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