What to Practice? What to Focus on?

Stop motion, is unique in that it requires a considerable amount of materials and skills in order to create... something... anything. So what specific aspects should I practice on in order to become good, or even great? What skills should I devote most of my time to?

Keeping in mind... I'm working alone and I do not have a team to fall back on.

A bit about myself...  I work at a Shipyard, I'm 30, (closing in on 31), I'm not married, still living at home but I'm moving out in the Fall to my own apartment (with no roommates) and I use to make Stop Motion Music Videos... up until 5 years ago...

This was the last video I made. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X87MOZ3eQRA My responsibilities for the creation of this video was basically everything... This was 5 years ago and I want desperately to get back into the swing of things.

So why did I stop? Prior to the Widow Sunday video... I spent 8 years trying to break into music videos using the art of stop motion but to no avail. With battling school and finances, everything kept blowing up in my face. I finally graduated... and that video was suppose to be my "come back".... of sorts but I ended up having a nasty fall out with the band/record label.

I was fed up.. so I stopped.

I've spent the last 5 years working to become as financially independent as possible and I am now... finally going to hit the mark.

The Problem:

During my Music Video days... I had no idea what I was doing. Didn't know what to focus on... didn't know what to get really good at... everything was just trial and error. This video was a nightmare to create http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XpeVSdZQrjk  (and again I did everything)

I'm 30 now... I don't want to waste anymore time and above all.. I DON'T want to be a "jack of all trades". I want to be a Master at something involving the stop motion process. I'm in this for the long haul, I know it takes years to get good at something and I'm not afraid of that... I just want to know what to practice so that I actually DO get somewhere without wasting my time. 

Where do I want to go?

One day... I want to make Horror Movies, but... I love stop motion (always have). So I want to make animated horror Shorts/Music Videos and maybe parlay that into something bigger years down the line.

I'm trying to create a foundation and a solid reputation for myself.

Therefore... these Shorts/Music Videos have to be good... REALLY good, the best they can be. So what do I practice day in and day out to make that happen? What can I do to get to work at 5 in the morning and go at it like a son of a bitch? What skills should I devote most of my time to?

Thank you again for your time.

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Read books, scour the internet, study people and animals, absorb what you can. Find your niche, hone it, and make a film that showcases that niche. Maybe you will find that you are really good at lighting. Or storytelling. But keep it simple, and finish it. Each time you make a film, expand a little. Add new elements and get a little more complex with the designs. When you have enough stuff animated, put it on a reel, best shots first. Post the reel on Vimeo or Youtube, or both- because you never know who might see it.

To start with, I would make a simple character and have it picking up a box, or reacting to something in the scene. Tell a little story with a simple backdrop. Don't worry about it being perfect, just focus on making everything really clear.

Do you want to pick an area to specialise in, or continue to make your own films where you pretty well have to do everything?  For most of us, doing a bit of everything is the reality.  But if you wanted to work at somewhere like Laika or Aardman, what matters is being amazingly good at one thing.  

I watched the Widow Sunday video without sound on, because it was in the night, which is a pretty unfair way to judge a music video!  But what I noticed was a puppet rotating as if it was on a mechanical turntable at a constant speed, not a character turning to see something, with a sense of personality and motivation.   Given the rather Swankmeyer/Bros Quayish feel, that may have been intentional.  But if I were hiring an animator, I would look for more acting than I see here.

Most of us could do with work in this area.  I realised that my walks were fine for getting a character from A to B, but often didn't express anything about the character or how he was feeling, so I tried doing a couple of specific walk exercises.  I should probably do more of them, because I still see shots I've done that don't express much.  So you could certainly do some exercises like walking or lifting.   But if you had a situation in mind, like a mini-story, that might be more interesting than simply practicing an action on its own.  Same with other actions, if there is a context, like Pram was saying a little story,  it would have more meaning.

The images were good, and I see you composited some layers together.  But a couple of the shots were somewhat undermined by some of the elements jiggling.  Better to have a steady camera, do the composite, then add some jiggle afterwards if you want that as part of the look.

Just now I tried watching and listening with the sound on, not my thing but I turned the volume down and stuck with it.  The lighting, the colour palette, the graphic images and whole look of it are great, and well suited to the music.  It's still a bit random, because that's how music videos are.  

Same with Wretched Asylum, the way the band is shot works seems to really suit them, it puts them right into the same world as the animated meat and screws.  What any of it means I have no idea, but that's probably how it is supposed to be.  What these music videos don't how - because it's not what they are about - is how you would go at telling a story with animated puppets.  So if you could do that, while still keeping the graphic sense and atmosphere that you have demonstrated, you would really have something to show.  

Bear in mind, I don't do music videos myself and this death metal stuff is not my kind of music. Also I tend to lose interest during experimental films with random images at festivals - I have a strong preference for narrative films.   I'm coming from a different place. But still, my feeling is, concentrate on learning how to make things clear to an audience first, before introducing too much ambiguity.  (Thousands of Brothers Quay fans would disagree!)

I've got into stop motion in the last year or two having had a career in television, and I am trying to make a narrative short - something very ambitious but hopefully worth watching. I am passionate about telling this particular story, a Cornish folk tale.

I have been working on lots of different aspects of stopmo, and things are gradually getting better and smoother etc. It's a long hard road, as you said. Never mind the challenge of the editing process.

But there is one area that I think is more important than any other. This is simply - the story. A really good, well-constructed story will have an audience gripped and they will forgive any technical shortcomings in the animation. But first-class animation and a poor story will entertain briefly and then simply bore an audience.

I have just been reading a book that has lots of good stuff in it: Ideas for the Animated Short (finding and building stories) by K Sullivan and others, Focal Press, 2nd edition 2013. This is packed with suggestions and ideas on ways to improve any story, and references to guides on e.g. camera work etc. Also links to the shorts they discuss. I think the book is excellent value - and I have been changing my screenplay in the light of what I have learnt!

Just about "ditto" to what the OP expressed. hehehe. I don't want to pretend that I know everything about anything, but I do feel like life has taught me something about some things. My attitude about it is this:

You found something you enjoy doing, or you revived an old passion for something you used to do, and a light bulb has gone off that's telling you life makes more sense now because of it. That's the hardest part. Now you just need to embrace it, study it, practice, and get it into your bloodstream. Don't worry about what to focus on, learn everything, wear all the hats needed to put the whole thing together. Eventually you're going to learn that some things excite and invigorate and inspire you, like a teenager getting their first car, again and again. You may also learn that some things are difficult and frustrating and annoying, like doing your taxes while construction is going on outside your window. Eventually you'll know exactly what you want to invest more time in, either because one thing is more enjoyable than another, or because you want to demystify and enjoy something you're not quite good at yet. Either way, over time you'll have a better perspective. It may even surprise you to learn that something you never thought you'd enjoy has become a new favorite thing all it's own. You might start out wanting to pursue stop-motion, and end up a happily employed freelance wedding photographer. Who knows!?

The point is to do what makes you happy and what feels right and just embrace it as a part of your life. Do it for the sake of doing it. The rest will work itself out in time.

Cheers! :)

Simon, thank you for mentioning "Ideas for the Animated Short". I had not heard of it before, and I think it is exactly the sort of book I should be reading.

You can practice technique as much as you like but if the story you're telling doesn't capture the audience you have wasted all of your effort. If someone knows an effective way to practice writing good stories then we're all waiting to hear from you!


PS You might try making videos for more main-stream music. Like Nick I turned the sound off, but not for the same reason. 

Thank you all very much for your input and advice. All of this is greatly appreciated =) Later I want to expand on my response cos for me it's bed time over here, but I hope that we can all brain storm on some good ideas on what course of action to take. Thanks again =)

I read this post and then went out searching for this book.  "Ideas for the Animated Short" is really AMAZING!

If you're going to be an independent stop motion animator creating your own short films, you're going to have to practice every aspect of filmmaking. Writing, storyboarding, composition, lighting, pacing and editing, sound, animation, set design, etc.

I would say that the fastest way to get better at something is to study professional or master work, and do analytical practice. There are a lot of people who simply "practice," but their practice is unfocused and repetitive. It's possible to just practice and get better (a lot of people do this and succeed), but I would say it's faster to do take an analytical look at the work you produce and compare and contrast it to professional work to see where your weaknesses are and what you should be focusing on. That way you're not trying to re-invent the wheel and trying to figure out everything by trial and error. Professionals and masters have already figured these things out. Many of them have written books, have blogs and do podcasts to spread their knowledge and help others.

Do that, and eventually you'll have a large enough toolkit to efficiently and evocatively animate, say and frame whatever you want to do in any way you want to do it.

The Paper Wings Podcast has done some episodes with professional screenwriters and storyboard artists:






Directing: Take your favorite movies, and find the director's commentary for them. Listen to the director talk about how he approached his shots and scenes. Go through the movie and do thumbnail drawings of shots with strong compositions and lighting. Then do practice thumbnails for your own made-up practice scenarios, trying to use similar dynamic compositions.

Temple of the Seven Golden Camels is a great blog about directing and framing: http://sevencamels.blogspot.ca/

Animating: I would suggest buying Eric Goldberg's "Character Animation Crash Course." it's a great and thorough primer on the basic principles of animation that is clear and not overwhelming. Once you get good at the basics, you can move onto Richard William's "The Animator's Survival Kit" to further refine your animation skills.

There are many more resources for learning about stop motion and film making in general, including this very forum. So good for you for posting! Keep seeking out resources to improve your skills.

Being good at art involves lots of hard work. There are many ways to approach and tackle that hard work, but there's no getting around it.

To address the OP not wanting to be a jack of all trades: You need to find people to work with. Don't try and write a story just so you have something to animate. There are writers for that- who spend more time practising their writing than you do. And if you spend all of your energy struggling through building a set and puppets, you'll find it very hard to become a good animator. In my opinion, that's the only way to become good at something- stop doing everything. Working with other artists will only improve your own work, and if they don't, at least you'll finish the project faster than working alone, so you can learn from your mistakes and move on to something else.

Agreed. I missed the line where Varg stated he didn't want to be a Jack of all trades. Being an indie film maker who does everything themselves can be an incredibly hard path, and it's very common for film auteurs who do this to take years and years to finish a film.

So the first step might be to decide what aspect of creating stop motion films you find most interesting and want to focus on.

Evan DeRushie said:

To address the OP not wanting to be a jack of all trades: You need to find people to work with. Don't try and write a story just so you have something to animate. There are writers for that- who spend more time practising their writing than you do. And if you spend all of your energy struggling through building a set and puppets, you'll find it very hard to become a good animator. In my opinion, that's the only way to become good at something- stop doing everything. Working with other artists will only improve your own work, and if they don't, at least you'll finish the project faster than working alone, so you can learn from your mistakes and move on to something else.

I've just ordered the Goldberg. So glad someone else thinks 'Ideas for the Animated short ' is good!

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