Stop motion animation is a popular technique of animation captured one frame at a time, with physical object within the frame moved in small increments. This creates the illusion of movement, when the frames are played in order at a faster pace. For ease, dolls with movable joints, or clay figures are often used as they can be easily altered or repositioned.
Stop motion animation with clay characters (as popularised by Wallace and Gromit) is sometimes referred to as ‘clay-mation’. As with hand-drawn and computer generated animation, stop motion continues to be popular for films, television and adverts owing to the vast opportunities and visual effects it can offer.* However, the highest grossing stop-motion animation remains Chicken Run (2000) which boasts a current lifetime gross of 106 million dollars**.
In this episode we talk to a stop motion animator who gives us an insight into his world… frame…. by…. frame…. including the perils of mixing 2D and stop-motion animation together.
We take a look at why stop-motion is cheaper than you think to produce, and even tips on how to do it yourself. Here’s a clue…. you have to be patient! We also learn what beeswax is used for, and what it was like working with a trippy biscuit boy called Barry.
Drew Roper of Yamination Studios
Drew Roper founded Yamination Studios in Birmingham in the UK five years ago. Working with a variety of mediums – but primarily stop motion animation – Drew and his studio team have worked on productions for the likes of Cravendale and Coca-Cola – and most recently an animated ident for Roald Dahl’s ‘The Twits’ Birthday, as well as production work for Walt Disney.
Yamination’s new innovative short film ‘At-issue’ premiered on Sky Arts in 2016, and showcased blending three different animation techniques together in a unique way.
I caught up with Drew at his Birmingham studio….
SCOTT LEDBURY: To jump straight into it, what is it about stop motion animation that did and still does attract you to it?
DREW ROPER: I just love playing with plasticine. It’s the nostalgia, that stop motion brings as a medium. Coming from a family of tradesmen, it’s great to work in a medium thats already real and hands on. I always had an artistic flair, so I’d always be mesmerised by something that was already realistic.
It feels real, you can immerse yourself in that world. Stop motion animation has that nostalgia factor, as it hasn’t changed since it first began. Since the days of Ray Harryhausen and Jiří Trnka in eastern Europe, it’s a camera, it’s a puppet, it’s lights and its still the same now, other than better technology.
SL: Some people see stop motion as more impracticable, is nostalgia key?
DR: Absolutely, it’s also seen as quite quirky. Usually when you see a stop motion film it has an edge like a Tim Burton film, like Corpse Bride, Coraline or Frankenweenie. Back in the day when I was getting into animation, I’d try and find animations with stop motion elements.
The majority from Eastern Europe were quite dark, not horrid, but dark which suits the medium. There is a jerky factor, though now there is no excuse for jerk because of the technology. But the imperfections are part of the charm. These days with 2D animation and CGI, there is a pristine look to them, which you can do with stop motion.
A lot of directors and art directors have their own take on it, the beauty of stop motion is that you can see the imperfections, that the computer can’t polish up. There is that special factor, that handcrafted and imperfect feel to stop motion.
A company called Laika in the US is trying to remove all imperfections with films like Kubo And The Two Strings, so it loses the handmade feel and looks like CG, but they are pushing the boundaries of the technology which is good.
SL: Everyone has seen the classics like Wallace and Gromit, talk us through the process? (And the preparation involved.)
DR: First and foremost it is down to story, starts with the written idea. You have an idea, write it down and start to develop the story, then run it by some other people. Then for me, as director/producer or animator I look for visuals, start sketching the characters, what could the character and scene look like, then get the team to develop the concept art.
Depending on financing, do some treatments to get some finance. Not all stories start with that but it is necessary. It’s definitely all the same, it’s all about the story, and the look will come and compliment that.
SL: Do you let your imagination run free?
DR: That’s difficult, it’s a battle between the director and producer within me. For a lot of Tim Burton characters, especially in stop motion they have small feet and wide bodies which affects how they walk.
Rigging is a major part of stop motion animation, mechanisms you build which keep the puppets upright stable. It’s a big part of it that can be quite costly.
I try not to let the production style interfere with the idea, because it should be about the look. Filmmaking is how to problem solve. How to get the look and make it possible. I enjoy working with different concept artists and character designers and I try to let them run free.
I give them a brief and let them come back with fresh ideas. When we get a final design (though nothing is ever final), but when we’re cementing the look, I then speak with animators and model makers about how it could be made and how it could move.
That’s massively important because while it’s great having a character, but if it can’t do what you want it to do, it’s pointless making it.
SL: Moving from pre-production to production, the physical animation side. What can you achieve in a day.
DR: A typical day on set, starts at 6AM, turn on the lights, warm them up. Crew all arrive about 8, have breakfast all together, aim to start at 9AM. The director discusses the next shot with the animator, act it out for them, if its a new shot, working out what action we want the character to do. Get the DoP to light the set if it’s a new shot, compared against the previous shot and against the storyboard.
Sometimes things needs to be made or tweaked, so I check in with the model makers and animators. The director goes through the script, the storyboard, checking with the model makers to make sure everything is set and working.
SL: It has to be very linear, unlike video where you can shoot as much as you want, you have to commit?
DR: I have a clear vision of what I’d like, but I like to give people the creative vision to adapt. For me as a director, I like to be surprised, you can veer off course, but that can be a good thing. But sometimes I have to be very clear and linear.
If it’s a feature film you’re looking at two seconds a day from one animator because it’s for the silver screen, it’s got to be high, a certain way. You take that time to make sure it’s a certain way. For a TV series it’s between 8-15 seconds.
SL: What’s the main difference between stop motion animating film and TV?
DR: When you look at a TV series, the quality is weaker, more pose to pose action. Allows the audience to see the quick fast paced action, less subtle and emotional. With a feature film, there is a lot of realism that you’re trying to get across. It’s for a different medium, a different platform, you need to be to read stuff.
The Postman Pat’s of the word are very fast paced with quick movements which is for the pre-school audience. To allow them to adapt, it’s how they’re looking at stuff, you don’t want to bore them.
Cravendale TV Advert
SL: Moving on to the commercial sector, a lot of brands over the years have utilised stop motion, why do this?
DR: It’s a difficult question to answer, as each brand will have their own reason for using that. From experience, there’s the nostalgia and realism factor. It’s that quirkiness, which suits the Cravendale advert perfectly. The advert was a mixture of puppetry and stop motion animation. The close up was all puppetry, with the stop motion animation coming in for the wider shots. What worked was that you could mix the mediums well, and as a studio we’re trying to be innovative and use these mediums alongside each other.
We were fortunate to build the sets and props for the Cravendale advert. There is also the merchandise factors, it’s already real so if you’re makings toys it looks exactly the same as the character. You already have moulds for the characters and props.
I think also, that stop motion has a lasting factor and can be produced cheaper than CGI. If you look at the budget difference between a stop motion film and a CGI film, it’s clear.
For stop motion, all you need is storage, whereas with CG you need data farms and high level processors to process all the data going through the computer.
With stop motion films you’re not processing anything you just real-world storage and data storage.
SL: The benefit of using stop motion over CGI and hand drawn animation?
DR: It depends on what look you’re after and what you want to try and create. I’ve seen some CG that looks real, and they’re taking our jobs! But it ultimately comes down to the story, not the look. ‘Toy Story’, made in 1995, you could still put on today and be blown away by the story.
I think it would have worked stop motion, the crafty, quirky realism mixed with the nostalgia. If you look at films like ‘A Nightmare Before Christmas’, it still looks good every Christmas now. But if you look at ‘Antz’ or ‘A Bugs life’ and because the animation was still developing it is slightly dated, with a plastic, shiny look.
Whereas stop motion doesn’t date that way. But I prefer stop motion because it looks beautiful, and because its real, you can present the sets, the props the models at exhibitions as a tourist factor. Whereas with CG all you can visit is a room full of computers and fans.
A Scene From Pixar’s Toy Story
SL: What is the costing of different types of animation? Put them in order of least expensive to most.
DR: I don’t really know, because when you have a budget for a feature film, you then double that for the marketing which skews the figures for what production was spent. People have the impression that stop motion is more expensive, but I believe that done well, CG is more expensive, you need the right hardware and render farms and processes.
When you’re working with a feature film or commercial, you’re up against deadlines, things need to be done quicker. You have to facilitate by using a house to do that for you. Feature films are a little easier. Para-Norman was 85 million dollars. Pirates by Aardman was 65 million dollars, Fantastic Mr. Fox was 40 million dollars. A Toy Story and Shrek (CGI animated) they were 150 million dollars, but you don’t know whether that’s production budget or the whole marketing budget inclusive.
SL: Talking about At-Issue, which involved a lot of blending different animations styles. Was that a challenge?
DR: I won’t be doing that again, it took over three years to do. It was an incredible experience. When we started the project we were coming back from a festival which really inspired us to do something. At the time, I hadn’t seen a film which mixed the mediums together, now I know why! But I thought that there was a market for this, and developed an idea.
Yamination’s ‘At-Issue’ Teaser
Sky Academy backed me which was amazing, alongside the Kickstarter campaign. It was a big battle, because no one had done it before. Lots of trial and error, but we made sure that we didn’t cut any corners. Its down to scheduling and framework to say this is what we need to do for each medium.
A definite learning curve, now I would get the 2D animation done first, build the sets a lot more quickly so we have a background to work with.
There are some shots we couldn’t use, because once we put everything together the 2D animation and stop motion didn’t match. When you have a storyboard it looks totally different on camera – changing your vision throughout, caused implications further down the line.
Need a firmer idea at the start to make sure that all the shots match across the medium. We’ve learn that the structure is incredibly important.
SL: Back to characters, how are they made?
DR: Plasticine is still heavily used, but it is very hard to maintain. It dries up, it melts – often mixed with different products. Beeswax keeps it hard,, prevents it from melting under hot lights. Bart from At-Tissue is made from silicone rubber, plasticine mixed with chalk, which firms the plasticine, and fast cast resin.
His feet are rubber, he has a ball and socket armature skeleton, which allows you to build on it. His feet need to move, hence using the rubber – silicone gets long wear out the character and is fixable. Bart’s head needed to be hard and solid, as only his mouth and eyebrows were plasticine. We have 183 mouths for Bart, some feature films have thousands of faces and mouths to get different expressions. Plasticine is used for sculpting and to make moulds from.
SL: Any tips for DIY stop motion? For small companies? How to make it look good?
DR: Go to basics and have some fun. Look what Aardman did with Morph. Once you’ve immersed yourself with a character you lose track of time, you don’t get bored.
It’s not tedious. One recent project we worked with paper for the first time and I really enjoyed that. I love looking at different styles of stuff, get involved, it really comes down to trial and error.
SL: Thanks for your time Drew, we wish you all the best for the future.