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How We Produce Special Effects in Stop-motion

Stuart Clark Oct 12, 2021 Scroll to read in 6 minutes

How we produce special effects in stop-motion isn't the sort of thing most people put too much thought into. Instead, they're captivated by the handmade puppets, sculpted plasticine, expertly crafted sets, and animators patiently taking lots of pictures in sequence. And so they should; these things are what make stop-frame animation so wonderful and unique.

Although special effects existed long before computers, most people naturally associate the latest live-action movies with computer-generated imagery. Hollywood blockbusters and Netflix series are full of digital post-production techniques like green screen and motion capture to create epic or unworldly cinema. Conversely, stop-motion animation is a traditionally analogue medium. Real stuff gets made in real life and animated on an actual set.

In fact, the scope for special effects in stop-motion animation is vast. At A+C Studios, we use the same or similar digital special effects processes you see at the cinema for our stop-motion animations. Still, we consider ourselves to be a primarily lens-based studio. This means we like to do as much as possible in-camera and on the animation set. It's hard to beat practical effects!

Contrary to how Hollywood has changed in the past 30 years, we actually do more practical effects now than back when we started out. Here's a rundown of some practical and digital stop-motion VFX we use at A+C Studios to bring worlds to life.

Matte Painting

Matte Painting

Have you ever watched a film and thought, "I can just tell that was shot on a green screen"?. The edges are fuzzy, the lighting's not right... yeah, we notice it too. Even in 2021!

Chroma key and backgrounds added in post-production are ultimately necessary in many cases. Still, it isn't always needed or desirable.

When we first set up shop as an animation studio in the mid-2000s, it was cheap and straightforward for us to shoot almost everything on a green screen and stick a background in digitally. We were in a small studio space so we were limited on set size; physical environments were challenging.

Now, with our comprehensive three stage studio and our fantastic creative team at The Old Laundry, we're perfectly placed to create and shoot with beautiful matte paintings. We have a whole stock of matte painted skies, and we're always creating more real backgrounds for our productions. In addition, it allows our lighting director complete control over how a scene is lit. This helps achieve a true sense of realism and also saves us some headaches in post!

Practical Lighting

Practical Lighting

Diegetic lights (lights with a source in the scene like a torch or a candle) are another element that is pretty simple to add in post-production, but they'll seldom look as natural as they would if the lights were actually there on-set. Light bounces everywhere, so when some Christmas lights are flashing or a torch is held up, it will change many surfaces on-screen. It's pretty tricky (not to mention time-consuming) to replicate this convincingly in post-production, let alone accurately!

The main problem with having a light in your stop-motion scene is scale. How do you create a functioning candle or Christmas light at 1/6 scale to go with the puppets and sets? Well, this is actually an area where modern technology has helped us out. We use tiny LED lights attached to Arduino controllers, which allows us to create real light effects in any number of ways. These low-energy consumption lights can be powered by small batteries, which aren't too much trouble to tuck out of sight when we're shooting.

Practical Effects

Stop-motion has a decorated history of using practical effects. Atmospheric effects like a crackling fire, water splashing and bubbling, and smoke trails can be created using replacement sequences with actual items on set. When we're animating LEGO, small bricks make the perfect stop-motion practical effects!

Smear Frames

Smear Frames

Smear frames are really clever - but they're not new at all. They've been a tool in the animator's arsenal since the early days of animation, and they're used in drawn animation, computer animation, and stop-motion too.

So what are they? Animation of any kind is, of course, an optical illusion. To aid the convincing illusion of rapid movement, it's desirable for the moving object to 'blur'. This helps quick-moving characters and props seem fluid and not jerky.

Achieving the blur effect can be done in post-production, but we have a lot of fun creating smear frames on set - this is another technique that works great with LEGO. Here are a few examples below!

Go-Motion

Go-motion is a practical stop-motion technique that essentially serves the same purpose as a smear frame. But this technique is unique to stop motion and is achieved differently.

With go-motion, you do something to your scene, prop or character to make it move very slightly when the frame is captured - causing the image to blur when exposed.

An example of this would be gently flicking a tied down character just before capturing the frame, which causes it to vibrate very slightly. You could also tie a piece of cord to the character and physically manipulate it to create the desired effect.

It isn't always possible or practicable to use go-motion. Still, it's a great way to mimic realistic movement on some projects.

Rigging

Rigging and Rig Removal

Now we're getting into the realm of post-production special effects. In stop-motion, we're limited by a few things - and one of those things is gravity.

For a character to walk, jump, climb or fly, they usually need to be stuck to the set or held in their position.

The equipment we use to hold characters in place is called rigging. This can take many shapes and forms, like tie-down screws, weighted platforms with metal arms holding down characters, high strength magnets, and we even use blu-tack sometimes!

The problem with all of these methods is that they're almost always visible on-screen and sometimes very visible! We de-rig the footage in post-production using several digital techniques, including painting out the rigs using a clean plate (still image from the footage without the rigging present).

Green Screen

Chroma Key

Ah, chroma key... what would the world do without you?

The technique of chroma keying (green or blue screen to many) allows filmmakers to create artificial worlds in post-production. Stop-motion animation can make good use of it, and it's a technique accessible to Hollywood movies and low budget shorts alike.

As we've mentioned, we use it sparingly nowadays, but here's a few examples of where we've used it to help us bring a scene to life.

We hope you've enjoyed reading about how we produce special effects in stop-motion. If you liked this blog, here are a few others you might want to have a nosey at!