The Advanced Art of Stop-Motion Animation: Digital Cinematography: Part 1
Meanwhile, as Firewire outputs on computers and camcorders have become harder to find, there has been an explosion of popularity of digital SLR still cameras in the past few years. Gone are the days of taking pictures with a film camera, dropping off the tube of film at the drug store, and waiting an hour for your photos and negatives to be ready. Tiny digital cameras that allow you to point, shoot, and get your pictures instantly for uploading to your computer, printing, or posting online have taken the world by storm. (I don’t even remember the last time I took a picture using film.) Then came the digital SLR camera (Figure 4.4), which had the appearance and image quality of the more professional film cameras, but allowed for manual controls and creative freedom in a digital universe. Now it seems like everyone has a digital SLR camera because they have quickly become more affordable for the average consumer.
Along with this trend has been the realization that one can shoot stop-motion with a digital SLR camera. Part of the appeal of shooting stop-motion this way is that it essentially takes the process back to its roots of shooting a string of still images on film. After taking a series of high-quality still images, the next step is to download them straight to the timeline of an editing software program and play them in sequence. The manual controls for image quality make the stop-motion frames look as sharp and clear as a film print, or potentially even better.
However, this has presented another problem: by itself, a digital still camera will not provide a live feed for your frame grabber. The solution in this case is to mount a camcorder next to the SLR or attach a tiny spycam or webcam to the viewfinder, and use that image for the live video feed. The animator can then use the live feed image to utilize the frame-grabber’s functions of onion-skinning and toggling, while at the same time capturing their actual frames in high-resolution with the SLR camera. As long as you remember to take a picture with each camera, this gives you the best of both worlds. This method is still a common way to shoot stop-motion, but even better is the fact that digital SLR cameras now are available with an HDMI or USB live video feed (Figure 4.5). They are more expensive than the lower consumer brands without live preview, but as they rise in popularity, the price continues to come down and become more affordable. Before too long, digital SLR still cameras with a live video preview function could likely become the standard for personal video use (including filming your cat for YouTube). The more affordable these options become, the better it will be for everybody. The other convenient factor to the digital SLR camera’s popularity has been the development of several stop-motion software programs to communicate directly with the functions of certain Canon or Nikon SLR cameras. At this time, the latest versions of Stop Motion Pro and the newly popular software Dragon Stop Motion have this functionality, and many more could easily come onto the market before too long. Software programs now have the capability to work with the manual controls of the camera from within the computer, capture the HD images directly into the timeline, and provide a multitude of other convenient functions for digital workflow.
This book is not intended to focus on any particular software program (although a few specific ones are mentioned throughout) because this information will always change as new versions come out. Whichever software you use is up to your own preference, operating system, budget, and reasons for shooting stop-motion in the first place. Indie stop-motion filmmakers all have different financial situations, living conditions, and responsibilities outside our puppet-pushing; not everyone may be able to afford a fancy digital SLR camera with live video. They also may not necessarily need a super-high-quality image if they are simply doing stop-motion tests or learning basic student-level animation. A webcam can still provide a live feed for a simple image through a USB, but most of them won’t allow for manual control or a suitable image for a semi-professional production. A MiniDV camcorder with a live Firewire output had always been a good compromise, but being without this option puts stop-motion filmmakers on a budget in a difficult transitional stage. Hopefully this will pass, and another simple method will come onto the market that allows all filmmakers to make their films look the best they can at any budget. The software you are able to use may also be determined by your camera. If your version of the software does not support the live-feed option for your digital SLR camera, you are limited to using a webcam or an SLR with a spycam, or trying to find a used DV camera with Firewire (perhaps on eBay). Another option may be to use a special video adapter or a video capture converter like a Canopus, which coverts an analog video signal to digital for a live feed. With a bit more simple technology and a little creativity, you can find other solutions that work to achieve your purposes, according to your budget constraints or shooting needs.