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Animation Notes #10
Stop Motion Animation
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Claymation, table-top, puppet animation (or stop-motion animation) have much in common. The animator not only has to breathe life into otherwise inanimate objects but is also trying to create the illusion of a physical world, albeit on a miniature scale, in a way that is believable to an audience in order that it can suspend its disbelief. Suddenly the animator is confronted with making sets and props and the problems of lighting objects and spaces that have dimension, and arranging points of view within that space, just like a live-action motion picture director. Assuming the characters have some level of appeal, two things more than any other will help this illusion - they are:

Lighting design can heighten our involvement in the drama of a scene or story. Light can give depth to a set where there is none, direct the focus of attention, enhance or flatten the texture of objects, create stark images of harsh contrast, or beautifully soft ones with subtle tonality. Lighting can underscore the emotional state of a character, set the time of day and create mood and atmosphere in sets that may be very simple. Good lighting is essential to any table top animation. It takes time to set up and you need a clear vision for the way you want the balance of light and shadow to underpin the scene or shot.

We, the viewer, orientate ourselves within in a scene by reference to a ‘human scale’ - human artifacts and objects of known scale eg. a door, a chair, a shed, a house, a skyscraper.

Our normal eye height above the ground gives us eye-to-eye contact with other adult humans. If we wish to create the illusion of a familiar real-world environment, the viewer must be able to make eye-to-eye contact with the characters that populate our miniature world. Camera eye-level should match the scale of the model. A common directorial error is to view the model from above, at God’s eye level. Engage the audience with your characters and their world at their level, not ours.

The pre-production phase for stop motion animation also involves the use of a storyboard to help refine visual ideas so that they can be communicated strongly. When translating from the graphic sketches of a storyboard into a real 3D miniature world, it is a very good idea to shoot an animatic with a video camera using the actual sets and puppets that you will use in the production. The exploration of a 3D space with a camera makes you confront the spatial relationships between your characters and their setting which will not only reveal any potential shooting problems, but will also suggest opportunities to compose shots that will enhance the dramatic qualities of the scene. The choice of lens becomes a critical consideration.

Even though we could fill the frame with a character some distance from the camera by using a telephoto lens, which would give us lots of space in front of the camera to get into the set to animate our figures, the use of a wide angle lens in table-top animation gives the sense of being in the same physical space as the model. The perspective clues we get from a wide angle lens suggest that the set surrounds us rather than giving us the impression that we are on the outside looking in from a distance. This is particularly important if the scene we are shooting takes place in an enclosed space like a room. Short focal length lenses also have greater depth of field which is a decided advantage. This means that more of the set from foreground to background will be in focus which is more in keeping with the way we see the world.

These two images are from Asteria Widarani's film 'Appeal' (2004). Both are from the same shot in the film. The one of the left is the pre-production image used in her animatic / storyboard while the one on the right is from the final version of this shot. Both shots convey the same kind of information - a cat under the kitchen table with its owner doing something in the background. However our emotional response to these two images is entirely different. The perspective on the pre-production still is highly flattened by the use of a telephoto lens. Look at the cracks between the tiles - they are almost parallel indicating that the camera is some distance from the model beyond and outside the back wall of the kitchen. The image at the right uses a wide angle lens (look at those cracks again) and in conjunction with the lighting, this image asks us to become involved with the space which helps us forget that these are small models. The kitchen now has great depth reinforced by the varied modulation of the light falling across the floor. Light and shade is also used as a decorative element.

The focal length of the lenses we commonly use for shooting table-top animation onto 16mm film are: 25mm (normal), 16mm (semi-wide) and 10mm (wide angle). These are called prime focal length lenses unlike variable focal length lenses, otherwise called zoom lenses. Zoom lenses are rarely used in table-top animation since they normally cannot focus closer than about 2 metres without a close-up attachment.

Bolt, nail, glue or screw down those parts of the set which aren’t supposed to move. The delicate illusion of a physical world so painstakingly created is immediately shattered when a 20 storey skyscraper lurches to one side after it has been accidentally knocked, or a miniature chair in a room is knocked by the animator's hands. Such accidents are a distraction to the eye and risk leaving the audience wondering for the rest of the film when the next earthquake will strike tabletop town instead of being fully engaged with your storyline.

You should also sandbag the feet of your camera tripod. In fact use Gaffer tape or a hot glue gun to stick down anything which could conceivably move during shooting including coloured gels and cutters on lights.

Puppets for stop motion animation are usually built on a precision engineered armature with articulated mechanical joints. This 'skeleton' is covered by a body molded from latex. These types of puppets are expensive and difficult to make sometimes costing thousands of dollars.

Ball and socket joints form the basis of a mechanical armature. The screw that runs between the two plates can be adjusted to increase the tension on the balls to create a stiffer joint.
Dik Jaram, Director Kanga Manga Films, showing the armature created for his 1997 AIM student production, 'Pharmaceutical Girl' (1997). The chest plates on this particular armature allowed Dik to animate breathing. Various heads (below) could be attached onto the mechanical skeleton.
The heads Dik used were quite rigid, unlike the big blob of malleable clay which was Bert's head (above). However some features, such as eye brows, hair, eye lids and a lower jaw, were modeled from plasticine so that they could animate.
A typical well-engineered armature for professional puppet animation. This mechanical skeleton may be covered by a latex or silicon mould, or with clay.
David Harris used a molded latex skin over an armature for his pigs in 'Le Maison de Cochon'. The latex retains its shape no matter how much the model is handled, but unlike clay, is not as good when plastic distortions for facial expressions are required.

Clay or plasticine, however, is a medium that is animatable straight out of the packet. Skin, clothing and other textures can be modeled relatively quickly. An armature made from thick aluminum wire can be used to give the clay additional support. Its often a good idea to make some parts of a figure, like teeth and eyeballs, from less pliable material, like Fimo which hardens after baking in an oven. This can save a lot of fiddley remodeling.

A wire armature can be used within a clay figure to support thin limbs which would otherwise slag under hot studio lights.
Few animation techniques more fully exploit the magic of metamorphosis than does working with clay or plasticine. Clay remembers its shape when pushed around allowing us to witness these transformations in very concrete terms. The images have three dimensional shape, texture and weight.

'Killjoy' (1995) by Al McInnes is a work that celebrates the plasticity of clay which aids its central premise. No wire armatures were required as the characters were laid flat on a sheet of glass beneath a rostrum camera.

Of course puppets for stop-motion animation can be made of anything - rusty tin cans, sticks, perspex, corks, cutlery. Bird's feathers stuck into a ball of clay, for example, would have great potential in terms of the way these could move. Czech film maker, Jan Svankmajer, animated vegetables, kitchen scraps and office stationary to make a poignant statement about communication. There are advantages in exposing the materials that puppets are made from and their operating mechanics.
A beautifully made horse using corks, icy pole sticks and bobby pins for the articulated joints. There is no attempt to disguise the materiality of its construction. Graeme's Jackson's estate.

The two characters of Monica Syrette's dark story of an obsessive relationship,'Preserving Wax' (2000) were made from completely different materials.The mother's head and hands were carved from wood and left unpainted to reveal its grain. Her appearance was that of a mask which looked rather stark and hard. Her daughter was made from coloured bee's wax and had a softer more rounded look of a baby. The nature of these two materials had a role to play in the events depicted in the film.
The crystal figure from Belinda Timmins' 'Crystal Fugue'. The cut and polished perspex arms and legs of this self-supporting character were articulated so that it could be animated to perform the actions required by the script.


Your worst enemy. If a figure is required by the script to walk around the set, can it? Does the figure support its own weight? Will it stay upright? Is it too top-heavy? Will its legs collapse? You must be practical with your character designs otherwise you will spend most of your animating time fighting gravity. Small powerful magnets can sometimes be fitted within a character's feet. In combination with sheet iron as a floor, albeit painted up to look like something else, the magnet can help the puppet stand on one leg. Rigs can be used to support your character during states of unbalance, or when they are jumping through the air. These can be digitally removed during post production.


Appeal - Asteria Widarani, 2004
Crystal Fugue - Belinda Timmins, 1991
Bert - Craig Ross, 1993
Highwire - David Jones, 1994
Can you Hear the Dog Fernando - Phillipa MacDemott, 1996
Brassketeers - Maung Maung Aye, 1999
Les Grenouilles - Kate Cawley, 1999
Whyspers - Lindsay Cox, 1999
DJ Eddy - Lindsay Cox (clay as interface), 1999
Pig Too Far Gone - Greg Habour, 1996
All Ears - Ben McGill, 1998
The Greatest Story Untold - Paul English, 1998
Le Maison de Cochon - David Harris, 1997
Raymond’s Mission - Nick Donkin, 1989
Blue - Grant Noble, 1992
Achilles Heel - William Trumble, 1993
Tram - Sally Allard, 1994
This Way Up - Sharon Parker, 1995
The Albatross - Wendy Tryer, 1997
Essence of Terror - Sophie Raymond, 1997
Pharmaceutical Girl - Dik Jarman, 1997
Preserving Wax - Monica Syrette, 2000


If you are interested in animating 'in-the-round' then <click here> for the Claymation project brief.

  "They dug up my armature from the Jurassic strata and its now on display at the Smithsonian"


Stop Motion - Craft Skills for Model Animation (AIM collection)
Susannah Shaw
Focal Press, 2004
ISBN 0-24--51659-1

RMIT library:

Stop-Motion Puppet Sculpting : a manual of foam injection, build-up, and finishing techniques
Tom Brierton
Jefferson, NC : McFarland & Co., 2004
791.4334 B853

Puppet Animation
David Johnson
AFTRS, 1984.
778.5347 J68

The Brothers Quay Collection [videorecording]
Ten Astonishing Short Films, 1984-1993
Kino International NY, 1999.
AVK 791.4334 Q2

The puppet Films of Jiri Trnka [videorecording]
Image Entertainment, 1999
AVK 791.4334 T842 DVD

Web Links:

'Darkness, Light, Darkness' by Jan Svankmayer

An Interview with Aardman's Peter Lord by Wendy Jackson, Animation World Magazine, issuse 2.2 May 1997

An Interview with Graham Maidem, puppet fabricator on Corpse Bride by Ron Barbagallo 2005

The Stop Motion Animation Process

Step by Step Guide to Making Armatures

Foam Puppet Fabrication Explained! by Tom Brierton

Armatures for Stop-Motion Animation

Animation und Puppenbau - a German website for professional amatures

Ball and Socket Armature Joints: a method for making your own


The Making of 'Clara'

The Puppetry Home Page

Russian puppet animator, Ladyslaw Starewicz (1892-1965)


Sophie Raymond with her clay characters. Her film, 'Essence of Terror' (1997) had considerable international success.
1995 AIM graduate, Sharon Parker with one of her favourite characters from the children's TV series, 'Plasmo'. Sharon animated this latex puppet which had a very well engineered amature inside it.


Craig Ross at work animating the facial features of his clay charcater, for his 1993 student production, 'Bert'' (1993).
"Mummy, mummy.. there's a giant in my bathroom!" Craig sticks his head in set to adjust the smaller version figurine of Bert which was used in wider shots.
A typical shooting set-up showing the position of lights (room lights are on for this photograph) and using only two of the four walls of the set so that the camera can comfortably compose the required shot. Bert was shot onto film using our Bolex animation camera.
Lots of fussy detail (above and below) to delight the eye and set the scene for Bert. However each object had to be built or found, requiring months of model building preparation before any animation could occur.
Placing a camera within the same physical space as the characters and the correct choice of lens focal length, helps heighten the sense of a believable world.
David Harris and one of the armatures for his film,'Le Maison de Cochon' (1997). David used a combination of clay and latex.


Finding convincing solutions to various dramatic events is part and parcel of table top animation.
David Jones animates his unicyclist world upside down for 'Highwire' (1994). David's story was driven by the premise that there was a world populated by unicyclists who got about by riding along telephone wires. Keeping top-heavy characters balanced on their wheels was a fundamental problem that needed to be solved. The solution was to turn the entire world upside down included the camera itself and the lighting design, so that gravity became an asset not a hinderance to animating the characters.
A special effect sequence from 'Achille's Heel' (1993) by William Trumble. The script called for a boy with rocket shoes to come crashing through an apartment wall. At some point in shooting, the solid wall was replaced with one with a jagged hole in it. The broken pieces were then put back into place so that the wall looked fractured. These were then animated, each piece being held in place by some wire attached to its back which then went through the hole to be fixed onto the back wall out of sight. These wires allowed the pieces to be manipulated into different positions. In image 5 you can see some wire supports to the right of the frame which hold up a couple of pieces in mid air. As these only appeared on the screen momentarily, the supports were not noticed by the audience.


'Pig Too Far Gone' by Greg Habour, 1996
'This Way Up' by Sharon Parker, 1995
'Crystal Fugue' (1991) by Belinda Timmins featured a set constructed from chicken wire coated with borax and mineralised rocks. The tiny figure was made from marzipan. Lighting design was important to the look of this film.
'Brassketeers' (1999 ) by Maung Maung Aye used clay figures with a wire armature inside. Gold and silver flecks of paint were used on the clay to given the impression of cast bronze statues.
'Whyspers' (1999) by Lindsay Cox. The only substantive structure within this scene is the central rocky tower with the golden faces embedded within it. The impression of a vast distance into a fogged infinity is an illusion. A few flat cardboard cutouts repeated the shape of the tower, while other towers were painted in the backdrop. Lighting design, choice of colour (blue makes things recede) and painted atmospheric effects completed the illusion.
'Ragweed' (1990) by Lindsay Fleay. Sometimes simple scenes like this sandy desert, vast blue skies and strong sunlight are quite difficult to light effectively.
'Balance' (1989) a puppet film by Christoph and Wolfgang Lauenstein. (click on image to see it on YouTube)
A puppet animation beetle-man sword fight sequence from 'Flesh Gordon' (1972). The stop-motion animation is superbly integrated with live action. (click on the above image and scroll down to the last video example on the web page)

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