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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A couple of things I've found onion skinning to be helpful for is arc and increment movements. I typically don't show more than 3 frames at a time when using it - and at times it certainly can get confusing - particularly when dealing with small movements, overlap, and facial subtleties. I believe OS has it's place, but using it all the time can be more hassle than it's worth.

In the last two videos I posted (morph and expressions), I used OS mainly to help with the larger movements, especially linear, and STL for for the subtler stuff.

Don't know how much this helps anyone, but that's how I've been approaching it.

Wow, excellent info Don! Especially the part about keeping a walk under control. Thanks for sharing! 

thanks a lot Strider. I had emailed the developer and his reply follows


Thank you for the email.

In fact AnimatorHD has step-to-live feature.
Moreover the built-in difference key is also very helpful.

Kind Regards

Gregory R.Wroblewski


I guess I have figure out how to do it!

Wow, what useless customer service!! You should email him back with follow-up questions. Ask him how to use it. Tell him that as far as you understand 'step to live' means you just tap the forward key one more time (after stepping through several stored images) and the live view image should show up, but it doesn't. Or is there some other way to do it in AnimatorHD? Tell him you're really frustrated and need help understanding how to make it work. 

Let us know if he explains how it works, so other people reading this thread in the future will be able to access that information. 

Thanks, Strider. It's kind of a master class condensed into workshop format, and I'm really lucky to be in it. A longtime friend actually gave me a job as a video editor, leading to the ability to pay tuition for this course, which I never heard of until less than a week before it started (saw Will Vinton's post on Facebook). Without the job, the tuition would have been far out of my reach- and for the opportunity I am forever grateful. Can't stress that enough!

Wallace- always glad to help a budding animator.

Strider said:

Wow, excellent info Don! Especially the part about keeping a walk under control. Thanks for sharing! 

That's fantastic! You were already a great animator - this should push your work into the stratosphere! Don't you love when cicrcumstances just work out perfectly like that?  

CraftCadet - I was just looking at the AnimatorDV site - if it was Mac compatible I would gladly download a trial version and mess with it, but it's not. I looked at a couple of tutorials - wow, the computer-voice really gets on my nerves!! Actually makes it harder to understand - but it seems the developer probably doesn't speak English as a first language, at least judging by all the clumsy wording and phrases all over the site, and apparently he doesn't care to have a good translater check his work, so you're dealing with the language barrier. Getting good detailed instructions form him could be difficult or impossible - subtleties of meaning could be completely lost. 

In the demo I watched they used onionskinning, and I keep seeing onionskin listed all over the site as a feature, but never step-to-live. But apparently the software was used for Peter and the Wolf and it looks like really good software - it's hard to believe it wouldn't have such an essential pro feature. Possibly you just need to set something somewhere in a menu to enable it or something? Geez this is frustrating, trying to diagnose a problem like this long distance, and the answer is probably incredilby simple and just requires one missing piece of info. Grrrrooowwrrrrr!! 

Thanks, Strider. I still don't think I have a best grasp on all the principles, but I'm certainly trying. The two big ones I struggle with are follow through on a fast object that has come to a stop and has something tethered to it that needs to keep moving; and overlap where there are multiple characters, maybe even just two in a conversation. Bouncing a ball to the point where it comes to a roll and stop has also given me pause. All of those things come with practice, though. I think it's important to always stay brushed up on the principles of animation. Keep those skills sharp... A good reference book is Timing for Animation. Out of all of the books I've read on animation, I always come back to that one.

CraftCadet - I went back and read the posts you've made about AnimatorHD, and they're very vague - I don't know what the nature of the problem is. 

What exactly happens if you step through your stored frames and then hit the forward button one more time? I assume it doesn't go to the live frame? Hard to understand why there would even be an ability to step only through already-stored images - that's almost step-to-live, but missing the crucial element of the final frame. So please explain exactly what happens when you do. Does it show you anything at all? Maybe it's like iStopmotion, which was explained on page 2 I think, where it does go to live view, but there's a 50% overlay or something? 

** Edit

I'mlooking at the manual - there's no part where it simply shows you how to animate using the software (other than a little about using onionskin). I'd think that would be very prominent in the manual or video tutorials! But I did find this:

"It is suggested that the ‘Live’ option is turned on. Turning it off makes the picture refresh rate in the ‘Preview’ window higher, which can be useful when setting up the camera or viewing the tape in VCR mode. When the ‘Live’ mode is turned off, no changes take place in the ‘Mix Window’. Turning it on makes the picture from camera visible in the ‘Mix Window’ as well. In this state you can compare stored and live source image. Function is inactive when image source is other than video. "


That would be done I think using these controls:

The slider on the left would be set to Live, and you'd want to turn onionskin opacity (slider on the right) all the way down or off. 

By the way, what kind of camera are you using, and how is it attached to the computer? It does supply a live view, doesn't it? 

** Edit #2:

Oh, I see - it looks like you press the Zero key to switch Live on or off. Hard to uderstand from the manual, which is written in a very opaque manner - not user-friendly if you ask me. But try that. Let us know if it works. 

Hi Strider. Like you said the answer is probably very simple and it is. The reason I was so confused is that I would hit the play button to view the shots taken. which is exactly what it did but not going straight back to live. I have now tried a different approach that is using the left and right keys and indeed it does step to and from live. I feel a bit stupid but I could not find this method explained anywhere in the manual. I thank you for your great endeavour to help me out. 

Those controls you have a snap shot of only work on stored images


So glad to hear it!!! Did you try the 1 & 2 keys? That'll probably work too, but it's cool the arrow keys do the same thing. So you could get a Dragonframe keypad and animate up to 10 feet away from your computer. 

As well as step-to-live I also set a "loop last frames" button (make sure it will include the live) to play the last 30 or so frames.  I turn off the looping bit though - so it only plays through once.  Kind helps me see if there's unexpected jerks or whatever in there.  Those keypads are really useful, it doesn't have to be a dragonframe one any USB numeric keypad should do (the one I use at home cost about £7)

True, but most keypads I've seen don't have anywhere near a 10 foot long cord, and aren't already marked with what each key's function is specifically for stopmotion. 

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