Making a creaturecast episode – animation

posted by Casey Dunn / on February 6th, 2012 / in

Unlimited Graphic Design Service provides several options in animation. Because most Creaturecasts use stop-motion animation, this online guide focuses on this particular method of creating visuals.

Regardless of your approach, a storyboard is a great way to outline your plans before you begin animating. It can help you decide what kind of media you want to use (collage, line drawings, oil pastels). It can also help you edit your script. You might realize that a sentence in your script is unnecessary or too confusing. A storyboard is basically a sequence of rough sketches illustrating your script. They can be really simple–you can draw them using shapes, arrows and stick figures. It is helpful to match up your sketches with the lines of your script. You can also add notes on your sketches to describe the motion of your characters or the “camera angle” (e.g. zoom in).

Stop-motion animation works like a flipbook does. It is basically a super fast slideshow of all these images that when shown one after the other conveys movement.

The general steps are:

– Create the images
– Rake pictures of the images using a camera & copy stand
– Edit & compile images on the computer

There are a lot of different ways to create your images. Here is a list of  methods that Creaturecasters have used in the past:

– Black marker on transparencies. One big advantage is that you can trace your images. To add colour, you can use the same backgrounds underneath transparencies
– Paper “puppets”. You can break up your characters into parts, and move each part in between camera shots to animate your character. (e.g. draw upper lip and lower lip separate & take pictures of the mouth arranged in an open & closed fashion)

Make your artwork as large as will comfortably fit on the copy stand. The bigger it is, the smaller the relative size of any imperfections and the more forgiving the overall process will be.

The most effective way capture your images is to use a copystand with a set of lights and a good quality SLR camera. This set-up allows you to keep lighting and zoom consistent.

You could take a bunch of regular photos and stitch them together to form a video, but it is much easier to use an animation program. We use Dragon Frame. It controls the camera, has a variety of useful tools to facilitate animation, and exports video for further editing. There are multiple tutorials including this one.

There are a few settings that are critical to make when you first create the project in Dragon Frame:

– Resolution / aspect ratio. Plan on exporting your video at a full 1080p resolution, which means that you should photograph with a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels (an aspect ratio of 16:9). If the aspect ratio is different, you will end up needing to crop the image or having annoying black bars in part of it. Lower resolution will result in low quality video. The aspect ratio of camera sensors is different than 16:9, they are more square. This means it is very important to make sure everything you are shooting falls within the mask 16:9 mask (which should be visible while you shoot), which will crop the top and bottom of your image.

– Frame rate. A high frame rate gives smooth flowing animation, but is also more work since there are more frames to shoot. 24 frames per second is typical and very good, less will get jerky but may still be fine for the aesthetic you are going for.

– I strongly suggest turning onion skinning. This gives a faint overlay of your previous shot as you compose each new image, and helps give a sense of how much to move each item. You can turn this on or off at any time without impacting the final output.

It is important not only that the camera settings are optimized, but that they are consistent for all shots in a scene. Inconsistencies in focus and exposure can be very jarring and greatly detract from your piece, even if everything else is great. Here are some tips on camera settings:

– You will typically use a camera els with a focal length of about 50mm on a copy stand. If working with a zoom lens, it is better to move the camera further away and zoom in (ie, use a focal length with a larger number) rather than use it up close and zoom out. This will avoid spherical aberration around the edges of the image.
– Lock the exposure settings for all the images in each scene, otherwise some frames will be brighter than others. To do this, put the camera exposure in Manual mode (on a Canon, turn the exposure wheel by the shutter button to “M”) and adjust the aperture and shutter speed to get the right exposure. Take some test shots. Leave the manual settings untouched once you start photographing all your frames. You can also control these settings from Dragon Frame.
– Focus is really, really important! Use autofocus to get the focus right for the first shot, then switch the camera to manual focus so that it won’t change (the autofocus/ manual focus switch is usually on the lense and marked with “AF/MF”). Be sure to refocus (switch to auto, press the shutter button half way to get it to focus, then switch back to manual focus) if you change the zoom or camera height. Periodically examine the photos to make sure they are still in focus. You can use zoom in Dragon Frame to make sure the focus looks good up close.

When done, export the video. The codec should be H264 or, better yet, Apple ProRes 422 (LT). The ProRes codec results in larger files but they have better quality.

Remember that the animation isn’t the end product, the story is. You are using the animation to tell the story. Don’t get bogged down on details that aren’t relevant to the story. It is fine to take a scrappy or rough approach to things that aren’t key to moving the story along, or even to things that are important if the approach is still effective. Animation should NOT get in the way of telling the story.

I highly advise watching Terry Gilliam’s video about creating animations. He does a very effective job of first figuring out what does and doesn’t matter to the story, and then only focusing on the critical components of the animation. I’ll leave you with his words:

“The whole point of animation to me is to tell a story, make a joke, express an idea. The technique itself doesn’t really matter. Whatever works is the thing to use”


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