PRODUCTION DESIGN IN THE WORLD OF STOP MOTION: Part 1

By - CTL
July 18, 2018
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Written by Brass Tacks Production Design.

Twelve frames a second, even twenty-four frames a second, doesn’t seem like that much until you must animate it frame by frame. Welcome to the world of stop motion animation.

Stop motion animation used to be one of the only ways to animate inanimate objects. Cartoons, kid’s shows and movies used it to create magical worlds far removed from that of realism and natural movement of life. Most people remember shows like Pingu, a 90s kid’s show about a penguin and his friends, and of course Wallace and Gromit by Aardman Animations.

‘Stop motion is an animated-film making technique in which objects are physically manipulated in small increments between individually photographed frames so that they appear to exhibit independent motion when the series of frames is played back as a fast sequence.’

  • Stop Motion, Wikipedia, 2018

For many years stop motion didn’t disappear, but was overrun by the developments in CGI and 3D computer animation. Much like the old methods of moulding a figure (clay-mation), digital artists moulded digital clay to create a figure. The biggest difference between these methods was that once the character had been coded with actions and specific movements it could move through an entire scene without stopping every frame for an image to be taken. This speeded up the process of animation greatly, and soon outstripped clay-mation.

However in recent years there has been a revival by many directors, like Wes Anderson, and film companies like Laika who have turned the eyes of the world back to miniatures and hand-crafted puppets, props, and landscapes of stop motion. Some memorable mentions include; Coraline, Isle of Dogs, Anomalisa and Chicken Run (for film profiles and information see the links below).

Brass Tacks Production Design was approached by Hannah Dougherty to work on a stop motion earlier this year, she co-wrote Theo & Celeste with Duncan Ragg, as well as being director and cinematographer. Theo & Celeste combined live action and stop motion for a three-minute short film for TedX Sydney 2018 with the theme of Humankind. Theo & Celeste is a beautifully colourful world, where two friends discover love through playing a game of “Would you still be my friend if…?”. The two characters go through scenarios in which their physical appearance becomes more and more disfigured. These disfigurements represent real fears couples face from day to day. For example Theo’s tongue becomes long and unmanageable when he fears he is talking too much. Facing and accepting each others fears takes Theo & Celeste’s friendship to love.

As the game progresses the two characters start to physically manifest the fears they express in their game. With the more abstract nature of the story, it lent itself to a very stylised form of film making, which became the combination of live action and stop motion.

Theo & Celeste behind the scenes

Brass Tack’s Courtney Westbrook designed and made the miniature world for the stop motion, carving the hill from Styrofoam, coating it with a patchwork of model grass, of which she hand painted to imitate the sweeping landscapes painted by Van Gogh.

Vincent van Gogh: Landscape at Saint-Remy – 1889 (Left), Theo & Celeste (Right)

She engineered the seesaw so that it could grow taller during the scene, and also allowed it to break off and go spinning into space. She came up with a simple but effective method of changing the height of the stand in increments, then attaching the seat of the seesaw to a suspended rod, allowing the seesaw to break off and continue animating in front of a green screen.

The puppets were designed and made by Brass Tack’s co-founder Ara Nuri Steel, who made them from armature wire, Sculpey, cotton stuffing, elastic medical bandage and scraps of fabric for costumes. The characters were drawn up to scale, the armatures wire twisted together to add strength, and Sculpey clay moulded and baked onto the armatures. Cotton stuffing was wrapped with the bandage to give the figures their flexibility and fullness. Despite hours of research and experimentation the puppet’s strenuous movements caused the armatures to break on three occasions, simply the number of times the wire was bent backwards and forth to create arms and leg movement was too much for the flexibility of the wire. On a bigger budget more puppets would have been made to solve this issue.

Drawing Armature to scale (Left), Sculpting puppets (Right)


Making puppet clothing (Left), Puppet still (Right)

There were definitely challenges with designing for a world in which the actors do not animate themselves. There were many little things that you have to take into account such as the puppets costumes couldn’t be too loose, otherwise the fabric also needed wire and the ability to animate. The set had to be big enough for the two 25cm puppets to fit on, but also allow for animators to reach the seesaw and puppets easily.

In the end what it has taught us the most, that if it is something you are interested or passionate enough about, there is never enough learning involved. Nothing is stopping you from watching every behind the scenes, making of, and stop-motion-how-to video on the internet.  Research, experimentation, planning and above all patience and an absolute nuttiness for all things miniature.


Written by Brass Tacks Production Design. Follow the adventure on Instagram @brasstacks_productiondesign or email us at brasstacksproductiondesign@gmail.com

Videos to Watch:

Full Theo & Celeste film:

What Is Stop Motion Animation and How Does It Work? – Mashable Explains:

The Making of Boxtrolls – Talks at Google:

 

LAIKA – Coraline – Behind the Scenes:

 

ISLE OF DOGS – Making of: Animators – FOX Searchlight:

How claymation movies are made:

 

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