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Monday, October 25, 2010

Animation in Starts and Stops, Simplified

Cecil offers water to a neighbor in the short stop-motion animation film “Dried Up.”
[Source:] By Peter Wayner, Published October 20, 2010
For Stuart Bury, Jeremy Casper and Isaiah Powers, the path to a student Academy Award for their stop-motion animation cost less than $1,000, although it did require four months of often constant filming in Mr. Powers’s basement.
The animators, all of whom were students at the Kansas City Art Institute at the time, built the sets and the dolls out of found objects and material rescued from junkyards, staying up late to animate the items by shooting still images of their set and moving the objects a few millimeters before shooting again. “We had to share the room with other people who had their winter clothes down there,” said Mr. Bury. 

The co-directors of “Dried Up” won the 
silver medal in animation at the 37th 
Student Academy Awards in 2010. 
From left, Isaiah Powers, Stuart Bury 
and Jeremy Casper,
But despite the long hours — by Mr. Bury’s estimation, “well over 80” a week — all three said that the production was much easier with the low-cost software that any aspiring filmmaker can buy — in their case, a $275 program called Dragon Stop Motion. 

Their efforts paid off. The six-minute film, “Dried Up,” the story of a man’s quest to bring hope and life to a drought-ridden town, won the silver medal in animation at the 37th Student Academy Awards in 2010, presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

“It still comes down to a ridiculous amount of work,” said Mr. Powers. “But it’s really nice when the new computer software is so streamlined. It’s nice to work with it instead of fighting it.” 

While putting together stop-action animation can still be tedious, the process is now easier than ever. The art form is familiar to anyone who has seen a Wallace and Gromit short or last year’s movies “Coraline” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” 

To simulate movement and expression, animators bend or twist their objects ever so slightly between shots, a painstaking process that makes it difficult to achieve consistency from frame to frame. But now, software can help remedy that, with programs that help check the alignment of the camera and the lighting of the scene while letting the animator flip between recent images to see if the items are moving realistically. 

That part of the process — synchronizing the shots — was what made it difficult for amateurs to make a good movie. “We have one really solid product, and we make it reachable for a serious college or high school student, considering the gadgets that kids have these days,” said Jamie Caliri, a stop-action film director and a founder of Dragon Stop. His co-founder and brother, Dyami, is the software programmer. 

“I really enjoy putting the real tools into someone’s hands. I wouldn’t buy my kid a plastic guitar,” Jamie Caliri said. “I also use the product. That’s part of our story about how we sell it. I won an Emmy last year.” The award-winning animation in question, the title sequence of the “United States of Tara,” took six weeks to shoot after four weeks of preparation. 

Software like Dragon Stop Motion is making animation even simpler. Children, adults and professionals alike can construct elaborate stories with their toys, paper goods, found objects or sculpture, and the computer organizes the images into a film. Some filmmakers are even beginning to build three-dimensional movies using special rigs. 

“An animator who used to shoot six seconds a day can now shoot 20 seconds a day,” said Paul Howell, the founder and director of Stop Motion Pro, another software package. 

“Young kids can make a film in their room and distribute it and have half a million people view it,” said Mr. Howell. “Very young kids can have huge audiences for their work. Not long ago, it was impossible to consider someone that young having access to an audience that large. Students of the art can find hundreds of stop-motion films on video-sharing sites like YouTube, many of which are constructed by children who are younger than 10.” 

Mr. Howell also says that many schools, and even some medical centers, are using the software to tell stories because it lets children express themselves when traditional words fail them. 

The filmmakers used a homemade 
camera rig for moving shots.
“It’s become the software of choice for working with autistic children,” said Mr. Howell. “They’re uncovering issues that they’re finding hard to talk about conventionally or by writing down, but they’re quite comfortable making a film about it.” 

The basic version of his product, Stop Motion Pro, begins at $70, but more sophisticated editions, which offer higher definition and the ability to connect with high quality digital S.L.R. cameras, can cost up to $295. A number of other programs are on the market at prices that range from free to hundreds of dollars. 

While many of the free versions are adequate for experimentation, they usually only offer a limited collection of features. 

The older version of AnimatorDV from Wroblewski Multimedia, for instance, is available at no cost, whereas the newer version, AnimatorHD, comes with a free demonstration mode that shuts off some features after a minute. iStopMotion, a program for the Mac, offers a demonstration mode that works for five days. 

The more sophisticated Dragon Stop Motion package includes a number of features that simplify the tasks done by a computer, allowing an animator to concentrate elsewhere. One button on the keyboard toggles between the last frame and the current image captured by the camera, a common task when an animator wants to ensure that any moving object is seen to move properly. 

Other options help control and balance the lighting to ensure that the images have consistent hue and saturation, a problem that is even more of a challenge in stop-motion animation than in other types of filmmaking. 

Synchronizing the sound with the images is also difficult, especially when a clay mouth must approximate the way a real mouth moves. Dragon Stop Motion manages a list of frames and plots the audio tracks with the associated sounds or phonemes, making it much simpler for an animator to adjust the size and shape of the mouths. 

Other programs bundle a database of common sounds that can be added with a click. Diarmuid Brennan, the chief executive of iKITSystems, which distributes iKITMovie, created his software after his 12-year-old son became frustrated with the lack of options for adding sound to movies. The current version comes with over 2,200 sounds. 

Mr. Casper on the set of “Dried Up.”
“We have 15 to 20 different types of footsteps, like walking on gravel or walking on concrete,” he said. But with a clientele of children, the library of sounds goes beyond that. “There are 20 different burp sounds” and 20 different sounds for passing gas. 

His software for all 2,200 sounds is either $69, or $80 bundled with a Web camera. Mr. Brennan says that his product was originally intended for children who made movies recreationally, but he found that schools were interested in filmmaking as an educational tool. Creating an animated lesson, he says, requires diligence and a thorough understanding of the topic at hand. 

“If they’re dissecting a frog, they can do it in clay and animate it,” he said. “When a child creates a project to explain something, because it’s methodical, they’ll never forget what they’re explaining.”

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