How to Create Smooth Stop Motion Animation

When you first learn to make stop motion, the clips you make would most likely look like this:

The video above looks magical, and it has all the qualities of stop motion that people love. But did you know that you can make your animation appear even smoother using a few simple techniques?



It all starts with the frame rate. So what is it, and why should you care?


If you've shot or edited videos before, you must be familiar with the term frame rate. It simply refers to the number of frames a movie camera captures every second.

For television, the frame rate is either 25 or 30 frames per second (a.k.a. fps). And for cinema, the average speed is 24 fps.

So what determines all these numbers? Why 24, 25, or 30?


In the early days of cinema, you'll notice that the movement of people seemed stuttery, as you see in this classic Nosferatu clip below:

So what's the reason behind the unnatural movements? Well, it's mainly because the cameras back then captured motion at a lower frame rate.


As cinema matured, people realized that the frame rate for capturing natural movements should be at least 24 fps. Because of this breakthrough, movies started looking like this:

Still, it's worth noting that the human eye can process moving pictures down to 12 fps. Anything lower than that, and they'd stop looking like movies and more like malfunctioning slideshows.


How does frame rate affect stop motion movies?


Since stop motion animation involves capturing scenes frame by frame, it's crucial to stick to the standard frame rates to create realistic animation.

The characters in movies like Nightmare Before Christmas or Coraline are almost human-like because the filmmakers used 24 fps to capture motion.

Animators usually call 24 fps shooting on ones. Why? Because it requires capturing a character's "movement" once until they complete the 24 frames needed to create one full second of animation.

But we can all agree that it takes a lot of time to capture 24 frames to create a single second of content.


The truth is that we do most of our animations in 12 fps because, as you can remember, the human eye is still capable of processing moving images at that frame rate.

In fact, a few animation studios such as Aardman of Wallace and Grommit fame also mostly shoot at 12 fps. It's less work, and it also has a different feel. The movements may appear smooth, but it still has that Charlie Chaplin slapstick look that works well for fun animations.

Working at 12 frames per second is often referred to as shooting on twos. Why? Because animators have to shoot a "movement" twice (12x2) to fill the 24fps required to create smooth animation.


But The Frame Rate Isn't Everything. Timing Is Also Important.


If you're still learning stop motion, you don't have to focus too much on the frame rate, as it can get too confusing.

When first-time animators are compelled to make every movement fit into 12 or 24 frames per second, their animations end up either too fast or too slow. Why? Because they either create too few or too many frames to comply with the frame rate.

Another problem that we see many fresh animators encounter (and we're guilty of this too!) is that everything looks frantic all the time. The speed is so uniform that movements look hurried.

So instead of counting the frames, focus your energy on timing. When you animate, make sure you review your shots. Do the movements look natural? Are they too fast or too slow?

If you're animating slow movements, move your object little by little. If you're animating fast movements, move the character or product in larger increments.


We use Dragonframe which allows us to playback our animation at different frame rates. It's perfect for checking whether our animation looks too choppy or not.


If you don't have Dragonframe, just press down your camera's browsing button to go through the images quickly. Doing so gives you a glimpse into what your final product will look like.

In the video above, you'll see that we mixed slow and fast movements to create realistic animation. At first, our lip balm wobbles slowly before going down quickly as it falls. It then slows down and stops as it slides across the frame.


Also, Don't Forget to Follow the Laws of Physics While Animating!


Okay, we know physics sounds a bit intimidating, especially if you're the creative type. But don't worry. We're not talking about doing Newtonian calculations here. Instead, study how objects move and behave in real life. Ask questions like: How do things fall, how do they accelerate, and how do they slow down?

Once again, let's look at the crude animation we showed you at the beginning of the article. Did you figure out what's wrong with it? That's right. It inexplicably topples and falls at a uniform speed.


Objects don't move like that in real life.

Sure, it's just animation, and you're free to do whatever you want with your work. But it always helps if you still follow the Laws of Physics even at the most basic level. Otherwise, it would just appear robotic and unnatural.


So how exactly do you recreate realistic movements? There are many ways to approach this issue, but let's start with the few steps below:


First, create anticipation.


When a person jumps, you expect them to bend their knees first before executing the action. The same rule applies when it comes to stop motion animation. It doesn't matter if you're working with a clay puppet or a lip balm; the movements you create need to clue people in as to what your character is about to do.

To create anticipation in our lip balm animation, we made the product rock back and forth. Since it appears to be out of balance, the audience can expect it to fall at any time.


Next, animate movements in an arc when applicable


When you watch a ball bounce, you'll notice that it doesn't just go up and down. It also naturally follows an arc as it jumps. This principle applies to almost anything that moves in the natural world.

You'll see this principle in action when we made the lip balm "fall." As it goes down, it has to follow an arc so it would look natural. Of course, the action is subtle. But the result is visually compelling because of the realism it brings.


Now add some follow-through and overlapping action…


When you observe someone running fast with long hair, do you notice that their hair flows in the wind behind them? This scenario is a perfect example of follow-through and overlapping action: Objects don't accelerate or decelerate at the same rate.

In our sample video, you can see this concept at work through the lip balm sliding away from the cap. Despite initiating the action, the cap stays in place while the lip balm itself moves away from it.


Finally, apply slow in and slow out...


Also called ease in and ease out, this principle is a priority when creating smooth animation. It follows the rule of inertia in that it shows how a body resists the change in velocity.

For instance, when you see a car speed up, it doesn't immediately go to 60 MPH. Instead, it starts at 5, then 15, 45, then 60. The same rule applies when it slows down. It doesn't go from 60MPH to 0 immediately. Instead, it slows down gradually until it stops.


Now let's take a look at the composite shot below to see exactly where we moved our lip balm frame by frame.

When you watch our lip balm animation, you'll notice that the lip balm slows down before it comes to a complete stop. So how did we create this illusion? Let's take a look at the composite of still frames we shot to create the animation.

As you can see, we initially moved the object in large increments to make it appear to move quickly away from the cap. To make it slow down, we moved it in smaller increments until it came to a complete stop.

 

The concepts we discussed (anticipation, arc, follow-through, etc.) are part of the Twelve Principles of Animation popularized by Disney artists Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston in their book The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation.


We only discussed the principles that relate specifically to creating natural movements. Nevertheless, we suggest that you read the rest of the book because it has a lot of information that you might find useful in other areas of your work!

 

Keep in mind that apart from the frame rate, you don't have to memorize all the concepts we just discussed. The secret is to observe how objects behave and apply that to your animation. If there's anything you need to remember, it's this:


If you're animating slow movements, move your object little by little. If you're animating fast movements, move it in larger increments.

We know we've repeated this bit so many times but this technique is what makes everything flow smoothly. So go ahead. Try it and see for yourself!


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