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iPhones to DSLRs: The State of D-I-Y Stop Motion Filmmaking

By Wesley Fenlon

One of filmmaking's most complex techniques is now accessible to anyone with a smartphone, and incredible animations require little more than desktop software and a decent DSLR.

In high school, I spent a week's worth of video production classes toying with a ball of red Play-Doh and a small set of LEGO pieces. After every slight adjustment to the Play-Doh I snapped a digital photograph and made another adjustment. The little red ball grew into a tomato, complete with a green leafy hairdo and a gaping mouth used to devour an innocent LEGO man in delightful stop motion. My first and only stop motion animation, an homage to Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, was surprisingly easy to make even with the crappy equipment available in my public school a decade ago. These days, it's an absolute cake walk.

Well, that's not completely true. Great stop motion still requires an incredible attention to detail and some serious skill, but simply owning an iPhone guarantees access to an HD camera and a library of cheap tools. On the more professional end, there are full-blown editing suites devoted to stop-motion that are capable of productions like Ninja's Unboxing or LEGO animations (aka Brickfilms).

In the CG-dominated animation business, animation techniques like claymation and stop motion animation retain a special appeal thanks to their physicality. Few animators bother with them anymore when it comes to full length movies, but technology has actually made them easier than ever to create. Aardman Animations, the company behind Wallace & Gromit, is using CG to augment claymation in the upcoming The Pirates! Band of Misfits; on a smaller scale, tools like iOS apps simplify stop motion production and editing.

Stop motion can be done on a shoestring budget, assuming you already own a smartphone or digital camera. Wired writer Andy Robertson recently laid out a list of tools for recording stop motion with an iPhone 4. He created animations with his kids, but the recommendations fit for anyone just getting into stop motion. An iPhone with a tripod or Gorillapod and a mount like the Glif provides a perfectly good camera, and the $1 Stop Motion Studio app combines recording and editing right on the phone.

The Android Market has its own selection of stop motion apps, but if you're interested in more powerful editing tools (or just want to work on a monitor instead of a phone screen), any decent digital camera can snap the pictures that you'll later string together into an animation. Still, using an iPhone or Android phone provides the option of automatically uploading pictures as they're taken via iCloud or Dropbox.

Pro Motion

Editing on the desktop opens up a range of possibilities. Simple stop motion requires a limited toolset: Windows Movie Maker or iMovie can stitch photos together just fine, but when you get fancy, you want something like Dragonframe. At $295, Dragonframe's substantially cheaper than Photoshop ($699) and the same price as Final Cut Pro ($299).

What makes a stop motion editing application worth three hundred bucks? Because it's powerful enough to propel a self-taught animator and filmmaker like Patrick Boivin to over 130 million Youtube hits with videos like Ninja's Unboxing, mentioned above, and the interactive Youtube Street Fighter. Dragonframe's features allow fine tuning of everything from lighting to character lip syncing, and the software can integrate directly with a camera to control shooting.

Boivin goes above and beyond the norm when it comes to stop motion production--he's a one-man machine responsible for planning, posing, lighting, and editing. He taught himself how to do all of it. His videos symbolize what modern technology has done for animation: powerful computers paved the way for a flood of generic CG animated films, but affordable software and cameras have also allowed artists like Boivin to accomplish amazing things without spending much money.

In the late 90s, it took a team of 40 animators to create Aardman Animation's Chicken Run. Filming lasted 20 months and the original clay models cost something like £10,000 to create. Further back, Phill Tippet pioneered an animation technique called Go Motion, which used computer-controlled motions to introduce motion blur into the stop motion process. The stop motion, or go motion, he created for Empire Strikes Back looked far more realistic thanks to the blur.

Today, Tippet uses Dragonframe for Go Motion and Patrick Boivin creates motion blur with a software plugin for Adobe After Effects. That adds another $100 to the cost of production, but it accomplishes something that required a complex array of computers, puppets and rods 30 years ago.

CG animation has come a very long way in that same time period, but stop motion's progression offers something unique: a new era of accessibility enabled by phones and apps that just about anyone with a passion for animation can afford.