How to Animate with Paper Cutouts

Most people associate stop motion with claymation. But did you know that the oldest surviving animated feature used paper cutouts? The clip you see below is a snippet from Lottie Reiniger's Adventures of Prince Achmed. It looks so polished you'll find it difficult to believe it was made in 1926!

Animating with paper cutouts is relatively easy and fun. But it can also be surprisingly tedious and demanding if you don't do it properly. So we got a few tips to help you create quality animations like the one you see below.

As you can see, cutout animation looks quite distinct from other forms of stop motion animation. Although it tends to appear rough, its DIY/scrapbook aesthetic makes it quite appealing to a lot of people.


What is cutout animation?

On a fundamental level, cutout animation is just a collage with moving elements. Instead of using objects, you manipulate pieces of cardboard or paper to create the illusion of movement.

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When creating cutout animation, you can use anything from magazine pages to photographs and even drawings on cardboards.


How do you create a cutout animation?


For the most part, creating a cutout animation is relatively straightforward. You cut out the pictures, move them around, and start taking pictures like you would with normal stop motion.

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But working with cutouts has a few issues. Among them is the fact that paper and cardboard can be fragile. And depending on what you end up using, they also tend to be too stiff or flimsy. Oh, and did we mention that they don't always lay perfectly flat, making them challenging to animate?

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Our goal is to help you avoid the issues we mentioned above so you have a pleasant cutout animation experience.

So let's start!

Step 1: Flesh out your concept.


Conceptualization works a little differently when it comes to cutout animation.


Like any other type of animation, it's crucial to have a solid idea when planning cutout animation. But at the same time, you also need to be flexible enough to make changes to your concept. Why? Because the images you end up finding may not necessarily be the same as what you have in mind.

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In our case, we knew that we wanted our animation to appear industrial, filled with gears and machinery. But we had to rely on the images we found to dictate what the machines in our animation would finally look like.


Step 2: Source your images.


You can use all sorts of materials for cutout animation. Of course, you can start with old books and magazines. But you can also print and use personal pictures or artwork!

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If you intend to create cutout animation for a paid project, you must look for photos you can use commercially. If not, you at least need to ensure that your selected images are subject to fair use.

A work of art is usually considered fair use if it's transformative. In other words, you need to alter the image enough, so it becomes significantly distinct from its original use.

To learn more about making collages and fair use, please read about it here.

For our animation, we decided to look for a few stock photos we needed for our animation via Canva. Since we wanted an industrial look, all we had to do was search for pictures of old machines.

In pre-production, we listed the must-haves for our animation. We wanted gears, a conveyor belt, photos of Campbell Soup cans, and tomatoes.

Apart from the items we listed, we were open to finding random images we thought would be appropriate for our concept. Who would have thought a sewing machine and crane would be perfect for our concept?

Can you find the sewing machine and the crane in the final animation?

Note: We didn't want colors in our animation to be distracting. So we decided to turn some of the color photos into black and white via Canva's editing tool.


After collecting the photos we needed, we had them printed at Walgreen's. But of course, you're free to print them at home as well!

Step 3: Cut out the photos.


We used X-acto knives when cutting out pictures because the blades allowed us to slice the round edges precisely. But when it comes to cutting straight lines, we normally prefer using a pair of scissors instead.

Of course, you can choose how precise you want to be with your cuts or opt for a rougher look. In our case, we kept the edges a little rough to emphasize that we used actual paper cutouts for our animation.


Step 4: Prepare your cutouts for animation.


It's not enough to cut out the pictures you selected. You also need to make sure they're ready for your animation.

If your pictures don't lay flat on your table, consider placing them under heavy books for a few days. Hopefully, the pressure will help flatten your images even slightly.

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It would also help if you paint the edges of your images so the rough areas wouldn't be too obvious. To make it easy for you, use a felt tip marker to blacken the sides of your cutout.

Step 5: Setup your background.


Since paper cutouts are technically two-dimensional, you'll need to shoot them flat on a table.


There are several ways to set up your background for cutout animation. Surprisingly, the multiplane camera (actually pioneered by Lottie Renigier!), which we discussed in this article, would even be perfect for it!


But to keep things simple, we used a single glass panel as a platform for the cutout pieces instead.

The glass sheet's primary purpose is to hold down the cutouts to keep them flat. Apart from that, the glass also prevents the pieces from accidentally moving around while you're animating.


You can buy either acrylic or glass sheets at hardware stores such as Lowe's and Home Depot. Alternatively, you can buy a cheap picture frame and use the glass panel for your animation.


Once you have a glass panel, clean it thoroughly so you don't see any fingerprints or dust particles on it.


Next, grab the cut out pieces that will not be moving in your animation. In our case, we arranged an assortment of machine parts against a blue foam board.

During this time, it's crucial that you already have the camera set up. Using your camera's live view, you can compose the cutout pieces and make sure they're in frame.

Once you finish arranging the pieces for your background, carefully place the glass sheet on top of it.

Step 6: Place the moving pieces on top of the glass panel.


Now that the non-moving cutout pieces are secure, it's time to place the moving parts on top of the glass panel.


It's crucial to keep moving and the non-moving parts separated because otherwise, you might accidentally nudge your cutouts while animating. Even a slight breeze you generate while moving around could easily displace your cutouts.

To ensure you don't accidentally nudge the moving parts out of position, you can also place another glass panel on top of the moving cutouts. But we find this could get tedious as you have to remove the glass panel again in between shots to readjust the cutouts.


Our solution is to mark the positions of our cutouts in live view via Dragonframe. We draw round markers around the gears and boxes around the cans.

If those pieces accidentally move, we'll notice it right away because they won't be aligned with the markers we set.

Step 7: Start animating!

Once your cutouts are in place, all you have to do at this point is start animating.

The process will not be any different from making a regular stop motion. But you'll need extra care when moving the cutouts.

First of all, you can't just touch the cutouts with your bare fingers. Otherwise, you might leave fingerprints on the glass panel which could be visible in your final animation.


When animating with cutouts, consider wearing gloves. Alternatively, you can move around your cutouts with tweezers.

Also, remember that a slight breeze could blow away your cutouts. So move slowly and stay in one position to lessen the chances of an accident.


Finally, always make sure your cutouts stay within the markers you created in Dragonframe. If not, you'll end up with jittery movements that could be distracting!

Despite the extra care you need when animating cutouts, you'll find that it's pretty meditative once you get into the rhythm. And of course, with patience, you'll be granted great results!

 

We'd be remiss if we didn't mention Terry Gilliam's name in this tutorial. If you grew up watching Monty Python movies, you'd recognize his iconic cutout animations!

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The video below features Terry Gilliam teaching people how to do cutout animations on the television. It's about 15 minutes long, but it's pretty entertaining and informative.

As you can see, the process back then and the process that we use now isn't much different. But with the help of Dragonframe, at least our chances of messing up our animation significantly diminishes! haha!