For decades, the movie film camera was the primary capture system. Kodak, Bell & Howell, and Mitchell cameras were steady and reliable animation cameras. Other cameras were used, but the key element that made a good stop-motion film camera was known as pin registration. Basically, this means that the camera has the ability to place the individual frame to be exposed in the exact same position in front of the film gate as the previous frame through placement pins. This eliminates the weave and bobbing up and down that can occur when films are projected.
These days, like many things, digital technology has put the animation film camera to rest. The two main digital cameras used are the digital video camera and the dslr camera. There are advantages to each camera, and this is explored in my book Frame-by-Frame: Stop Motion. Remember that we need the ability to shoot one frame at a time. Digital still cameras are ideal for this approach because they were designed to take single still pictures. Most digital video cameras can be controlled to shoot single frames through the animation software that you need to use. All images that come through a digital camera are digitally registered in size and placement, so there is a steady image when single frames are strung together to make a movie. Having a camera that has “manual” controls is critical for a steady image. Canon and Nikon are two leading brands in the digital SLR arena and Sony and Panasonic are two popular brands in the digital video approach. Many more brands work well and satisfy the requirements needed for alternative stop motion techniques.
The computer software that makes animation possible and easier to execute is known as capture software. Several different brands are listed on our associated website and mentioned through my book. Dragon Stop Motion and Stop Motion Pro are ubiquitous across the globe. Several features are common to all good capture software. They need to show you a “live” frame coming directly in from your camera. The ability to compare the previously captured frame and the live frame allows you to monitor the amount of movement your subject has registered. It is important to be able to step through all your frames one frame at a time so you can see the sequence of movement, and the software needs to have an instant playback at various frame rates so you can see your final animation. The better capture software programs have many more features that allow you to refine your animation and animation technique. They also work on Apple and PC platforms. Several inexpensive and free capture software programs, like iStopMotion, Framethief, and Anasazi, are available for novice animators, but these programs can have support, technical, and capability limitations and may frustrate the more advanced stop-motion animator. They are great starter programs but are not quite up to the depth of the previously mentioned programs.
Similar to live-action photography and live-action movie making, all stop motion requires a “grip” package. This may include tripods, lights, flags, electric chords, voltage regulators for lights, sandbags, gaffer’s tape, and potentially motion control for moving the camera. We will explore these elements in more detail but it is important to know what is required by your particular script or idea. Naturally, for downshooting, an animation stand is required, but the stand comes in various forms. This can range from a classic Oxberry animation stand right down to a camera on a tripod pointed down at 45° angle toward a tabletop. The Oxberry animation stand is like the Rolls Royce of downshooters. It offers weight, stability, and very accurate, dependable registration systems, like machined peg bars used to perfectly match one cel or drawing to the next. Often Oxberry stands, which are designed for both 16 mm and 35 mm film cameras, are computer controlled with stepping motors that drive the various components of the stand, like the shooting table, the lighting, and the mounted camera. Most downshooting producers custom build their own stand for a fraction of the cost of an Oxberry, and it suits their needs quite well.
During this preplanning/preproduction process, you need to think through all of your shots and determine the most efficient and effective way to shoot your production. Examine your budget, space to shoot (if it requires a controlled studio environment), and the amount of time you have to shoot.
Let us move into one of the most popular forms of alternative stop motion. Pixilation can be direct and simple when practiced by novice filmmakers or it can be very sophisticated. Of all the various types of stop motion, pixilation can be a bit more spontaneous in production because it is very hard to control humans frame by frame. If you are out in the field, it is hard to control natural light and any peripheral activity. With the proper planning, observation, and application of this technique, the results can be very satisfying and fresh.
Tom Gasek has over twenty-five years of award winning stop motion animation production experience as an animator and director, having worked with directors like Will Vinton, Art Clokey, Peter Lord and Henry Selick. Most recently, Tom has worked on Aardman’s “Creature Comforts America”, Sony Bravia’s “Play-Doh”, and Laika’s “Coraline.” Tom is currently an assistant professor at the School of Film & Animation at Rochester Institute of Technology.