Stop Motion Photography Tips

Stop motion animation has been used as far back as the original King Kong film. King Kong was simply a stiff metal skeleton frame that was then covered in a moldable material and sculpted to look like a gorilla. Because the skeleton of the sculpture was stiff, this allowed the artist to make small and deliberate changes to the sculpture that could be photographed frame by frame. Each small change would be photographed so that when played through a projector at 25 frames (photographs) per second, King Kong appeared to move. These effects were produced by Willis O’Brien, a former newspaper cartoonist, who in 1914 moved into film special effects.

stop motion photography

“King Kong Armature” via flickr/Tom Simpson | “King Kong” via flickr/Insomnia Cured Here

One day, O’Brien got a phone call from a young man called Ray Harryhausen, who asked if he could meet him and show him some of his work. O’Brien was impressed with Harryhausen’s work and inspired him to go to art school. Harryhausen began to work on his ambitious project called Evolution. This was a film about the entire beginnings of life on Earth. The film that was shot on 16mm film was never completed. He worked on a number of small projects until World War II started. However, this did not interrupt his development, as he was employed to make sequences for army training films.

Later, Willis O’Brien asked Harryhausen to help him on his new film, Mighty Joe Young. On this film, Ray animated 65 percent of the effects. Ray then went on to make The Beast From Twenty Thousand Fathoms. This film was a success and led to the film The Beast That Came From Beneath the Sea, in which Harryhausen animated a giant beast with huge tentacles pulling down the Golden Gate Bridge. In his next film, he animated flying saucers in the film Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers. Eventually, Ray Harryhausen went on to do much bigger films with a much wider variety of stop animation effects.

stop motion animation

Ray Harryhausen with stop-motion characters from some of his film work, including “Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger” and “Jason and the Argonauts” (photo: “El Ray” captured by Stuart Crawford)

stop motion movie effects

Ray Harryhausen stop-motion photography for 1956 film “Earth vs. The Flying Saucers” (via flickr/tonechootero)

At the time, these effects were state of the art, but as the development of computer graphics continued, stop animation has become virtually obsolete. But why have these effects become obsolete if they were once considered to be so good?

  1. Stop animation produces quite a jerky motion, because when you photograph something moving in real life, there is a motion blur effect as the subject actually moves while the film is exposed. In stop animation, this does not take place because you are photographing the subject in a series of still poses. However, it could be argued that in some film genres—fantasy, for example—this could be an advantage. Ray Harryhausen himself once said that he preferred the look of stop animation because “it creates a dream-like effect.”
  2. If you make a mistake in stop animation, you don’t know until you get to the end, and you can’t fix it without going back to the start. With computer animation, you can alter or manipulate any aspect individually and then instantly play it back to check it.
  3. The labor-intensive style takes a lot of time, whereas computer animation can be pre-programmed.

As a filmmaker myself, I still use stop animation for some effects, because in order to produce computer models that look photorealistic, you need a lot of manpower hours and huge rendering farms in order to render it all out. If I build a model that looks real to my eyes, then it will look real on camera. The only issue I will have is in the movement.

Tips for Stop Motion Photography

Based on my own experience, here are some tips for making stop animation photography work:

  1. Make your model as real as possible. If the model looks real, then the viewer will be more likely to believe it, even if the motion is not so great.
  2. Pick an appropriate subject. If a robot moves in a jerky fashion, this is not as much of a problem as a dinosaur moving in a jerky fashion, because we already think of a robot’s natural motion as being jerky.
  3. Use the correct lighting. If you are not sure about the movement being as smooth as you want, use low light to photograph your subject. This will help blur the image a little and give it a smoothness.
  4. Use distracting objects. By placing objects like trees and rocks in front of the subject, you can create a more dense composition in which the audience’s view is slightly obscured. This will distract the audience from the fluidity of the movement.
  5. Use distracting light. I have recently completed a future apocalypse man-versus-machine sequence. By shooting in low light with multiple moving and flickering search lights coming from the robot, the audience has something extra to focus on.
  6. Cross reference the pacing of your movements. If you are shooting a dinosaur, look at films and documentary and try to analyze the movement so that you can replicate it in your stop animation photography.

With the continued development of computer effects, stop motion will surely become even more a thing of the past, but for a small budget, it can sometimes be the best choice. I think that too often small budget films instantly decide to use computer effects without even thinking of using the old methods. The result is sometimes cartoonish graphics that disturb your suspension of disbelief. I think a more open-minded approach to filmmaking would create a better standard of effects.

About the Author:
Mark Dowie ( Spectrum Wedding Photography at.

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