Pixilation is one of the most popular techniques for anyone who wants to jump right into animation with little or no experience. Having a camera is about all that is necessary to begin this process. Naturally, there are more possibilities if you have a well thought-out idea, a computer, capture software, and a tripod, but capturing images on a compact disc in the camera and the ability to sequence those pictures into a movie is all it really takes to shoot a pixilated film. Even an experienced stop-motion animator can pare down his or her equipment to a single camera and create an interesting film. Having some knowledge of how to take advantage of this technique makes a huge difference in the final outcome. The early trick film artists, like Melies, knew how to utilize the unique qualities of single-frame manipulation. We explore some of these “tricks” and advantages of pixilation in this chapter, and it is not just the equipment that we explore but the ideas and execution of your next pixilated film.
What exactly is pixilation? Remember that Grant Monroe, who worked with Norman McLaren on Neighbours, coined this term. Monroe and McLaren used the human body as the animated subject. Unlike model animation, pixilation, the animation of humans, requires no intensive model building, armature building, or even character designing. Everyday objects like kitchen appliances, cars, books, or any premade physical form can be moved or animated frame by frame, and this would also be considered pixilation, which is a subdivision of stop motion. Animating humans appears to be the most frequently used subject of pixilated films. As you can imagine, the variations are limitless.
If you start to add the elements of design or makeup to people in a pixilated film, then the results can be even more dramatic. This is what McLaren did in Neighbours and what was emulated in Jan Kounen’s 1989 film Gisele Kerozene.
The addition of makeup or costuming enhances the dramatic effect of the film but so can the strong expressions of the pixilated human figures. This is not a delicate and subtle animation technique, because human subjects are always moving. It is virtually impossible for humans to stand absolutely still like a model or an object, so the result is an impulsive energy and vibration.
To overcome this effect of internal energy, the expressions of a human subject need to be bold and powerful. The eye is drawn to the strong expression and becomes less concerned about the constant vibration of movement, which can be a potential distraction. Once you understand this principle, you can experiment with variations of expression and constant movement. Lindsay Berkebile, a young filmmaker in the New York area, puts it this way:
“In my film MEAT! I took a simple concept and used the stylized movement pixilation provides to my advantage. The movement is exaggerated; the facial expressions are pushed to the limit and place an audience at an uneasy state. The movement, especially in this piece, is very controlled for pixilation. There are a lot of pauses, silent moments, and breaths throughout the film. However, the stillness still has a vibrating life to it, which I feel gives the film a sort of chaotic life amongst silence.”
In my own 2009 film Off-Line, I wanted to animate a real human arm and hand pressing a microwave Start button. I wanted a slightly affected movement, but I desired a more fluid live-action approach to the movement of the hand. I ended up making a support or rig to hold the human subject’s arm so I could control the movement. If the support were not there, then the inward movement of the arm would have been less direct and effective.
So setting up rigs, using predetermined staging marks, and designing the look of a character through makeup and strong expressions can add a whole other layer to your pixilated film.
Knowing how to use pixilation, especially with human subjects, can really complement the emotional or visual storytelling aspect of your filmmaking. Ultimately, several things are unique to pixilation. Since each frame is taken one at a time with an indeterminate period of time between frames, you have the ability to completely rearrange or manipulate your subject matter and frame. This could come in the form of removing or introducing an object or person from one frame to the next, capturing a movement or position of an individual, like a mid-air jump for each frame, or just bringing inanimate objects to life. These are the same principles that the early trick film artists utilized, and they are just as effective today. These techniques have a unique quality when done photographically, eliciting a sense of magic.
Excerpt from Frame-by-Frame Stop Motion by Tom Gasek © 2011 Focal Press an imprint of Taylor and Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.