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Coat Hangers for Armatures — Making Your Own Model

The newest excerpt from Susannah Shaws Stop Motion book covers character design, working with modeling clays and making your own puppet.

All images from Stop Motion by Susannah Shaw. Reprinted with permission.

All images from Stop Motion by Susannah Shaw. Reprinted with permission.

Working with Modeling Clays

I tended to steer away from techniques that needed a lot of process a lot of materials. I think that's ultimately why I went for Plasticine because there's always room for improvisation, no matter how much you plan it. You've got to have your puppet, you've got to know roughly what'll happen because you need your props and the set. But once you're on that stage you can improvise and change your mind a lot. Some forms of animation demand a lot more planning and then you've got to stick to it. It's like living on the edge once you've started a shot you've got to keep going to the end. You can't say `Oh I'll add a few frames there afterwards to slow it down or speed it up.' You've got to be on your toes the whole time.

Nick Park

The earliest use of modeling clay for animation dates from a few years after the invention of motion pictures with James Stuart Blackton's sequence Chew Chew Land or The Adventures of Dollie and Jim 1910. In the U.K., in the late 19th century, William Harbutt invented Plasticine, a modeling clay that didn't dry out, but that couldn't melt either. The original recipe disappeared when the Harbutt's factory closed down a century later, but a similar clay is still manufactured in England.

Creating your character from modeling clay alone is probably the cheapest route for model making, but don't be mistaken into thinking because it's cheap it's simple. It demands skilled handling. Working with clay can certainly give you freedom, but this would have to be balanced by the amount of time needed to re-sculpt, and return to your original shape. It means you have the ability to stretch and distort your figure, unhampered by any armature, but the other side of the coin is the uncontrollability of it.

When you are new to the craft it's very easy to lose shape; joints, elbows and knees for instance, can move about disconcertingly. So a character that isn't dependent on sharp edges or definition may be a candidate for clay. Aardman Animation's Morph is made with Plasticine and, as animators find when they come to attempt animating him, nowhere near as simple as he looks.

Plasticine models can be made in a mould. Gumby, Art Clokey's 3D character was originally made with Plasticine rolled out flat and cutout. From the 1950s onwards they started making moulds, into which they poured melted clay. Now he also has a wire armature.

For Plasticine animation there are really very few clays that will do the job. The popular "English clay" is Lewis' Newplast. These clays have a good color range, don't melt (which means they handle well under lights), and have a firm sculpting consistency. Van Aken, the U.S. equivalent, has a brighter color range and will melt and is therefore very useful for moulds, but can get soft under lights.

Richard Goleszowski's Rex the Runt, a semi-flat character, is made in a press mould using English clay (see the section on moulds further on in this chapter). This is a relatively fast way of making a replacement character. Rex was filmed against a 458 glass pane, with the background behind, allowing a greater freedom of movement for the characters, a degree of squash and stretch not before seen, and no rigging problems!

I prefer to animate foam puppets with either replacement faces or mechanical heads. I love the look and feel of clay animation, but the amount of time spent on clean up and smoothing takes away from the flow of the performance.

Trey Thomas, animated James and the Giant Peach and Sally in The Nightmare Before Christmas

Modeling clay is notoriously difficult to keep clean. Always ensure your hands are clean before handling the material, using wet wipes make sure you get a wipe that is not too fibrous and lanolin free. Keep your hands clean by rolling the same colored clay in them, this removes dust and dirt and coats your fingers at the same time. Avoid wearing clothes that "shed," like mohair.

In hot, sweaty conditions have some talcum powder available, both for your hands and to keep the Plasticine dry. Never try to soften the clay with spirit-based liquids or you'll end up with a sticky, slimy puddle. You can hold it nearer the lights to warm up. Or if the Plasticine is too dry, it can be softened with a little liquid paraffin. You need to be very careful about diluting the clay's intrinsic properties.

A useful way to keep the volume of your model accurate is to have a record of its weight, so that if you are adding or subtracting clay, you are always aware of what it should be.

Don't try sticking arms/legs/tails on to a torso. This will always be a weak point. Your model will be stronger if you tease your shape out of one piece of clay.

To read more about craft skills for model animation, check out Stop Motion by Susannah Shaw, Burlington, MA: Focal Press, 2004. 206 pages with illustrations. ISBN 0-240-51659-1 ($34.95).

Susannah Shaw is program development manager for the Animated Exeter Festival. She as head of Bristol Animation Course from 1996 to 200 at the University of the West of England and former camera assistant at Aardman (working on Close Shave among other films).