Sunday, February 15, 2009

Stop-motion in the Digital Age

The stop-motion movie has been around almost as long as the creation of the motion picture. Trick films were the specialty of early filmmakers who employed superimposed images, traveling mattes, stage effects, substitution, and stop-motion as part of their arsenal to astound an audience who were already astonished by the singular idea of moving pictures projected on a theater screen.

The fascination of tangible dimensional figures seemingly moving of their own accord became the main preoccupation for certain individuals whose life work became the pioneering of the stop-motion art. Whole stories were constructed around stop-motion just as traditional drawn animation proved able to sustain the interest of movie goers.

Then the advancement of computer graphics occurred so rapidly compared to stop-motion and drawn animation that both mediums were declared virtually dead.

It’s only through the championing of a few individuals as in the early days of cinema that we continue to see stop-motion as a viable platform for animation today.

In reality the viability to produce stop-motion pictures in today’s economy is partly due to the advancements of the digital image and computer programming. All motion picture production has been affected by computer imaging. C.G. graphics have replaced the glass-shots and optical printers no longer handle transitions or compositing. Even editing is done digitally.

The introduction of the “framer grabber”, the digital devise used by animators to judge incremental movements in puppets previously done with surface gauges, gave stop-motion a new life and improved the animated performance and the speed in which the animator could produce the performance. See earlier post: Claymation Techniques and Innovations for more details.

Digital rig removal allows animators to position rigs that hold puppets upright allowing them not to support their own weight and enabling them to be supported in midair. A clean pass of the scene without the characters or rigs is shot and digital samples of the background are pasted over areas where the rigs were. Motion controlled cameras store movements that can be repeated multiple times thanks to computer programing.

What once was done by hand in the fabrication of props and set pieces is now taken from drawing to virtual modeling in the computer and then exported as a hard copy. This method has extended to the fabrication of face replacements allowing more expressions for the stop-motion puppet. It also allows a way of pre-visualizing dialogue and acting using the virtual expressions before body animation begins.

There are devotees who prefer stop-motion over animation done with computer and we’ve seen a continued proliferation of feature films done in stop-motion. Even so certain conditions constrain the stop-motion film where the C.G. film is not restricted.

Because these are tangible objects occupying real space, a large shooting stage must be devoted to accommodate a stop-motion production. Even if the characters are shot on green screen and matted into elaborated digital backgrounds space still needs to be reserved.

To keep the production moving and prevent bottle-necks many figures of the main characters need to be created. As each figure is an intricate ball and socket armature with custom fitted paddles for loose bouncing attributes, foam injected skins and hand tailored clothing, this can be very expensive. Replications of certain key sets are made allowing more footage to be covered in reoccurring locations but the expense of replication must be considered.

Part of appeal of stop-motion is the performance done by the animator. Unlike drawn or computer animation which can be done in a layering of details starting with basic shapes that are moved for timing with the addition of looser attributes for overlapping actions and progressive detailing, stop-motion is a concentrated effort made in one take. All the acting including the pacing and delivery, the physicality of hair, clothing, gravity and other forces of nature must be considered by the animator for the entire length of the shot at one 24th of a frame per second. Animation will become more complex and time consuming with multiple characters in a shot.

As mentioned the frame grabber has proven to be an indispensable tool for stop-motion and not only allows for better animation but lets you do rehearsals before committing to an actual shot. The grabber is useful to monitor set lights also ensuring consistency in a shot.

A Computer animated film has the advantage of sharing assets be they characters, props, sets or lighting schematics freeing the need to build expensive replications. Since virtually everything is done ‘in the box’ there is not the need for large shooting stages and cameras, lights, tracks and all that’s entailed in stop-motion.

The performance of C.G. animation is similar to drawn in that it is finessed and polished with the ability to change and alter without discarding or re-shooting. Shots might be done with multiple animators working on separate characters bringing a consistency to acting and speeding the completion of complicated scenes with multiple characters.

As there are no physical restrictions in C.G. there is no need for rig removal and compositing elements such as smoke, fire, etc. There is also no restriction on the scale of environments and entire worlds can be created.

The average movie audience may not be able to distinguish what they are looking at because of the fine improvements in stop-motion. Is it C.G. or is it stop-motion? Perhaps they don’t care. Perhaps they just want a good movie.

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