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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If you're using a PC, I can point you in the right direction. With no budget, Monkey Jam is excellent It will get you used to working with X sheets and (I think) you can print them out from the program. There's also a few other packages I've tested for various companies. One of my favorite early programs, though, was Anasazi. I really cut my teeth on that one. It prepared me for Stop Motion Pro, as it's very similar but SMP has more features. 

Now I use Dragon Frame. It's my favorite, by far.

Squah and stretch still applies to stop motion, even if your puppets can't physically squash and stretch. For example, the body compresses (knees bend, body folds up, arms come down)  when landing from a jump, and stretches out when jumping off again. The animators on Transformers the movie made sure to curl the transformers up into a little ball when landing from a jump to get stretch and squash into the animation. The change in shape in the silhouette creates a much more dynamic movement and gets it to pop more.

Animating on twos is MUCH less forgiving. I asked Merlin Crossingham about animating on ones and twos ( I animate on a mix of one's and two's) and he said all of Aardman's work (at the very least, his own) is animated on twos. In order to do so, you need to plan ahead and make sure all your arcs, timing and spacing is figured out in advance for each move. If it's a skill you can build, it means cutting your worktime in half.

If people are looking to improve the quality of movement in their animation, they definitely need to study the basic principles of animation. I'd suggest starting by taking a look at "Preston Blair's Cartoon Animation" and/or Eric Goldberg's "character Animation Crash Course." After getting a hand on the fundamentals, you can move onto Richard Williams' "The Animator's Survival Guide."

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