How-To, DIY Stop Motion Animation

Stop motion animation is relatively easy and a blast to do with kids that are interested, the younger the better! However, I’ve had adults request and have a blast with this program. So let’s get started.

Stop motion animation is the process of sewing or seaming together a series of still shots to create a movie. (sequential art images appearing to magically move). It can be done with clay (Wallace & Gromit and Gumby), plastic puppets (The Nightmare Before Christmas) or anything else you can easily photograph and move around. Although you can achieve amazing results, you have to limit some things to make it go smoothly.

To avoid mistakes and discouraging surprises later, here is a some step-by-step set-up tips a new animator should read before getting started.

  • If your not using a camera and decide on software use IStopMotion on a Mac if possible.
  • If your using a camera method have rechargeable digital camera  with a large lcd.
  • Have plenty of hard-drive space to hold your photos and movies, especially the test ones.
  • For longer movies you’ll want to find an uninterrupted  small homemade “studio” to set up.
  • Use a tripod to keep the camera steady and positioned at target.
  • Set up adjustable lighting to fill shadows,
  • Use a timer for the light set-up for safety and peace of mind.

We’re going to try to make this easier but please keep in mind:

  • Stop motion animation is fairly simple, but it’s can be time consuming. Set realistic goals. Don’t expect to make a feature-length film, or even a 5-minute short, on your first attempt. Make a 50 frame animation to start.
  • You’ll want at least 10 photos for each second of film. Plan for this by calculating 10 frames x  5 secconds = 50 shots or positions.
  • One of the more important rules of stop motion animation is that the camera cannot movie during shooting. Use a tripod or a solid surface where you can keep the camera stable.

Choose your actors, props, scene (scenes, objects, things, etc.)

The actors are inanimate objects that you’ll be using to create your movie. Basic tips for choosing objects are that they are easily moved and can stand on their own so you don’t have to hold them up to pose them. Your best bet is to start off with just one or two actors, but there’s no limit to what you can use:

  • Clay (sculpty or another good non drying clay)
  • Army men
  • cheerios
  • stuffed animals
  • LEGOs
  • origami creations
  • clay sculptures
  • action figures
  • food (vegetables, cereal, macaroni, candy, etc.)
  • rocks
  • plastic figures or mini dolls
  • refridgerator magnets

You make the rules, but here are a few guidelines to make the process easier.

Write the script (the story)

Even though it’s actually not required if your creating “motion only” animation. Having a good story is not only powerful for audience immersion but also is what’s lacking in today’s animation education. So it’s best to get a head start. Once you have the actors and stage, it’s time to come up with a plot. You do not need to over complicate this; choose something short and simple. When working with young students, it’s good to lead the them in brainstorming and generate ideas on little post it notes. This helps to keep the ideas a part. For younger kids, it may be easiest to have them choose a good book to act out. Go to the library and pick out several and see if they can write a simplified script.

Write out a “script” that includes details about what the characters should be doing at any given time. If necessary, break the story into scenes, where each scene has no more than one background/set.

My favorite first movie for kids is to have an object move into view in the scene, travel across the set, and exit from view again. This does well with a toy vehicle or animal. It’s a good way to get a sense of how much you have to change an object in each shot to get realistic movement in the final film. It’s simple, quick, and is enough to get students engaged.

Creating your Stage (Scene)

You need to first start with a backdrop for your scenes. First, the most important step here, is to make sure to set it up where your work won’t be disturbed. You’re going to want to do all the shots for scene at one time, if it’s at all possible.  A closet, a section of your garage, a corner of your bedroom. They can be simple, such as a white towel or a blue piece of fabric on the ground to give the effect of water or a green shag square for a tropical forest. This is a major part of this process so have fun decorating your stage. You’ll also need a spot to put the camera where it won’t move.

A tripod with a camera pointed at the scene is ideal, but a tall end table or chair for the camera to rest on will work as well.

Choose your lighting set-up.

Lighting that you can leave set-up during shooting is essential to fill dark shadows. If you have to move them take notes or use masking tape to reset them back up. Watch how the window light comes in. Actually window light is not ideal, for example, if the sun is setting outside this will be very noticeable in your film. Basically, changes that seem small in “real time” will be exaggerated in a stop motion movie.  Changes in lighting and minor movement on your “set” will be quite noticeable in your movie. This is especially important when trying to see facial expressions and eyes of your characters. In order for the audience to engage with the actors it’s important they feel like their “alive”

Be careful to keeps lights away from flammable objects. Having a timer for the light set up is a safe alternative.

Start Shooting

And now the magic begins.

  • Place your characters on the set in their starting positions.
  • Have your script close by and make sure you know what they’re supposed to be doing in this scene.
  • Press Space Bar (using
  • Snap a picture. (Having a remote control is really helpful to not disturb the camera set-up)
  • Moving your character in very small increments = slow motion
  • Moving your character in very large increments = fast motion
  • Almost all motion happen in “arcs” Don’t move things in perfectly straight lines
  • Move your actors in very small increments so they progress in whatever action they’re doing. For example, if a person breathing, you’ll want move their chest out (hold) and then go back in.
  • Remember, sometimes you may not want to move anything, for still periods of time.
  • Remember, the camera never moves.
  • Panning your camera is an advanced step in stop motion movies, get it simple first.
  • Continue moving your actors and objects and taking pictures until all movements in the scene are complete.
  • You’ll want at least 10 pictures per second of film.

During this process act like a surgeon with movement, be very careful when moving your actors and objects. Try not to disturb the set or shift the lights or tripod. If a actor gets knocked out of place, it is very difficult to go back to the way it was before.

Import your pictures from a camera (if you not using stop motion software)

If you have not done so you need to choose your video editing program. You can find some fre editing PC software and suggestions from my web site. H and here’s also a simple and free program called JPGVideo that does just what you need it to do for this project, but won’t have any of the bells and whistles of more expensive editing programs.

Regardless of what video program you’re doing, you’ll need to import the pictures into the software. You may need to do this more than once if your digital camera runs out of memory while filming.

If you have to remove your memory card during filming try not to move your camera and/or tripod!

When bringing photos into the video editing program, make sure that they’re in the order in which you shot them.

If not, take a moment to rearrange them.

Each editing program is different, so use the manual or help function to add the photos to the video timeline. Each photo will act as a “frame” of the movie. Make sure there are no transition effects playing in between frames (except between scenes!), as that will disrupt the animation.

Add some music and sound effects

Music, sound effects and dialogue can make or break a movie. Now is the time to add the elements that will set just the right mood. Of course, if your an impatient director, you can skip this step and go right into final production.

Music: Use your favorite music as a backdrop for your film, or download something new. My site has a page guide to digital music which has great suggestions for legal music.

Please remember that free downloads are typically restricted to personal use. If you decide to release your new movie to the world, you’ll want to make sure you’re not infringing on the copyright of any music choices you’ve made.

Sound Effects and Dialogue: To add your sound effects and dialogue, you can dub them in, just like the movie pros do.

If your video editing program allows you to record, that’s the best bet. Otherwise, use the recording software that came with your operating system. Set the movie to play and record the dialogue and sound effects at the appropriate moments in the movie. Of course, you’ll want to practice this first to the the timing right, and you may still need to shift the sound slightly (use the help that comes with the editing software) to make everything more realistic.

Get some feedback. Have a family or friend review your movie.

We’re almost done.  At this point if your bored to tears, just publish the movie and be done with it. This is supposed to be fun, a hobby afterall!

If your ready to make your animated movie even better, read on…

Have some fun exploring your movie editing software. Chances are, it has a way to add a title screen, credits, and maybe even digital special effects. You might be able to make your western more realistic with a sepia-tone filter or add some comic-book style explosions. Experiment around until you’re happy with the results, but make sure you keep one “clean” copy saved before you go insane with special effects.

Okay you’re finished. Publish your movie and enjoy it. Play it over and over. Email it your friends.

Ryan DeWitt made this article available here:

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