How to Create Cinematic Lighting for Stop Motion

Lighting a scene doesn't have to be complicated, but it certainly takes more than turning on the light switch in your home studio!

We'll show you a few ways to light your set depending on the mood you want to achieve. Once you learn these lighting techniques, we guarantee that your animation would look super cinematic!


First, ask yourself if you want hard light or soft light.


Hard light and soft light are the two main types of lighting when it comes to stop motion animation. Let's find out what they are and how you can use them for your social media work.

Hard Light


When you hear the term hard light, just think of direct sunlight. In other words, it's harsh and casts strong shadows.

To create hard light, you'll need a lamp with an exposed bulb like the one you see below.

Since you're using an exposed bulb, you'll end up with harsh light that creates a more dramatic and edgy look.


Soft Light


When you think of soft light, think of sunlight coming through a curtained window. As the name suggests, it creates soft shadows and even lighting.

To create soft light, you'll need what's called a diffusion material, much like a window curtain that softens the sunlight when it enters a room.

There are all sorts of diffusers out there, but the most popular options for stop motion are softboxes.


To achieve a soft light, simply attach a softbox to your light source. The fabric in front of the softbox creates lighting similar to what you get in a curtained window.


Keep in mind that you can't just attach a softbox to any light source. You need to have a studio light with a Bowens mount (or similar) that lets you connect your diffusion material.

But even if you don't have a softbox, you can still create beautiful soft light. All you have to do is hang a curtain or any light fabric material in front of your light source (such as a lamp), and you'll achieve the same effect.

Before you start going crazy with lighting, start with one light.


We see a lot of animators drown their set with so many lights to achieve even lighting. But as a result, their animations often look flat because all those lights kill the shadows that create dimension.


The secret is to start with one light (it doesn't matter if it's hard or soft). Why? Because it makes everything look more natural. After all, the sunlight only comes from one direction.


We shot the image below with one light. The shadow created by this single light adds depth and dimension to the radio.


But sometimes, one light also ends up causing one side of your product to appear TOO dark. So what do you do, then?

The secret is to use what's called a bounce card (pictured above). It's practically a piece of any white foam or cardboard you can use to reflect some light onto your subject.


If one light isn't enough, then you can try two to three lights.


When working with multiple lights, you need to be strategic with where you place them. That way, you can still maintain some of the shadows that give your set a sense of depth and dimension.


If your single light isn't working, consider adding what's called a fill light on the other side of your subject. You can think of it as a bounce card to "fill" in the dark shadows but using an actual light source instead.


As you can see in the image below, the shadow on the right side of the radio appears less pronounced.

When doing a two-light setup, keep in mind that the second light needs to be a bit dimmer than your main light (also called key light). Otherwise, your product would end up looking flat and shadowless.


And if your two-light set-up is making your subject blend with the background, consider adding a third light. Also called an edge light, it illuminates the edge of the product to separate it from the background.


The effect of using an edge light is often subtle. But if you closely look at the image below, you'll notice that the right side of the radio is well-lit and has less pronounced shadows.

Honestly, we barely use a three-light setup when shooting stop motion for social media. Why? Because it kills the shadows that add depth and dimension to the subject.


The only time we work with three lights is when we have to use high-key lighting that requires everything in the frame to be lit evenly.

Now let's talk about accessories to "shape" your light.


In photography and filmmaking, you'll probably hear the term light shaping or light sculpting a lot. So what does it mean?


Let's use the sun as an example. When you're outdoors, you see the sun illuminating everything. But when it shines through a small window, you suddenly see it take the shape of a square or rectangle while everything else is in the shadows. That's the basic concept behind light shaping.


There are so many accessories that help you shape your light source. The most common one is, of course, using a softbox. It controls the light in such a way that it only illuminates whatever is in front of it.


But of course, apart from a softbox, there are other accessories that you will find helpful when shaping light. We'll discuss a few of them below.

Flags


In many ways, flags are much like bounce cards. The only difference is that they subtract light instead of adding light to the product.

Flags are either made of thick black fabric or black cardboard that blocks light. You don't even have to buy one. Just get a black foamboard, cut it to a smaller size, and you got yourself a flag!


Snoot


A snoot may sound funny, but it's one of the most valuable accessories in both photography and filmmaking. It's a black cone you attach to your light source to spotlight a product.

Snoots also often come with attachable honeycomb grids. You can attach them to the smaller end of the snoot to create an even smaller spotlight.

The image above is a honeycomb grid that comes with the snoot. You can buy a kit with grids that produce varying sizes of spotlights.


Gobo


Gobos create shadows and silhouetted patterns when placed in front of a light source.


You can use just about anything as gobos. You can cut out cardboard in the shape of a window frame (or even window frame decors like in the sample image below!), place it in front of a light source, and voila!


There are also times when we use professional gobos. They're technically just snoots with lenses; in essence, they turn a light source into a projector that displays patterns and silhouettes.

We often use "cookies" when working with professional gobos. These are aluminum disks cut out with various patterns.

We insert a cookie with the pattern we like into the gobo and project onto our set.

Gels


Gels are heat-proof colored sheets you place in front of either the light source or an accessory such as a snoot. They change the color of the light to create various moods.

Technically, gels aren't exactly light shapers. But they help a lot in setting the mood of a set.


Now let's apply what we just learned in a stop motion shoot!

Before we go through the lighting set up, watch this sample animation we did and pay attention to how the lights change in the video.

Now let's break down the techniques we used to create the lighting effects in the animation:

Hard Light

For the first part of the animation, we used hard light (a.k.a. exposed bulb without any diffusion) to create a sunny vibe.


Snoot


Once the finger in the animation pressed a button, we added a snoot to our SL60W to create a spotlight.

We didn't want the spotlight to "turn on" right away. So at first, we covered the snoot entirely with a black cardboard flag.

A flag covering the mouth of the snoot to limit the light coming out.

We then moved the flag down slowly in each frame until the snoot wasn't covered anymore. The result looked like the spotlight turned on gradually.

Gels


As soon as we attached the snoot to the key light, we also turned on our fill light with gels on it.

We used both blue and violet gels to create that dark room vibe. And since our fill light was not as bright as the key light, it didn't overpower the spotlight at all.


Practical


Practical lighting is a term in filmmaking referring to the traditional light sources in a set.


A practical light could be a desk lamp on a table or a candle in the background. Its primary purpose is not necessarily to light the subject but to enhance the mood of your set.

The practical light we used for this shoot was a miniature disco ball. Sure, it's not a light source per se. But it created specks of light as it swung above the radio. The effect it creates in the animation may be subtle, but it definitely added some personality (and realism) to our main product!

 

We discussed a lot of techniques in this article, but here's what you need to remember:

  • If you want outdoor sunlight, use hard light (exposed light source).

  • To recreate indoor lighting, add a softbox or other diffusion materials.

  • Start with one light and add more only IF necessary.

  • Use a bounce card to reflect light back to a subject and a flag to increase shadows.

  • Add accessories such as gobos, snoots, flags, and gels, to add some character to your set and make it feel more realistic.

If you're still starting in stop motion, stick to using a single light source (with or without diffusion), bounce card, and flag. You'll be surprised how your animated clips will improve with just those three things. Only start buying additional accessories once you become more familiar with lighting!

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