Mar 272003

by siue

I’m not going to be writing from a professional’s point of view. Most of the time I couldn’t be bothered to go about things the “right” way and am more concerned with time management and the outcome than doing something that will make me a “master” of my “craft”. I like to do animation because it’s fun, it’s a cheap way of getting what’s in my mind onto film, and I seem to be halfway decent at it. Maybe you’re wondering why you should do animation and not live action? Well, here’s two reasons — money and control! Sure you could get your friends to act for free — but will they give you want you want? Also what about special effects, costumes, sets, make-up, lighting etc., etc… Working a miniature scale is not only incredibly cheap — you can hand craft characters, movement and things exactly the way you want.

My first Claymation (animation with clay figures) was shot with a brand new 8mm video camera in 1992. Here’s what I learned from that: Lighting is VERY important and even more important than that is having a macro lens on your camera. My sets were shot with one light thereby making some REALLY awful looking shadows. My close-ups were blurry because I didn’t know how to use the macro feature on my camera.

Here is a general set up to get you started: You’ll need a room where you can block the light whenever you want to work. A short animation can take hours or days (or weeks! or months!) and you don’t want the light to be flickering up and down in your final product. You’ll need a working surface, whether it be a table or two big speakers pushed together like in my last project! Get about 3 lights and light your surface evenly so there isn’t any dark shadows. Household 60 or 100 watts will work well for video or Kodak Ektachrome film, higher ones might be needed for Kodachrome film. Your camera needs to have a macro lens. This just means it can focus on something a couple inches away (or close up in zoom). Most video cameras do this fairly well. You’ll have to check to see if your Super 8 camera has a macro feature on the lens.

When animating, you’ll want to set your camera to 1 frame per every time you hit the record button (“Frame by Frame” or “Stop Animation”). On Super 8 cameras this is easily done if they have the feature. If they don’t you’ll have to use a remote or plunger that will allow you to record no more than 3 frames each time you click it. Professional animators use 1 frame per movement with 24 frames per second. I’ve found that even 2 or 3 frames per movement is ok. If you want a character to turn 360 degrees in place in 1 ½ seconds you’ll then move the character a fraction, then and more them again and so on and so on until you’ve clicked 36 frames altogether. Remember to step back out of the lights when you’re recording! It will look bad if you don’t get out of the way!

For the last film I did, I used a high end consumer DV camera that recorded maybe 15 frames every time I hit the record button. Some DVs have a record setting that only records when the record button is pressed (allowing for very short clips) and some have a photo function, but I couldn’t find them on the camera I was using. I had to speed everything up when I edited it because it was just too slow. This shouldn’t be a problem because if you’re recording on video you’ll probably be editing digitally anyway.

About audio: Don’t even THINK of recording sound when you’re shooting. Unless it’s some kind of avant garde thing you’re going for. Audio is always added after.

About sets: If your working in a flat form you can just construct your backgrounds out the same material you’re animating with. For “3D” sets I’ve just pretty much used whatever I found around the house. The list is literally endless — mirrors, bristol board, wool, wood, glass, ceramic, plastic… You can really get creative.

Some notes on Claymation: “Plasticine” is the actual stuff I use. You can get it at most art supply stores or toy stores for about $2 a brick. Very inexpensive. You’ll probably not want to make your characters less than 5″ high. Macro can only go so close. For extreme close ups you need to construct special models. You’ll want to make your characters bottom heavy as they tend to fall over, especially under hot lights. Try molding a head over a ping pong ball or Styrofoam globe (if you want a round head!). I made one head and shoulders out of wires (with Plasticine on top) because that’s what the animation book told me to do…it barely worked and took too much time because I did not have the proper equipment. You’ll have to be creative and experiment. Besides Live Action Animation, this is the one where you can play most with camera positions and lighting.

Construction Paper Animation: Another cheap way of animating. Backgrounds are relatively flat and characters are relatively flat. You have to position your camera pretty much dead square on top of your set or it won’t look right. You’ll probably not move your camera or lights at all. There’ll be lots of little construction clippings to keep track of! Use tweezers to move pieces.

3D Animation: You can animate anything! Objects can take on personalities or beans can form pictures and swirling designs.

Drawing on Film (Cameraless Animation): You get yourself some clear 16mm film and go at it with whatever media you want. Paint, scratch, bleach, whatever. And it’s easy to count your frames!

Live Action Animation: This is when you use people/things in the real world as your characters and move them a fraction each time you click. Check out Norman McClaren’s “Neighbours”.

Cell Animation: Using a light table and clear sheets, you paint each cell by hand and animate it by recording a sheet a frame. Bugs Bunny is all about this lost art…

Silhouette Animation: A cross between Construction Paper Animation and Cell Animation. Jonathan Culp knows more about this, but here’s the gist: you animate black cut-outs on a light board. The characters have different layers and hinges to make them move smoothly. You shoot the characters as if they were shadows (ie. no colour or textured paper). The backgrounds can be painted or also constructed from paper.

Digital Animation: I’ve never done animation on the computer. It’s an entirely different, less tactile, possibly more expensive thing. It’s the “big thing” now but personally I prefer the old hands on approach.

Here’s some general suggestions: Know what you’re going to shoot before you shoot it. Sketch out your shots beforehand (this is called storyboarding) and refer to them when you’re shooting. You’ll save a lot of time, film and heartache. I usually only shoot a 1:1 ratio with extra takes if I fucked up or wasn’t sure. (Hollywood movies can sometimes be a ratio of 10:1!)

You can shoot scenes in sequence, it saves times editing later, but it’s not crucial. As long as you’re done a scene, you can move onto any other one you want without too much trouble. I’d never stop halfway through a scene in case something got accidentally moved while I was away.

Don’t go crazy moving everything in a scene all at once. While watching the final film it will be hard to figure out where to focus your attention. If your shot is pretty short and you won’t be going back to it, keep the background fairly simple or once again your audience might have a hard time figuring out what to look at.

Be creative and have fun! Don’t forget to take breaks to eat and clear your mind — animation can tend to become all-consuming!

Siue went to Ryerson University for film but got very little out of it considering the time and money spent. She makes films in a penny pinching way — planning each shot carefully so there aren’t any re-takes (blame it on being ½ Scottish), but she dives in and doesn’t stop. Siue co-runs Satan Macnuggit video distro.

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