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'The Advanced Art of Stop-Motion Animation': Character Animation - Part 1

In the latest excerpt from The Advanced Art of Stop-Motion Animation, Ken A. Priebe delves into character animation.

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Animation is an amazing thing. This can be hard to remember when you are immersed in it day in and day out—talking with other animators, watching animated films, teaching it to students, creating it, or even writing about it. But every now and then, that initial spark just hits you, and you realize what a mind-boggling concept is behind the whole idea. In stop-motion, whenever you see a puppet on a set, suspended in absolute stillness between frames, there is a notion of the stillness that is only visible on that set. In our dimension of time, under those hot lights and in that stuffy air, the puppet is merely a figure that sits there until an animator touches it. Once touched, and when the playback button is pressed, a whole new life is created in that other dimension of time on the monitor. All of a sudden, this tiny being of earthbound materials appears to have its own thoughts, fears, and speech…a complete life of its own, living in its own world

It would seem as if that life comes only from the mind of the animator. However, anyone who has sat back and watched their puppet come to life after sweating over it for hours will know that there is something cosmic about these worlds we create. The puppets do seem to take on lives of their own, as if they are discovering it along with us. It’s like the scene in Walt Disney’s Pinocchio where the wooden puppet, crafted by Geppetto and given life by the Blue Fairy, finds out, “I can move! I can talk!” and then goes out to explore his new world. The adventure of Pinocchio is a loving metaphor for the art of animation itself, created by animators who lived and breathed in our own world. Other animators have explored the relationship between puppets and their creators using stop-motion, such as Peter Lord’s Adam and Nick Hilligoss’s L’Animateur (The Animator; Figure 7.1). I love films, like these, that play with the notion of a puppet’s creator within the very medium in which they are made, as if to remind the audience of the sheer magic behind what they are actually watching. I could go on exploring these philosophical implications, but I will digress for the time being and leave you to ponder that on your own. All things considered, the privilege and challenge of an animator is to bring things to life, and that is serious business, all the while being serious play. This chapter will give you some things to think about as you seriously get down to breathing life into your puppets.

[Figure 7.1] A scene from L’Animateur by Nick Hilligoss. (© Nick Hilligoss.)

Animation Technique

You need a certain discipline to create believable animation. Much like learning a musical instrument—if you want to play improvisational jazz, you first have to learn your notes and scales first, and then apply those foundations to everything else you do. All animation is based on certain principles and foundations based on how things move and how this movement is broken up into frames. Disney went so far as to break many of these principles down into specifics, which are explained in detail in the famous animation textbook Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. These principles include squash and stretch, anticipation, overlapping action, follow through, secondary action, basic elements of timing, holds, and many others. Different authors and animators often have different ways of defining these principles and have developed them in further detail for various mediums of animation. In my first book, I introduced many of these principles in Chapter 5: Basic Animation, in a way that they could be applied specifically to straight-ahead stop-motion. In this more advanced volume, I will elaborate on a few other ways to apply solid animation principles in your own work.


When regular folks hear about how stop-motion is done, a questions that often comes up is, “How do you know how far to move the puppet or object?” This is a very good question, but it doesn’t always have a simple answer! The simplest answer lies in the essential principle of slowing in and slowing out, and the fact that movements closer together will slow down the action, and movements farther apart will speed up the action. So, how does one know what’s too fast or too slow?

The concept of timing is one of the hardest things to grasp as an animator. Even once you learn it, it is easy to forget. At 24 frames per second (12 movements per second if shooting entirely on twos, with each movement captured for two frames), each movement is a tiny part of a much bigger picture. At times, I still catch myself falling into the trap of getting excited about how effective just four drawings on a light-table or four poses on the frame grabber look when flipping through them. That spark of getting excited about the concept of animation comes back in that moment, as I constantly flip through the images that I worked on so hard to get right. It gets to be very obsessive in those moments when everything clicks because they can be rare. (Plus, it’s fun!) But when the whole completed animation sequence plays back, those four great images go by way too fast. It’s frustrating because you wish the audience could share that same revelry you felt when you created those four perfect drawings or poses and watched them move. In the blink of an eye, they are gone, and it’s kind of depressing.

Of course, provided you continue to do your job well, those four poses are followed by four more poses, then another four, and so on, all coming together into a full performance in motion. Like the individual notes in a piece of music, the individual drawings or positions of a puppet are not that significant by themselves, but are immensely significant in context of entire work. What matters is where those notes are and how they are played. Timing for animation is no different; the discipline is in knowing how each frame is placed to bring it all together. For example, master animator and director Richard Williams (The Animator’s Survival Kit) has worked with Warner Bros. animator Ken Harris and has often observed in interviews that Harris’ unique talent was that he knew exactly where to place each drawing in every frame for the timing that was needed. In the same manner for stop-motion, one should strive to know exactly where to place each position of the puppet in every frame.

Of course, in hand-drawn animation (and similarly in CG animation), there is the advantage of creating key poses first to create the right timing, and then filling in the in-betweens later to smooth it out. Stop-motion does not have this luxury because it is all done straight ahead, with no chance to go back and finesse the timing once it has been shot. Some contend that the terms keys and in-betweens are useless for stop-motion animators for this reason—because it is straight ahead, and every pose simply leads to the next one. Although this is true, I think it’s still useful to sometimes think in terms of keys and in-betweens when approaching stop-motion, especially if one crosses over into other mediums on occasion. At the end of the day, it’s all animation, and the basic principles still need to be relevant no matter how it’s done. Hand-drawn animation can also be executed completely straight ahead, and it is often necessary to get the right motion (such as the follow-through motions of a tail on a character).

A general rule when it comes to timing straight ahead is to decide which poses the audience really needs to see. The keys do not refer only to the main parts of an action; they can also refer to the main parts of the story being communicated to the audience. Which parts of any particular action or performance are the important parts that the audience should not miss? When you are moving straight ahead with the various poses of your puppet, and you find yourself getting to these important parts, slow down the positioning into a few tiny increments that “favor” those key poses. Those are the poses you want to hang out with for a while so the eye has a chance to see it. Better yet, you may need to cushion your positions into a hold so the pose is really noticeable. My general rule, which I picked up learning animation and often re-iterate to my students, is that at 24 frames per second, it takes six frames to feel something, eight frames to see it, and 12 frames for it to really soak into the brain. If you are shooting on twos, this principle translates into three, four, and six moves, respectively.

Animating straight ahead in stop-motion contains a deadly trap—how easily an animator can get locked into a repetitive, trance-like act of move puppet, take picture, move puppet, take picture, move puppet, and so on. True, this is basically what happens, but it becomes very easy to get sucked into this so much that the timing of the animation becomes too even, floaty, and aimless. There should be some planning and rhythm to these movements—some close together, some far apart, and, when appropriate, grinding to a halt, not moving at all, and settling into a hold. It is perfectly fine to have your puppet stop moving; I find myself reminding my students of this at times. I will admit this concept is hard to grasp because if the puppet is not moving, it’s not animated! What matters is that when it’s not moving, it still feels alive. This can be controlled by knowing how long to hold an expression or pose to make it read, and when it begins holding too long.

If a character moves into a hold, it can probably only do so for a maximum of 2 or 3 seconds before it loses its breath of life. At the very least, a hold this long or longer should be broken up by a blink or subtle secondary movement to keep it alive. For instance, if a character turns their head to look at something and holds before reacting to what they see, holding for six or eight frames would be a very quick glance, and holding for 16 to 24 frames would be a more intent look. A longer hold would indicate a slower reaction and denser character, whereas a shorter hold would indicate an immediate reaction from a character who is more alert. Breaking up a puppet’s actions with an eight-frame hold here and a 12-frame hold there, and so on, is vital to good timing and ultimately a good performance. It is more natural and lets the audience soak in the moments that are most important to the scene as a whole.

It is also important to remember that starting any animation exercise with a minimum eight-frame hold at the beginning is vital to let the audience’s eye acknowledge the character before he starts moving. If the character starts moving on frame 2 or 3 of a scene, you are starting the action much too early for your audience, and their brains may explode trying to catch up. Start moving your character on frame 9, 13, or even 24. Holds are a good thing, so do not be afraid to hit the capture button a few extra times. The nice thing about shooting a long hold is that you can always cut frames if it does end up being too long for the timing you want. Putting frames back in is a bit harder. Holds are also your friend when you are animating a long sequence that has a lot of complicated movements, and you can gladly welcome any moment when your puppet can slow down and pause for a few seconds.

The other general rule to remember regarding holds is that they should always be a minimum of six frames. A six-frame hold is still very short, and is often used only for very quick glances or pauses in a character’s thought process on screen. At two frames, there is only enough time for an image to appear on screen before being replaced by another image, where the brain does not register the images as being separate. At four frames, the eye just starts to notice the separation between sequential images, so a four-frame hold in the middle of an action will always look more like a camera mistake and cause a jerk in the flow of the animation. An entire character should never hold for only four frames, and the same principle applies to any individual part of a character as it overlaps with the rest of the figure. For example, if a character is being animated and several parts of them are moving perpetually at the same time (head, arms, eyes, etc.), if any individual part stays in the same spot for four frames, it will cause a little “stick” in the animation and will look choppy. It is important to keep track of all these different parts of a character and make sure that every little gesture, as they overlap with each other, takes at least six or eight frames to happen on screen.

If any part of your puppet is moved accidentally for only two to four frames, it is best to try covering it up by just adding three or four more moves in the direction the part is moving (unless you go back, delete the frames, and re-do them). For example, let’s say you are focusing on animating the head and left arm of your character without paying attention to the right arm. A few frames into the animation, you realize that the right arm has shifted to the left for four frames, and your intention was that it should not move at all. From this point, it is better to cushion it farther to the left for at least four more frames and write it off as a subtle secondary action. Any tiny move or hold on a puppet that lasts only four frames will not look right, but if it lasts at least six to eight frames, it will at least appear more natural.

Overall, timing is a discipline that you can continue to experiment with until you get a sense of how long it takes to achieve a certain action. In many cases, it will be through timing things too fast, slow, or even that you will learn your own sense of timing. Try to apply what you’ve learned to each subsequent piece of animation you do.

[Figure 7.2] The head moves down and up on an arc, using the eye as a point of reference.


Nearly all patterns of movement occur along a curved path of action called an arc, rather than a straight line. Arcs are an important principle to pay attention to, and they are especially effective when applied to stop-motion animation. One of the biggest challenges in stop-motion is keeping each frame properly registered to the next one so that the movement is smooth. Because you are manipulating a puppet in three-dimensional space, it is very difficult to gauge exactly where the path of action is for any motion on the actual set. Making reference to what is on the monitor helps, and being able to place markers and use onion-skin features in frame-grabbing software makes a huge difference. But a frame grabber doesn’t understand how to animate, and neither does a computer—only an animator can understand this!

When planning out any movement, look for every opportunity to register your puppet so that the path of action it follows is an arc. You can draw this arc on your monitor or use markers in the software to establish where the points along the arc should be. Then, find a common point on your puppet that you can line up with this arc and keep it moving along that path as you animate. If the path of action does not travel along a steady arc and is not registered properly, the end result will be jittery. Even if one frame moves outside the path of action, it will be noticeable to the audience and create a small jerk in the animation. Having a path of action of any sort in mind during the animation process, whether you actually mark it on your screen or just picture it in your head, is vital to alleviating that “jerky” quality that often occurs in stop-motion. Basically, think hard about the direction things are moving. If a hand or head is moving to the right, keep it moving to the right until it’s supposed to change direction, perhaps up or down along an arc. A few frames (say six or more) later, it may even start moving to the left, depending on what’s actually being animated. Simply put, if you forget which direction your puppet is supposed to be moving, it will be all over the place, and you will inevitably get that jittery effect of a puppet on way too much caffeine.

[Figure 7.3] A hand with pointed finger moving along an arc up to the head.

[Figure 7.4] The ThunderBean, jumping along an arc path

of action.

Arcs can be applied to nearly any movement to give it more life and a natural flow. Moving a puppet’s head along an arc is effective when snapping into an anticipation pose, in any direction, and using the eye as a guide to move it along this path can be a useful point of reference (Figure 7.2). The same principle can be applied to a hand moving in space, using the finger or any part of the hand as a point to guide along its arched path (Figure 7.3).

For a character jumping, running, or walking forward, moving the entire puppet along an arc is very important to make the action smooth. An extreme motion like a jump will be even more noticeable if the frames are not registered along a steady path (Figure 7.4).

[Figure 7.5] The head and torso moving forward in an arc for a walk sequence.

[Figure 7.6] Goth Mime puppet by Ken Priebe.

In a walk, there are even more elements to pay attention to in keeping the arcs consistent. The head and torso should be continually moving forward in each frame as well as up and down on an arc (Figure 7.5), and the arms should be swaying back and forth along an arc of their own.

Overlapping Action

Another very important principle that brings an animated character to life in a very big way is overlapping action, which means that not every part of a character will start or stop on the same frame. Movements should be staggered by a few frames so that all elements of the character overlap with each other for a much more natural appearance. To demonstrate some examples of the difference overlapping action can make in stop-motion animation, let me introduce you to my character, Goth Mime (Figure 7.6). On the accompanying CD, there is a series of short animation movies where Goth Mime goes through various movements both with and without overlap to the action. I have deliberately animated some of these exercises in a very basic, rushed manner for the purpose of comparing them to other variations that are animated with more attention to detail. The versions that are not animated well do not have nearly as much life and natural movement as those that are animated with the principles applied.

[Figure 7.7] Frames from a head turn with no overlapping action.

The first example is through a simple head turn, from left to right, as if Goth Mime hears something off screen that causes him to turn around. Looking at the movie called Head Turn on the CD, you will notice that it feels very stiff. The eyes don’t move at all, and it’s simply the head being turned from left to right, without much of an arc and only a certain degree of easing in and out (Figure 7.7). This was simply done by turning the head frame by frame without putting much thought into it. The end results are functional in achieving the simple motion of a head turning, but there is not much life in it.

[Figure 7.8] Frames from a head turn with overlapping action in the eyes.

[Figure 7.9] The arc for the head to follow drawn on the


Compare this movie to the next one, Head Turn, and you will notice that some overlapping action has been added. In this version, the eyes move first, a few frames before the head is moved (Figure 7.8). The results are much more natural and have a better sense of realism. The eyes essentially lead the head into its movement, preparing the audience for the action that takes place. There is also a stronger arc that the eyes and nose move along, which was actually planned out on the monitor to help provide a smooth path of action and ensure a better result to the animation (Figure 7.9).

[Figure 7.10] Frames from a head turn with a blink and overlapping action.

In another version, Head Turn, an added element of overlapping action is employed by animating a blink before the basic eye movement, and then leading into the head movement (Figure 7.10). Blinks often add more life to the movement of a character, especially on a head turn. When the head moves, it is very common for the brain to send a signal for the eyes to blink as it happens to help control the sensory overload that can occur when shifting the eyes’ whole perspective.

[Figure 7.11] Frames from a full body turn with no overlapping action.

The same principles of overlapping action are demonstrated in some other exercises, which extend the simple motion of a head movement into the entire body of the puppet. Take a look first at Body Turn, where the whole body turns from left to right without any overlapping action (Figure 7.11). Everything moves at the same rate, from the eyes to the head and through the arms and hips, starting and stopping on the same frame. The end results are not very believable, and feel very stiff and robotic.

[Figure 7.12] Frames from a full body turn with overlapping action.

Now, compare this first body turn to the next one, Body Turn and you will notice what a difference the overlapping action makes. In this example, the eyes move first, followed by the head; the arms and hips follow afterward (Figure 7.12). The arms themselves overlap in their timing and spacing, with the right arm settling into a hold a few frames after the left arm. There is a scientific and anatomical logic to overlapping action that occurs in the whole body as it turns from left to right. The idea to turn in the first place is simply a signal triggered by the brain that shoots very quickly down the spinal cord, sending that signal to the rest of the body. The eyes are the closest thing to the brain, so they are the first parts of the body to receive that message from the brain that says, “Turn!” The next part to receive it is the neck, followed by the shoulders, arms, and hips. In the blink of an eye, the simple act of turning around is like a memo being sent from management to all the floors below it. Animation needs to break this up, slow it down, and overlap the body parts getting this signal frame after frame.

[Figure 7.13] Frames from an action of picking up a ball with no anticipation.


Another set of movie files on the CD shows the difference anticipation can make to an action, combined with proper timing for the eye to read the various poses in the animation. These animated exercises show Goth Mime performing the simple act of picking up a ball from a table. The first example, Pick Up Ball, is deliberately animated much too fast, with very little thought put into animation principles (Figure 7.13). The hand does grip the ball for at least six frames before picking it up, which is important to read as him actually gripping it. Otherwise, there is very little life or proper staging in the way it is posed and timed. The biggest problem is that there is no anticipation for him grabbing the ball, and it goes by much too quickly for the audience to fully appreciate and be prepared for it.

[Figure 7.14] Frames of an action of picking up a ball with anticipation.

The next version, Pick Up Ball (Figure 7.14), is an improvement in that there is easing in and out, overlapping action in both arms, and, most importantly, the left arm comes up for a short anticipation before coming down to grip the ball. There are drag and overlap in the elbows and wrists of the puppet, making it feel much more flexible and believable.

Ken A. Priebe has a BFA from University of Michigan and a classical animation certificate from Vancouver Institute of Media Arts (VanArts). He teaches stop-motion animation courses at VanArts and the Academy of Art University Cybercampus and has worked as a 2D animator on several games and short films for Thunderbean Animation, Bigfott Studios, and his own independent projects. Ken has participated as a speaker and volunteer for the Vancouver ACM SIGGRAPH Chapter and is founder of the Breath of Life Animation Festival, an annual outreach event of animation workshops for children and their families. He is also a filmmaker, writer, puppeteer, animation historian, and author of the book The Art of Stop-Motion Animation. Ken lives near Vancouver, BC, with his graphic-artist wife Janet and their two children, Ariel and Xander.