THE SECRET - Using "Step To Live" for smooth stopmotion (this is how the pros do it)

This is a rough demo - can't call it a tutorial really, it's just the raw footage of me animating, and I'll write in the important details below - what you need to pay attention to etc. Keep in mind I'm no professional, and I'm far from a master animator - I'd consider myself on the newbie-ish side of intermediate. My info comes from a true master, Nick Hilligoss, who patiently explained this over and over on the old board till the dim light of comprehension began to glimmer somehwere in my head. And I welcome input to this conversation from anyone with anything to add or any changes to recommend to the process - together we can create a great thread to refer newbies to - an Animation 101 thread with tips and advice. 

It seems everybody starts off using Onionskin. And yeah, before anybody busts me - I know, way back on the original StopMoShorts I posted a tutorial on animating with it - hey, that was before I saw the light, ok? And onionskin does have its place in stopmotion, but in general the step to live function is much better. Not all framegrabbers have it - among Mac grabbers I believe Dragonframe and iStopmotion do, and Framethief, though sadly it's becoming rapidly obsolete now that the architecture of the Lion OS no longer supports it. I'm not sure if any of the cheapies or freebies have step-to-live - in fact it seems most framegrabber designers only know about onionskin! 

But enough jibber jabber - on with the demo!

First I look at the chest (or no wait - maybe the legs??)

This one might just be me, but as soon as I'm done moving the puppet I want to check and make sure the torso hasn't accidentally shifted in some unexpected way. It happens all the time - you grab the puppet by the chest so as you're moving an arm or the head or whatever he doesn't shift, and without realizing it you push him down a little or bend him or twist him slightly. Especially with my puppets - the spine and legs really should have been beefed up a bit more. Here's the procedure, and this is the technique you'll use to check each part, so pay attention here! 

Tap the back button several times to step backwards through the last few captured frames. On the Dragonframe controller it's the little left arrow just above the play button (long button in lower left corner of keypad). Also above the play button is the forward key - an arrow pointing to the right (imagine that!) 

Now tap the forward button several times - the same number of times you tapped the back button. I generally use 4 or 5 frames - I imagine a more experienced animator doesn't need so many frames to judge the movement unless it's a pretty complicated move. But at my current skill level, I'm sitting here with my tongue out and biting it gently, staring intently at the monitor like my life depends on it - and I'll admit it - sometimes I need to use 6 or 7 frames to really see an entire arc of movement! And as you can see in the demo, I often need to repeat the process quite a few times while I'm trying to decide which way to push things. Er - no wait - actually, I did that just in order to show newbies how it's done - yeah, yeah - that's the ticket! 

What you're doing as you tap these buttons is carefully watching your puppet on the monitor - beginning with the torso and shoulders. Often you'll notice it pop slightly to the left or right, forward or back, or maybe twist slightly (that one can be tough to understand when you see it and to figure out how to fix). Fix it. If you can see that it didn't move quite right but you can't really tell which way it shifted (hey, it can happen - the puppet is moving through 3 dimensional spatial coordinates in some very complex and tricky ways) then just grab it and move it whatever way seems right then run through the sequence again - 4 or 5 back taps, then 4 or 5 forward ones. If you moved the torso the wrong way you'll be able to tell immediately and now have a good idea how to fix it. Sometimes I have to go through this procedure several times before I get it all ironed out (and I mean just the torso!). 

When that's done, click through back and forth again a few times, this time watching the head. When it's fixed, do an arm - and pay attention to where the mistake is and which way it needs to be moved - is it from the shoulder, the elbow, the wrist - does it need to go up, down, back, forth - maybe a combination of those - or maybe rotational? 

You know - it just occurred to me - I wrote this to go with this particular video demo, only showing Cosmo from the waist up - actually if I had a full-length shot showing his legs too, then I'd probably start with the legs rather than the torso. Yeah, I guess you want to start from where he's tied down - or from where he's supposed to be bearing his weight (in case he's on a rig but the feet are supposed to be supporting him or whatever). So I suppose it's best to say work from the base up and outward - ending with the head arms and hands. Though this might be flexible depending on various factors - so far this procedure has been working for me. 

And don't neglect the hands! They can add a flourish to a movement and portray a lot of character. 

Using these techniques, the smoothness of your animation is limited only by your diligence and patience. 

Remember your Principles!! 

The 12 principles of animation - originally codified and laid down by the legendary 9 Old Men of Disney fame. Some of them, like squash and stretch, don't really apply in stopmo unless you're doing clay work or replacement. 

Beginners, don't get overwhelmed by the principles - just go into them one at a time. Start with Ease-in and Ease-out -- just practice it a few times until it starts to become second nature (and then first nature) - this is a principle you'll use on every move you ever animate, unless it's supposed to be brutally abrupt and maybe cartoonish, like a robot pile driver or something. Then after absorbing that one start to work on Anticipation and Followthrough or something. 

Take some time to study these demonstrations: Animated Cartoon Factory

On these little quicktime examples, you can step through a frame at a time forward and backward, just like when you're animating - just stop the movie playing by tapping your space bar (or I guess you could click the stop button) and then use the left and right arrow keys on your keyboard. 

Look at the mechanical movement examples and compare with the ease-in and ease-out (he calls them slo-in and slo-out - they're also sometimes referred to as cushioning). Also pay particular attention to the anticipation/followthrough and the pendulum and seaweed examples - when you're moving an arm or any multi-jointed part, think of it as seaweed. 

 

Ok, there's more I could write here, but this first post is long enough already, and I figure more can always be added in followup posts. Hoping to hear from some pros or just experienced animators who might have anything to add or change.

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I would love to see a wireless keypad...

Here's one. Wireless Keypad Cheap, too.

I had considered wireless at one point, but it means changing batteries every few days or so. Somebody once gave me a wireless keyboard and mouse and the batteries only lasted about a week, then I went back to my nice wired versions that do nothing so frustrating. After considering all these options I decided that, as far as I'm concerned, the Dragonframe keypad is the best way to go. Unless you find one with an equally long or longer cord that costs less and maybe paint the functions onto the keys or just memorize them. Or maybe a keypad doesn't use as much power as a mouse or keyboard and batteries might last longer? I don't know tech stuff.. 

Ooh! I didn't even look at that angle... Yeah, a USB extension would be preferable to wireless, then.

A quadruped you should think of as 2 sets of biped (front and back). But they're not offset by half a cycle (ie front left up back left up) so much as by three quarters of a cycle (I think the back legs should be trailing the front legs so that as the front left is starting to come down as the back right starts to come up).

Back on the original topic I always use step to frame rather than onion skin. flicking between two frames seems to really draw my eye to whats changing. When you look at 2 superimposed layers its hard to tell which bits live and which is the old frame. Even when youre trying to replace something that you've knocked over. You can see there is a difference but you cant see which way you need to move to correct it.  With step to live its much more obvious.

Not that Ive done any stop mo in months now...



Wallace Jones said:

Any tips on animating a four legged dinosaur? I am trying to animate a triceratops type dinosaur. I use a surface gauge made of a wooden block with a aluminum wire pointer. I don't like onion skin either. I normally check the previous frame (or two) for reference. I can't seem to get the sequence of the legs right. I tried starting with the front left leg and rear right, then front right and rear left but the end result was not good. Should I try locking down front right and rear left and moving front left and back right forward while pulling the body forward, and then repeating with opposite legs? I usually shoot on ones at 20fps.

Thanks Dave. I think I am getting closer to a realistic quadruped walk cycle. Will post results with new puppet soon.

This is my first try with the new, wire armatured puppet. I re-used the head from the old puppet.  Not as smooth as the old puppet but at least the tie-downs worked. However I think I want to try stronger magnets the next go round because I did get some slippage. I also need to experiment with the lighting a bit. The puppet is actually a greyish brown. I got about as much wrong as I did right with this one, but at least I got through a walk. l think I need to offset the cycles more. Thanks again for all the tips, I will try to put them to better use next time :

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nR95P3Jxr2s

Wallace, I think what I'd do is first figure out how fast you want him to move from point A to point B - in fact I might just use a video camera (if you have one) and hold the puppet in my hand like playing with an action figure, and just slide him across the scene a few times at different speeds, then watch the video and choose the one you like best. I haven't quite figured out a way to break that down totally yet and figure out how many frames you would need for a walk cycle - but given time I think I could. 

Now, when animating, 1st thing to do each frame is just move the body forward, always exactly the same amount. In a normal walk, your body and head should always move smoothly forward at the same gliding rate, unless it's some kind of weird walk with a lot of extra up-and-down motion or something. 

I'd personally scrap the magnets and just use tie-downs - magnets will only work with very well-made puppets that move easily and don't need to be wrestled with, and even then they don't really secure the feet down so they can't slide. If you have screw-type tie-downs in the feet, then it's a simple matter - you just grab the puppet and move it forward the same amount for each frame, and already the tied-down feet have taken care of themselves. Then it's mostly just a matter of using the framegrabber to make sure the non-tied-down feet sort of obey intertia - you know, they'll sort of drag back each step to try to stay where they were in space the last frame, at least when first picked up, and then they'll gain forward momentum before planting themselves down on the ground again. 

With magnet tie-downs you also need to use the framegrabber to make sure the stuck-down feet aren't sliding forward as they're going to want to do. 

And I'll reiterate - I think your armature is fighting against you a lot more than helping like a good armature should. It's impossible to get good animation from a balky armature. Well, for most of us - I'm sure there are some people who can, but then it takes years of experience to get that good, and that's experience working with good armatures. 

After reading your post, I bought some stronger magnets and tried the scene again. While there was marked improvement in the leg sequence, you were correct about the tie-downs and the armature. Steel wire might be a option in certain situations, but it just doesn't go where you need it to. And, while magnetic tie-downs have their place, they really can't compete with the holding power of traditional tie-downs. Pulling the puppets body forward during the walk was great advice, and as you pointed out, one really needs traditional tie-downs to do this. As for my quadruped, I am going to try to salvage it by scrapping the magnets and installing tie down nuts in their stead. From now on, aluminum wire it is! Thanks again for all the advice.

Strider said:

Wallace, I think what I'd do is first figure out how fast you want him to move from point A to point B - in fact I might just use a video camera (if you have one) and hold the puppet in my hand like playing with an action figure, and just slide him across the scene a few times at different speeds, then watch the video and choose the one you like best. I haven't quite figured out a way to break that down totally yet and figure out how many frames you would need for a walk cycle - but given time I think I could. 

Now, when animating, 1st thing to do each frame is just move the body forward, always exactly the same amount. In a normal walk, your body and head should always move smoothly forward at the same gliding rate, unless it's some kind of weird walk with a lot of extra up-and-down motion or something. 

I'd personally scrap the magnets and just use tie-downs - magnets will only work with very well-made puppets that move easily and don't need to be wrestled with, and even then they don't really secure the feet down so they can't slide. If you have screw-type tie-downs in the feet, then it's a simple matter - you just grab the puppet and move it forward the same amount for each frame, and already the tied-down feet have taken care of themselves. Then it's mostly just a matter of using the framegrabber to make sure the non-tied-down feet sort of obey intertia - you know, they'll sort of drag back each step to try to stay where they were in space the last frame, at least when first picked up, and then they'll gain forward momentum before planting themselves down on the ground again. 

With magnet tie-downs you also need to use the framegrabber to make sure the stuck-down feet aren't sliding forward as they're going to want to do. 

And I'll reiterate - I think your armature is fighting against you a lot more than helping like a good armature should. It's impossible to get good animation from a balky armature. Well, for most of us - I'm sure there are some people who can, but then it takes years of experience to get that good, and that's experience working with good armatures. 

I feel that glow of pride that says I really accomplished something here!  

For a minute I thought you were about to say that after I recommended 'real' tie-downs you bought stronger magnets and were now more determined than ever to keep using them! You know, how some people will just always do the opposite of what you suggest, just to spite you? Lol, glad you're not one of those! 

I have a good feeling that your animation is about to improve dramatically. 

Here is the same puppet after fitting it with traditional tie downs. While I am still fighting the steel wire armature, the animation has really smoothed out as a result of the feet not sliding around. I will try a similar test with a puppet that has a aluminum wire armature, just for comparison. Thanks again for all of your help:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AoD3XEr8Zdg

Strider said:

I feel that glow of pride that says I really accomplished something here!  

For a minute I thought you were about to say that after I recommended 'real' tie-downs you bought stronger magnets and were now more determined than ever to keep using them! You know, how some people will just always do the opposite of what you suggest, just to spite you? Lol, glad you're not one of those! 

I have a good feeling that your animation is about to improve dramatically. 

Nice! I think you'll be getting it well under control soon. Looking forward to seeing what you can do with the aluminum beastie. 

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