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April 4, 2009


by sven at 11:20 am

This is an essay about the poetry of numbers. I'm just playing -- don't let the math scare you.


There are certain numbers that all stopmoes should know. 1440 is one of them.

It's a very interesting number. Why? Because it appears in two separate contexts.

1440 is the number of minutes in a day. 60 min/hr x 24 hrs = 1440.

1440 is also the number of frames in a minute of film. 60 sec x 24 fps = 1440.

So think about this: If it took you one minute to shoot one frame of film, then for every 24 hours of work, you'd produce one minute of animation.

That's one day of your life in the real world exchanged for one minute in the dream world of stop-motion fantasy.

When I was growing up, one of my very favorite books was White Monkey King by Sally Hovey Wriggins -- a retelling of the Chinese monkey king myth. In it, when you spend a day visiting the gods in heaven, something like a hundred years passes on earth. Stop-motion's like that. For every minute you spend in Art Heaven, a day passes on Earth.

5 minutes

Of course, you could shoot at 12fps, in which case you'd be getting 2 minutes of film for every day of your life…

But frankly, estimating that it only takes 1 minute to shoot 1 frame of film is probably off base.

At Aardman, the studio expects animators to shoot no less than 4 seconds of film per day.

Why 4 seconds? I got to thinking about it… The producers need some sort of benchmark for what to expect from animators. If you assume that the animators work an 8-hour day and shoot at 24fps, then 4 seconds of film is the result of spending 5 minutes on each frame. 5 min/frame is 12 frames/hr… Times 8 hrs/day… Equals 4 seconds.

Ah! There's nothing magical about 4 seconds of film per day -- it's just a benchmark based on a generous estimate for how long an animator has to create a puppet pose.

So, at Aardman then… Animators regularly trade 24 hours of their actual lives for 12 seconds in the filmic fantasy world.

The currency exchange rate is worse for professionals than for amateurs.


It frightens me to think about the rate at which my real life is escaping me as I breath life into puppets…

But here's something that's unusual about time in the Puppet Universe: it repeats. When I make a one-minute long film, I can play that film as many times as I like. A one-minute film that's played ten times takes up ten minutes of real world time.

So I start to wonder… How many times do I need my film to be seen to offset the amount of time I've invested in it?

Let's say that there's a 1:1 ratio when you're having a conversation with a friend. That is, for every minute that I'm talking, my pal spends one minute listening to me. And let's say that the effort of paying attention is of perfectly equal value to the effort of communicating…

Well then, if it takes me 1440 minutes to make a 1-minute film, then I would want my friend to watch this bit of communication 1440 times. Or, more realistically, I'd want an audience of 1440 people to watch it once.

I think it's kind of interesting -- just being playful -- to think that you could calculate what size of audience is required for you to break even for the time you invest in a film… Not in terms of money, but in terms of attention paid.

Time-wise, stopmo is certainly one of the most expensive art forms around… If all you spent was 1 minute per frame, then for a 10-minute film you'd need 14,400 people watching before you made back your investment.

Contrast this with writing. When I'm writing non-fiction at a good clip, I know that I can put out 2.5 pages per hour -- that's 20 pages in an 8-hour work day. I also know that when I'm reading non-fiction by other authors, I can only get through about 20 pages per hour. Assuming other people read as fast as I do, then we've got a 1:8 ratio. That is, it only takes an audience of 8 persons to "break even" for the attention I invested in writing.

Well, of course when I do a moderate editing job, I can only put out about 10 pages per day -- so I'd need 16 readers. And when I do a really meticulous editing job, I only put out 5 pages per day -- so I'd need 32 readers…

But even so! A ratio of 1:32 is not even close to 1:1440… Which, I should point out doesn't even begin to take account of the time spent on scriptwriting, fabrication, lipsync analysis, and post-production for your animation.

Consider for a moment people who do live improv. If you can just walk onto stage and start performing, without any time spent on rehearsals…? Then you've got a winning proposition! If you have 100 persons in the audience watching you, then for every minute of time you invest, you get 100 minutes of their attention in return!

It's rather sobering… Maybe this 100:1 ratio suggests that people who perform for live audiences have a responsibility to invest rehearsal time proportionate to the time that people will spend watching. Thus, if I'm going to be acting in a one-hour-long play for 100 people, then it behooves me to invest 100 hours in preparation.



Gretchin teaches a class called "Creative Business Basics." One of the most important parts of the class deals with how to price things that you're selling. The basic idea: fair price = (hours it takes to make a thing x a living wage of $12.50/hr) + (cost of materials) + (50% of all that, for profit - so your business can grow).

[Quick example: If I'm selling a painting where materials cost $7.50 and I spent 1 hour working at $12.50 per hour (sub-total $20), then I would need to add $10 for profit… Winding up with a fair price of $30 for the painting.]

One of the crucial numbers in Gretchin's equation is $12.50/hr, which is what's considered a livable wage.

I started wondering… Where did that number of $12.50 come from? Well, if you work 40-hour weeks during a 4-week month, then $12.50 works out to be $2000 per month (before taxes). Ah! …And it also works out to be $100 for an 8-hour work day. I begin to see why $12.50 is such a lovely, useful, round number to keep in mind!

So, going back to my original premise about the magic number of 1440… If it takes 24 human hours to produce 1 puppet minute, then the labor for that minute should be valued at $300.

Or, given our estimate that pro animators spend 5 minutes per frame of film, 1 minute of professional-quality puppet animation would cost $1500.

I'm curious to apply this logic to other aspects of stopmo production… It can take me up to 50 hours to machine a ball&socket armature from scratch. That would be $625 labor, maybe $20 worth of materials… So with a conservative mark-up (50%) to ensure studio growth, I ought to sell the armature for $967.50.

[Actually, pro armature makers are more likely to be paid $15/hr… In which case the armature would be sold for $1155.]

I recall that my Percy 5 puppet took almost exactly 24 hours to fabricate. So, considering only the time spent on him, my simple wire and Sculpey puppet represents an investment of $300.

Now, just because your time is (hypothetically) worth $12.50/hr doesn't mean that you shouldn't work unless you can get your money back! To the contrary, there are plenty of experiences that I would happily pay my own money for… Taking classes for example.

Would I spend $300 to take a class on making Percy 5? Or a $1000 class on making armatures? Or a $1500 class on how to make a one-minute film? Hell yeah! Particularly if the teacher I was paying happened to be myself.


Happiness? Sorry, can't help you.

Sure, it ought to be part of these wacky equations… But how to quantify it? I have no idea.

Being pleasurably absorbed while working with your hands… The tangible connection forged between your dreams and reality when puppets come to life… The pride in having finished a 100-mile marathon… The magic of having created a dream that other dreamers can step into…

You're on your own.

posted by sven | April 4, 2009 11:20 AM | categories: stopmo