The Advanced Art of Stop-Motion Animation: Character Animation - Part 2
In Chapter 9: Puppet Animation, of my first book, The Art of Stop-Motion Animation, I briefly covered how to break down a dialogue track and prepare it for animating to. Once I had my soundtrack edited for this new dialogue scene, the track was broken down in the same basic manner onto an exposure sheet (or dope sheet). The opening line was simply a very emphatic “Wow!” followed by a laugh, which is a rather unique sound to break down and actually a lot of fun to animate to. Because the whole point of breaking down a dialogue track is to break it up phonetically rather than using the actual spelling of the words, if the sound is not necessarily words, it can be broken up the same way, as it is (Figure 7.16). Listening closely to the sounds that make up the laugh, there are several little exhales, inhales, and a series of tiny “Heh” sounds. Some of the “Heh” sounds are shorter and some accented more than others. It’s just a matter of listening to the pattern and finding the exact frame that each sound lands on. When recording a laugh onto the dope sheet, I find it best to mark the sounds down to look like the actual sound waves, and make notes next to them about what kind of sounds they are. The blank frames between them break up the various sounds and can be referred to in the actual animation. The rest of the scene was relatively straight-forward dialogue, where the hamster (which has my voice) asks, “What are you doing?” and the monster replies, “I’m shooting fire!” Then, the hamster replies, “You’re crazy” (Figure 7.17). I will explain some of the particulars of the actual lip sync in a moment, but first I’ll go over some of the other steps applied to the animation as a whole.
I set up the composition of the shot based on the fact that I knew I wanted a fireball composited into the top-right part of the frame, coming out of the monster’s mouth over the hamster’s head. It is always important to think about the movements that may occur and to make sure there is enough negative space around the characters to make this happen. It’s also useful to position the two puppets in such a way that it is easy to reach around them and touch them for the animation. You want to avoid bumping one character while animating the other. I also wanted them to be in a position where they were angled to each other enough to be able to turn and look at each other. Any shot should be composed in such a manner that the characters can interact based on what the scene requires. In moments where they actually make eye contact, they might not actually be doing so on the actual set. They may actually be looking slightly past each other, but the idea is to match their eye lines so that on screen, they appear to be making eye contact. If the character’s head moves, the eyes will often need to be adjusted in the actual animation between frames to keep that eye contact consistent. For example, if a character’s head moves to the left, away from the other character on the right, but the characters are supposed to maintain eye contact, the first character’s eyes must be moved to the right incrementally as the head moves to the left. Otherwise, the character’s eyes will simply stay rooted to the head and will not appear to be making eye contact with the other character anymore.
The personality, design, and construction of these two characters had a direct impact on how they moved. The monster is built on a plastic doll armature, with very long arms and lots of mobility in the neck joint. The head is sculpted in clay over a Styrofoam skull, and the hands are sculpted entirely in clay. This flexibility in the puppet design allowed for some very broad, flamboyant movements. The dialogue itself also gave me clues about how the characters should move. The monster needed a really big accented movement when shouting, “Wow!” and some sweeping gestural poses on the line, “I’m shooting fire!” These kinds of movements perfectly suited the personality I wanted to give the monster—a wild, theatrical personality (very much inspired by my daughter). The hamster, by contrast, does not really have an armature, other than two Styrofoam balls for his round body, a removable round head covered in clay, and solid clay arms and feet. He is much more subdued and mellow than the monster, so he didn’t need to move much, other than his head and facial expressions. All he says is, “What are you doing?” and “You’re crazy.” in a relatively monotone voice, so he didn’t need to move as erratically as his co-star
Using the dope sheet as a guide for where the phrases and accents were in the dialogue, I first did a pose test of the animation, which can also be viewed on the CD (Two Character Pose Test.mov). The purpose of a pose test, also referred to as a pop-through, is to block out the poses and acting decisions for the two characters. The results of a pose test are always going to be a choppy version of a smoother animation sequence because there are no in-betweens. All you are seeing are the key poses, in accordance with the approximate frames they should land on, in sync with the accents in the dialogue. The lip sync itself is really the icing on the cake in a dialogue scene because the actual animation of the body language and movement is what really sells the acting. The idea is to block out a practice run of what the animation might look like in the final version. Shooting a pose test is also very useful for planning the overlapping action between the two characters. They should not change position on the same frame, but rather have some delay between them. If one character snaps into an emphatic pose, the other character can react to their pose, but it should happen a few frames afterward, not on the same frame.