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February 13, 2008

new technologies' effects on stop-motion animation

by sven at 7:00 am

(Another essay-like post that I've written for the pose-to-pose stopmo thread at

I want to try to sum up a bunch of thinking I've been doing about how new technologies are affecting stop-motion animation.


It seems to me that three technologies have really revolutionized how we work:

  1. the framegrabber
  2. the ability to capture digital frames
  3. the personal computer

I want to emphasize that early framegrabbers, such as the Lunchbox, were built to work with analog frame capture -- film-based movie cameras and tape-based videocams. Now that we're capturing frames with Digital Still Cameras and DV cams, most folks have software-based framegrabbers operating on their computers... But framegrabber tech is not inherently dependent on personal computers.

The personal computer, I'd say, has optimized the use of framegrabbers and digital image capture. Ideally, a computer will fulfill four functions:

  1. previewing what a DSC/DV cam sees before you snap a frame
  2. triggering the DSC/DV cam, so we don't have to risk touching it
  3. storing the images captured
  4. compiling many frames into a single file that can be played as a movie

There are ways to accomplish all four of these functions without involving a computer -- but it tends to be a much more difficult route. Newer framegrabber programs, such as Dragon, are attempting to integrate the four functions in a very stream-lined way... I think there's good reason to hope that Dragon is establishing a standard that future softwares will emulate.


Here are the major ways that I see new technologies affecting how animators do their work:

1. With framegrabbers, less mental focus is required.
Before framegrabbers existed, animators had to essentially become "human framegrabbers"... Going into an intense state of "animation hypnosis," where the world slows down to "puppet time," and one almost sees the arcs traced by a puppet's limbs as tracer-lines floating in mid-air. With the aide of framegrabbers, you don't necessarily have to go into such a deep state of concentration. This is both a good and a bad thing. On the one hand, it greatly relieves stress on the animator -- you're more able to take bathroom breaks and recover from lapses of attention while shooting. On the other hand, profound concentration was a crucible that forged the greatest masters of our art. Without the constraint of having to "do it all in your head," it's easier to produce lazy-but-tolerable performances.

2. With digital image capture, you get unlimited takes.
Film stock and developing is expensive. Digital frames, on the other hand, cost essentially nothing. Don't feel that your last shot was up-to-snuff? No problem! Shoot again -- the only cost is time.

3. We can rehearse with the puppet's body, not just our own.
When you only had one chance to shoot an animation sequence, rehearsing had to be done either by drawing thumbnail poses or by acting out the sequence with your own body. These are still extremely valuable tools. But now we have an additional tool: shooting test frames using the puppet itself -- with the very camera that we'll use for the final shoot, locked-off at the same angle. This is very handy... Often times a puppet's body has limitations that our own bodies don't. Being able to rehearse using the puppet itself gives us the most accurate information possible when we want to test our acting ideas.

4. Different acting ideas can be tested quickly using pop-throughs.
Back when animation could only be accomplished using film cameras, pop-throughs were a luxury that only film studios could conceivably afford. That's changed. Now, essentially anyone who's using a digital/computer workflow can do a pop-through -- for no added financial cost, and using far less time than a full-blown take. Better yet, pop-throughs can be created non-linearly, being assembled out of photos that were taken in no particular sequence during a visual brainstorming session. Presumably, having more options to choose from will give us a better end product.


Working at home, the solo animator is always both an actor and a director.

As an actor, the animator has to try to get inside the mind of their character and deliver a performance. The puppet is just a very small costume. Like a stage actor, the animator tries to embody certain emotions and tries to hit a few planned gestures at certain points in time... And similarly, there will always be an element of improvisation in the actual moment-to-moment doing of the performance.

As a director, the animator is concerned with planning blocking, gestures, and expressions. As Marshall Mason wrote in Creating Life on Stage, "A director is a sculptor of motion..." At a certain level, improvisation never goes away -- but it can be vastly limited.

So, we are always both actor and director -- but the more exploit these new digital/computer tools, the more the balance shifts toward us being directors.

Ultimately, stopmo is always a "straight-ahead" process... But the technology now allows us to emphasize choreography more than ever before. Stop-motion can actually become quite like 2D animation: using pop-throughs as reference (possibly even rotoscoping them), we can just about establish keyframes -- and then plan our inbetweens with pre-determined spacing charts.

Think about it: Where do you fall on the continuum right now? Are you more an actor-animator -- or a director-animator?

Perhaps even more importantly: Where do you personally find fun in the animation process? Is your joy more in living inside the puppet, moment-to-moment? Or is joy for you in the development process that happens before the camera starts shooting?

posted by sven | February 13, 2008 7:00 AM | categories: stopmo