Learning on the fly: My first stop motion film
In December 2020 MENA Arts UK invited artists and filmmakers across the UK to conceive a new one-minute film, exploring the question: How should the MENA+ arts community celebrate what we have in common? This sparked an idea for a stop motion piece which I proposed and definitely did not expect to get. At the very least I thought I had an idea to come back to once I had got the skills to make it. However, the judging panel liked it, and I got the commission. My first film commission let alone my first stop motion animation film commission. So I had to throw myself into the deep end with it and learn as I go. The result isn't perfect, and had I more time to skill up before making it there are things I would have done differently but, shoulda/woulda/coulda. I'm going to share my process with all its ups and downs.
Things I am:
Things I am not:
...and let's be real, at this stage I'm barely an Animator.
So clearly there's a few skills gaps here. But, I did have an idea to work towards. I started off drafting a script. There was no dialogue - I wasn't going to get into trying to lip synching animation- I knew the words would be a voice over and so I wrote the text, and marked in key points of action/visuals/potential shots.
I did attempt a story board, but I can't draw and found it really frustrating that what was in my head wouldn't translate in this format. Story boards are there to help, it wasn't helping me to try and draw it out, and seeing as I was the one shooting it, I ditched this part of the process. I did however break down the text further into sections with action into a shot list .
For the design I got familiar with cardboard and a box cutter to make my set which was going to fit on top of my desk. I used some curtain material for the back rather than having a solid "wall" as I liked the way the light hit it. For the "landscape" I found a pattern I liked, edited it by muting the colours, printed it out, tore it into strips and glued it on. I thought the tears and irregularity added texture and made it look less "blocky" and flat. There's a few twigs that I stuck on with some plasticine and voila!
Next, was the part that I quite frankly was dreading (because I knew it wouldn't come easy to me) - making the actual character. I knew I wanted a malleable puppet, that wasn't human, and so got cracking at attempting an armature. It's simple in principle - essentially it's an aluminum wire "skeleton with a built up body around (I used polymer clay) which you can then bend into what poses you need.
I started on my first design. Failed several times (not thick enough on the plasticine body, too big/small on the wire etc etc). And then I hated it anyway.
The idea I had in my head and the reality of this was I don't have the skill to make something intricate enough , the hamsa looked like a little blue cyclops alien, and in the end I found this idea a bit naff anyway. I sulked a bit, lusted after all the things I could do if I had more time and skill, then eventually got back to it. Next was a slight tangent on a random bit of foam I had because I've seen people sculpt amazing things out of foam, and quickly realised I had no idea what I was trying to make. I decided to go with a very basic humanoid shape that was easier for me to make, and wouldn't get confused as something else. I still wanted some eye catching detail though, and so decided to cut out a head from a pattern I liked, and backed it onto carboard, adding a plasticine eye that I could animate to blink.
I had my script with shot list, I had my location (carboard set on top of my desk in my bedroom), and I had my Performer-Puppet. However, before diving right in I received some wise advice from my mentor Kate Jessop. She suggested recording the voice over track, and then making an animatic , essentially a moving storyboard, as a point of reference.
I did a rough voice recording on my phone, and then took a series of handheld shots/images and blocked them through on a basic video editor. I found this massively useful to get a sense of timings, and an idea of the feel of the whole piece. It also acted as a guide for the editor of the final film which believe it or not wasn't going to be me.
My set up:
LED ring light
Dragonframe & bluetooth controller
Continuity is key in stop motion, and so to have control over the light source I blacked out my window with tinfoil (what must the neighbours have thought). The other variable was my two cats Ronda & Gwenda. Unfortunately I wasn't able to wrap them in tin foil. I want to flag here that it absolutely would have been possible to do this with a camera phone /tablet and free stop motion software, but I am fortunate enough to have received Arts Council England funding through a Develop Your Creative Practice grant and so was able to invest in a higher spec set up.
And so over a week my bedroom was transformed into a mini film set. Any Zoom meetings had to take place on my bed as my desk was taken up. There was no floor space to do Yoga with Adrienne since my camera/light /laptop set up took priority. And from there I went steady and slowly, very slowly, working frame by frame. I now fully appreciate why it can take years for a stop motion feature film to be completed.
The final result
subtitles in English & Farsi
audio described version
Things I suppose I now am:
(ish, sort of, sometimes, I'll have a go at anyway)
I learned lots, and there's lots I can pick at: There's a "boiling" effect that can happen with claymation as it's soft and so every time you touch it the surface shifts a little frame by frame. In order to get smoother movement I could have used more frames in general. Canon lenses judder each time the shutter goes off which causes unwanted movement in the image . If there's a next time, I'd use the budget to pay someone to make the puppet /armature for me. Cats and stop motion sets are a fucking nightmare. But these are all useful things to know and move forward with. I might have put off using Dragonframe until I thought I was "advanced" enough to have a go, but it's actually quite straightforward. Like other basic stop motion apps , it just takes a series of still images and then puts them together to create the illusion of a moving image. But its features of organising takes and scenes is incredibly useful. There is also a "cinematography" setting to adjust the settings on your camera. As a result of this I have some understanding of how to manually work a DSLR. And LED light with adjustable colour settings are affordable, versatile and effective - everyone should get one! The same reason I have always stuck to puppeteering rather than puppet making is the same reason why I probably don't want to make an armature ever again (although I probably will out of necessity) - if I'm honest, I just don't really enjoy it and it's not where my fascination or focus is. There were lots skills and experience I do have in making performance that came into play in this project. I have ideas and visual tastes, am and able to put words and gesture together into a creative expression. Whilst it's not the most polished animation technically, it achieves what I set out to do, and I'm going to claim the DIY aesthetic as adding charm. My puppetry background served me well in being able to imagine and portray a character with clarity . I'm actually happy with it and excited to learn/do more!
In sharing this I'm hope that it makes it seem like less of big step to anyone else thinking of expanding "creative practice" be it stop motion animation or otherwise. If after watching/reading this you think "I could do better" - good! You probably can, especially if you're more handy with a glue gun. Please go ahead, I would genuinely love to see it. YouTube is awash with 8 year olds making incredible stop motion films and they are my inspiration. If you're also a theatre/puppet-y person thinking about/doing stop motion stuff - great! Let's chat, swap notes, hold each other accountable as we learn, maybe we can cheer each other on?
I'm having a go, and if you're thinking about it, I hope you do to.