Animating on the Go: So you want to shoot a live stop-motion - The Needy Animator

Animating on the Go: So you want to shoot a live stop-motion

christina_matthew_maloney_stopmotion_animatorsWhile a lot of animation is done sitting down either in a dedicated studio space or at home, there are also times, especially for stop motion animators, that you might have to step out into the physical world to capture raw footage or animate on location. Such was the case with animation and Animation Chair and seasoned film festival veteran Matthew Maloney and motion media specialist and professor Christina Maloney of Savannah of College and Art and Design-Atlanta. (Their other beautifully crafted stop motion animation “The Anchorite” premiered at Cannes in 2009.) While in theory, this may seem as simple as grabbing a camera and running outside to start shooting, the physical world deals with weather conditions, unexpected passerby reactions, and uncontrollable variables. This past winter break, they were in Hong Kong with their puppets shooting live in the mountains, on the beach, the metro of Kowloon, and on the streets in the bustling crowd of passerby for their new animation Loon. With this, they came up with some tips for those that might be interested not just in stop motion but perhaps even live action sequences that requires shooting on the streets.

1. Secure Your Equipment

camera_cage_tripod_rigNot just stop motion pieces or props are probe to damage or being stolen but expensive equipment used for the shoot such as cameras, laptop, tripod are susceptible during a mobile shoot. While shooting on the street, the Maloneys created a laptop cage by repurposing an old shoe rack he bought for around $3 and locked it to the ground and then locked the tripod to it. Now it’s safer from being stolen or being bumped into during the shoot. In a live production set, the film lingo “Fire Watch”  is used on set to mean guard duty for someone to watch over the equipment.

2. Mind your Designs

screen-shot-2014-12-20-at-10-33-31-pmWhile a lot of things may not be predictable, having some idea of the location of where you are planning to shoot should help in determining your design so that they are practical for outside shoots. Knowing that he would not be able to control the light source, Matt designed his puppet eyes to be metallic and reflective so that they would pull in light and stand out during the shoot. While some parts of the puppets might have had trouble getting through immigrant and other parts too fragile to check in, Matt had his puppets’ hands and head detachable for easy assembly to pass through immigration as well as be ready for quick and easy assembly.


broken_stopmotion_puppet_loonpo_tie_down_rig_stopmotion3. Prepare for Fixes and Tie Downs

While the Maloneys were out filming their puppet Po on the mountain, he accidentally fell down and dropped and cracked his head. Prior to this his puppet’s ear were chipped off and the foot was destroyed as it was being knocked down by gust of wind among other factors. Knowing this, there must be quick easy fixes you can make to your puppet or prepared duplicate if your set pieces require them to be pristine throughout the shoot. Another good thing to have is a “Tie Down” rig to help support the character and stabilize it as a precaution. Matt used a fiber-filled posable pipe and a spring clip adapted to a tripod for his tie down rig to keep Po in place. Rigs are especially helpful during shoots where the character has to be placed in high locations where they could easily drop down. These rigs can be rotoscoped out later during post production.


4. Respect the Location


Photo I took when I was in HK at the same time

A lot about shoot in a live action environment is about respecting the location and going with the dynamics of the flow of things. During this shoot in Hong Kong, this was the time of the Occupy Hong Kong movement so people were more wary of being photographed. In doing a shoot like this, it is good to try to stay out of the way and try your best not to disrupt the environment. The Maloneys tried to find locations to put their cameras closer to construction sites or areas where they would not obstruct the people or get in their way. As Matt puts it, the rules of shooting is like “being in a safari.” You can look but respect the space and boundaries.


5. Somethings can be done Digitally

blink01blink02As there are a lot of factors to overcome in animating live, there are also somethings that can be done in post production or digitally if they are small enough to save time. Such times would be in character blinks for Loon, where there is a conscious choice to paint the blinks digitally rather than spend too much unnecessary extra time to do them manually in all the different locations. As during the filming, there is also the factor of too much turbulence in some scenes, some stabilization may also be done more efficiently in post. Christina, a motion media specialist, does the necessary stabilization


christina_maloney_loon_animation6. Have a Partner in Crime

Anyone who might be familiar with the process of stop motion would usually be aware that the act of animating a character and clicking the camera at the same time is very time consuming and requires a lot of back and forth movement. Unless you have created yourself a custom hack NES powerglove like this Robot Chicken animator, chances are you are better off having a partner in crime working on your animation with you especially in the case where you are shooting across a busy street. While Matt is on one side of the street moving the puppets frame by frame and running off screen, Christina is on the other side checking the framing and counting down their set 1o-second timer to signal for when the camera is about to click its shutters. No one task is less important as  I would imagine this process would probably take twice as long at least and have a higher hit-miss zone had it been a one-person endeavor.


7. Stop motion is Perseverance

We’re not talking about a fist fight here but a lot of live-shooting in stop motion is about moving around, squatting, and reaching to arrange space and props physically and that can get really tiring really fast if you are not prepared for it. Unlike working in a dedicated studio space, time is a devastatingly component of a shoot. Most photographers would know that to get great lighting, there is a tiny window of open where particular golden moments are where natural lighting is at its best. Mix in the scenario of animating is a bustling city where your camera is shooting at a 10-second a frame timer, and you can see why it is critical to move quickly. To get one shot on the train, the Maloneys had to ride the train numerous times and get off the station to avoid the ones that are too crowded and ride back to continue their animation on the same loop over and over again. This requires patience, perseverance, and preparing physically and mentally.

 Loon is scheduled to start hitting film festival circuit submissions next month and more detailed documentations of the production process can be found on Matthew Maloney’s blog Angry Animation. His descriptions are also very entertaining and brutally funny.


*Media from Loon production used with permission. 

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