  And clay animation can distort, just like drawings.)

Looking at the other principles - 

2. Anticipation.  Yes, stop motion does it.  Before starting a walk, you would need to shift the weight to one leg so you can lift the other one.  You need to pull back the arm before going forward in a punch.  The character may first look in the direction they are going to go in.  All these apply just as much with stop motion.

3. Staging.  Yes, very much so.  I'm always thinking about where the viewer is looking, and how to lead them to what is important in the shot.

4. Straight ahead and pose-to-pose.  Stop mo is straight ahead, you have to start and frame one and go ahead one at a time, not set key frames and then do in-betweens.  But we would have some poses in mind that we want to get to.  and in feature films, they generally pop-through, and often rehearse, to make sure they can hit them when they want to.   In older stop motion this was not usually the case.

Some stop motion is pose-to-pose, in that the key press are held and the in-betweens are very fast, so the character rushes from one dramatic pose to another.  But most stop mo doesn't go for this style.

5. Follow through and overlapping action - yes, we use it.  But it's probably true that when something comes to a halt and bounces back and forth a bit, it doesn't go on as long as it might in real life, it's there but shortened.

6. Slow in and slow out.  except for some very early stop motion, and some less skilled animation, most stop motion does use this.  I'm certainly very careful to do it, to the point that it feels weird when something does have to start or stop with a bang, like hitting a brick wall.

7. Arc.  We do watch the curves, but probably not as well as 2d animators.

8.  Secondary action.  Probably we are more selective about this, it's nice to do it but it does take longer to animate, and the more you do the more chances to get something wrong, and then you have to start all over again.  We can't save the keyframes, add refinements and corrections, but keep all the good bit safe and then re-render.  So there is a point where, with a difficult shot, you say, "this is good enough, the odds of getting that bit better without stuffing something else up are not good."  Sometimes, like on Take 3, I simplify, and take away unnecessary bits of detail, so I can get the damn shot done and move on. I did a chicken with a comb that bounced back and forth, but only did that in a shot where it really mattered, it didn't do a little bounce with every step.  There is a tendency to do more now, but not so much in the old classic stuff.

9.  Timing.  Getting the physics right can be hard - something like a pendulum has a certain speed and slowing when it changes direction.  It's not a character, so it has no will, it just follows physics. I don't know what it is, so I had to do a few tests before I got it right.  But I, and you and anyone, can spot it when it isn't right.   And often it isn't right.   I never found the running taun-taun quite convincing, it seemed partially weightless.  So it is probably quite common in older animation, before frame grabbers, to see imperfections.  Not that we don't know about it, but certainly in the old days of shooting on film, you didn't get the instant feedback to see how it looked.

Exaggeration.  You get it in some cartoonier puppet films, but not so much in the creature effects in live action film tradition.  

11.  Solid drawing.  Doesn't apply much, a stop motion animator does not need to have great drawing skills.  The perspective in a built 3d set will be right, and the puppet will always stay on model.   (Except for clay animation, where I guess you can lose the shape after a while.)   A stop motion animator should design poses with a good outline,  which is a bit like doing a good key drawing, but it's something I often lose track of.

12.  Appeal.  Applies just as much to stop motion as to any other animation or visual art form.

(4).  Lack of blurring.  Mostly true in the past.  But there were a few tricks, like having a sheet of glass in front of the lens and putting a little vaseline on it to blur the part of the puppet that was moving rapidly, that I did in camera,  as had others before me.  And jiggling the puppet a bit before taking the shot.  And sometimes backwinding one frame and taking a double exposure so the part moving would be ghosted.  But Ray Harryhausen famously chose not to do blurs, to keep the other-worldly fantasy element to the motion.  With his harpies, the rapid wingbeats required to hover in one place, without blurring, did look quite strobey.  So that is a characteristic of old-style stop motion.  Since  Go-Motion in the 1980s (Dragonslayer) there has been more tendency to add blur in one way or another. (I've been animating pterosaurs for a live action film, and I'm glad the director has added motion blur in post to the wing beats and all fast moves.)  So, not representative of high end stop motion today, but true if you are looking at the old stuff.

5.  There may be an illusion of large scale and great depth, generally through the use of matte paintings and forced perspective.  Wide angle lenses and stopping down can give quite a sense of vast scale, even in a limited studio space.   But it's true, there is a tendency to do most of the action in a smaller space.  And crowd scenes are rare, keeping track of more than 6 or 7 puppets at once is hard, especially in the old days on film where you relied on your memory of what each limb of each puppet was doing.  

And with the exception of Robocop 2, where they shot in smoke that was computer controlled to keep the level consistent, puppets moving in foggy atmospheres are rare.   I wanted a shot of a Hansom cab emerging from the London fog, with the horse's head clearer than its body, and the cab behind deeper in the fog, and I couldn't do it.  I could put it behind a foggy layer, with more fog behind it,  so the scene is foggy.  But could not get the graduated fog effect going from the front of the horse to the back of the cab.an changing as it comes towards the camera.  I tried the smoke filled room once, but couldn't keep the levels even between frames.  You could do it in live action, or in computer 3d, without difficulty.  I haven't figured it out yet, so I will probably do without that shot, and that is the choice that most stop motion productions with out vast resources would have to make.  So it isn't something you would generally see in stop motion.

In other ways, lighting is not so different on a small set.

After all that waffle, I'm thinking -

Possibly, the best way to get a stop motion feel (apart from actually using puppets) might be to animate straight ahead, doing every frame manually, with no key frames or computer generated in-betweens.  Try to do it well and smoothly, but accept the flaws that come with the process.  The same mental processes that a stop motion animator uses would then apply, so it might have that same sense of an animator making choices that is hard to pin down, but can be picked up subconsciously.

"Possibly, the best way to get a stop motion feel (apart from actually using puppets) might be to animate straight ahead, doing every frame manually, with no key frames or computer generated in-betweens."

THIS. Stop motion is a PERFORMANCE. The constant noodling and doodling and "improvement" added throughout the CGI process – by the animators themselves as well as everyone else looking over their shoulders – produces a smooth, yet typically (in my humble opinion) soulless performance. Well, maybe not soulless, but not recognizable as the work of any one artist, and that makes a difference. Let your animators ANIMATE, then let the work alone. Great or not-great, it is what it is.

And now the obligatory grumpy aside: How do YOU define the "look" of stop motion? What is it that you are going for? How much of that "nostalgia" you speak of is for the movies themselves, not the method by which they were accomplished?

I remember an episode of the X-Files “Jose Chung’s from Outta Space” where they filmed the creature- live actor in costume- and then went back to remove frames and manipulate the footage so it had a stop motion look to it. I can’t find the article now but it was an interesting method and kinda worked. You can find the scene on YouTube. I think it’s ok but its still a guy in costume.

Hmm... Let's just suppose you can reproduce all the things that make the handmade look in CG animation. Would that make everyone doing stopmotion redundant?

As the elements that make stopmo so attractive are mostly to do with unevenness, quirkiness and individuality, I'm with grecodan. But I bet CG animators would have to have their hands stapled to their chairs to stop them from 'correcting' their work!

I appreciate the replies everyone and will follow up with some more thoughts soon!

I just wanted to highlight this question and say that while I think there could be interesting discussions about CG vs traditional (I'm biased towards preferring films made with practical/traditional methods myself even though I work with computer graphics), I'm honestly not seeking to have any kind of debate on that and am just looking for advice/guidance so I can execute on this part of my project.

I'm going to remove the part of my OP that describes my rationale for why I'm trying to achieve this look as I don't think it's relevant to the look/feel discussion and I fear no explanation I could give would be satisfying and would only serve to derail the topic!

Simon Tytherleigh said:

Hmm... Let's just suppose you can reproduce all the things that make the handmade look in CG animation. Would that make everyone doing stopmotion redundant?

Well, I do think it is to do with straight-ahead animating, as things don't always end up quite where you might have planned, and this is what gives that sense of serendipity. That and the unplanned movements, whether of hair or clothing or actions.

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