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Spotlight: Stop-motion in the digital age

Posted: Thu, 11th Jan 2007, 11:37am

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Simon K Jones

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Rating: +6

Chris ‘Slothpaladin’ Boyer has built a reputation over the last few years as one of FXhome.com’s best stop-motion animators, having impressed us with his increasingly complex techniques, especially with the highly rated and decidedly bizarre True Love Waits. We thought it was time to have a long overdue chat with Chris to find out about his latest animated short movie, The Haiku Menace.

It all started a few years ago when Chris moved to a new area and met up with local filmmakers through the festival circuit. Brian Bridges was in the planning stages of a LEGO-animated Star Trek spoof, which captured Chris’ imagination thanks to a life-long obsession with LEGO. Chris and Brian joined forced to create a 20-minute movie, Attack of the LEGOs, which dealt with LEGO seeking to destroy computers before their popularity overwhelmed that of the little bricks.

Touchy-feely

“The thing that attracts me to stop-motion is its tactile nature,” explains Chris. “Because it uses real materials, its texture is far richer than in any other form of animation, except for live puppetry, which I’d also like to try sometime.” Stop-motion is, of course, notoriously time-consuming, with each frame having to be positioned and photographed separately. Chris cites this as one of its main strengths, however: “In stop-motion, when you shoot a frame it’s done; you move on to the next frame, you can’t go back and change it.”

This is in contrast to traditional and CG animation which is created in a non-linear, multi-pass fashion. “The animator will do all the key poses, then go back and refine things with in-betweens. Then once they’ve got movement down, the animator would go back and animate the clothes and hair, and so on.” Chris has no time for the repetitive nature of these animation styles. “I want to animate something and be done with it: I want to move on, keep doing something new.”

An animated history

One thing stop-motion definitely is not is ‘new’. It was one of the earliest techniques used in cinema, making a particular breakthrough in the original King Kong, before Ray Harryhousen took it to new heights in the 50s and 60s. Then, in 1993, Spielberg gambled on ILM’s new computer-generated dinosaurs, abandoning plans to use stop-motion and prompting many to fear for the future of non-digital animation. Since then stop-motion experts such as Tippett Studios have shifted to CGI for the bugs in 1997’s Starship Troopers and even the home of Wallace & Gromit, Aardman Animations, gave computers a go for last year’s Flushed Away.

“That’s an out-dated feeling,” Chris says, insisting that reports of stop-motion’s death have been greatly exaggerated. “There are at least three new stop-motion features in production at studios right now, as well as quite a few 30 to 50 minute shorts – that’s in addition to all the independent projects that are being released.” In fact, as Chris points out, stop-motion has always been something of the underdog – even Ray Harryhousen had to make do with miniscule budgets for his epic adventures. While the likes of Jason and the Argonauts are remembered fondly, at the time they were little more than cheap b-movies.

Digital vs Real

“For the most part stop-motion as a special effects technique is dead,” Chris concedes, although he’s quick to point out that independent and low-budget productions are often missing a trick by immediately going the CG route. “They could often get better results using miniatures and screw-driven panning rigs to create mechanical sci-fi effects. Read up on Warhammer 40k scrap building and shoot spaceships on a greenscreen and the results would look better than most of the low-budget indie CGI stuff you see these days.”

Chris is certainly no technophobe, however, as a glance at any of his movies will attest. True LoveWaits in particular is something of a CG-fest, showcasing all kinds of compositing and grading tricks that include a shimmering sunset and a full miniature pirate-spaceship rig. “It all depends what the movie calls for and can’t do without,” he explains. “It’s important to make sure the CG does not stick out badly, so I will add noise and other imperfections to get it to blend better. Any good ideas that can’t be done with practical effects, or which are too expensive, end up getting done digitally.

One intriguing aspect of stop-motion is that it can be applied to many different animation mediums, from clay to LEGO. If it can be posed, it can be animated. Deciding what to use is all about the preparation, apparently. While the actual animation time remains generally the same, building a LEGO set is a lot faster and easier than an original miniature stage. “If I want to shoot a quicky LEGO is the way to go,” he says. “If it’s a really good idea, though, I like to use clay, which doesn’t have the copyright limitations of LEGO, so I can sell clay projects. Clay, foam latex and other puppets also have a wider range of emotion.”

The Haiku Menace

The latest work from Chris’ studio is The Haiku Menace, the first in a planned series of short films chronicling Sophie Swanson’s efforts to thwart the nefarious Dr Haiku. “Sophie Swanson was the result of a brainstorming session with Robert Mason, a writer friend of mine,” recalls Chris, “the idea is almost completely his, the only input I remember giving was that it needed a fight sequence to spice things up!”

The Haiku Menace was a real labour of love, taking two months to finish and featuring extensive, lip-synced dialogue, with Chris taking on all the set-building, animation and sound design duties. “I tend to act out everything before I animate it,” says Chris of his methods, “just to get a feel for the movement. One thing I’ve had a hard time with is a sexy female walk – getting your hips to swing in the right way is difficult, and you have to hope no-one is looking in the window while you’re prancing about!”

Quirky humour and intriguing characters mark the series as something to watch – but finding the right audience is easier said than done. “The Haiku Menace has had one of the most lacklustre responses of any project I’ve ever released,” laments Chris, “which is sad because it’s one of the projects I’ve been most excited about.” Never one to give up (determination and patience are part of an animator’s DNA, after all), Chris is moving ahead with a podcast version and a web advertisement campaign in an attempt to find and build a steady fan-base.

“We have four scripts and regardless of how the first few are received we do plan on releasing all four episodes,” confirms Chris, no doubt allaying some of his (and Sophie’s) fans’ fears. If the series finds an audience by the end of the fourth episode the plan is to make a special longer episode and release it as a DVD exclusive, bundled with the earlier episodes and commentaries. “At this point it’s really hard to say whether or not that will be justifiable. I think anyone that sells their work hopes to make it commercially successful, but to be honest I’m not sure that it ever will be.”

Future frames

Needless to say, all of us here at FXhome wish Chris the best of luck. He’s certainly got the animation skill and Sophie Swanson shows a lot of promise and a definite sense of style. If you’re a fan of Chris’ work or animation in general, be sure to head over to the cinema to check out the first episode. If you like it and want to support the series you can also buy a high quality version direct from the Chris Boyer Productions website.

Whether Dr Haiku accomplishes his deviously metrical plans or not, Chris is still overflowing with new ideas. “I’d like to create a cyberpunk film, or a film noir,” he muses into his beard. “I really think the rich texture of stop-motion would create the greatest, gritty cyberpunk movie ever.”

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Posted: Thu, 11th Jan 2007, 12:36pm

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Jazzmanian

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A well deserved review. Chris's work is great. And while I may have been one of the people who gave a bit of a "lackluster" review for Dr. Haiku, I still thought it was technically excellent. Good interveiw!
Posted: Thu, 11th Jan 2007, 1:10pm

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Sollthar

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Good read! I always have a great deal of respect for people who have the nerve of doing stop and go animation.

Best luck to you and to your future Chris
Posted: Thu, 11th Jan 2007, 3:14pm

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Andreas

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previews looking better then ever, some nice frames there indeed.
interesting read.. first film i did was stop-motion, never did it again.. so I couldn't agree more with sollthar.. smile
good luck!
Posted: Thu, 11th Jan 2007, 6:03pm

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JT9

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This was some great reading! When I started out filmmaking I started out with stop motion animation with my dad and sometimes we still do that some times. Stuff like True LoveWaits was the stuff we did but with out digital effects razz. Good luck out there Slothpaladin! biggrin
Posted: Thu, 11th Jan 2007, 7:10pm

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B3N

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Nice news. i once tried stop-motion but after 4 or 3 films i gave up.
Great stuff though and can't wait to see your film when it come out.

B3N
Posted: Thu, 11th Jan 2007, 8:00pm

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Redhawksrymmer

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Nice spotlight as always, stop-motion is indeed very impressive. I started my "career" with stop-motion animating Lego! biggrin
Posted: Thu, 11th Jan 2007, 11:45pm

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SlothPaladin

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Thanks everyone!

Jazzmaniam wrote:

And while I may have been one of the people who gave a bit of a "lackluster" review for Dr. Haiku, I still thought it was technically excellent.
I’m not so much worried about responses from people who didn’t really enjoy it as a film, I sort of expected that, however it just hasn’t got much response period. Just from a numbers stand point, The Haiku Menace had had about 400 downloads while True Love Waits has had over 2300. I think one of the largest problems is that the target audience of Sophie Swanson shorts is not out looking for comedic short films. Robert emailed John Allison of Scary Go Round and he linked it in his blog saying it was ...a short film specially designed to delight. So my big challenge lies is directing likeminded people to the film.
Posted: Thu, 11th Jan 2007, 11:57pm

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Garrison

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Sloth, you are the MAN!!!!
Posted: Fri, 12th Jan 2007, 1:55am

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film freak

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Cool spotlight. I myself sort of prefer stop motion to normal film. Again cool spotlight, and good job SlothPaladin!razz
Posted: Fri, 12th Jan 2007, 2:13am

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Dancamfx

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slothpaladin, Your the next Tim Burton. Keep it up!
Posted: Fri, 12th Jan 2007, 3:39am

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SlothPaladin

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While Tim Burton really likes the aesthetics of stop-motion he hasn’t really done any stop motion animation himself, most of his animation was done traditionally. He seems to be more into the directing then the animation, I’d much rather animate then direct, I’m not a great people person and find organizing people to be one of the hardest challenges when I make a film. And I bet I work with a lot less people then many of you do when you make films.
Posted: Fri, 12th Jan 2007, 4:37pm

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RusSEAL

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All the best 'Sloth'- you deserve the attention, as should all great works!

Perhaps my inspirations will one day value a look-see as yours has!

Keep up the imaginative story telling!

Russ
Posted: Fri, 12th Jan 2007, 10:57pm

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Klut

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Redhawksrymmer wrote:

Nice spotlight as always, stop-motion is indeed very impressive. I started my "career" with stop-motion animating Lego! biggrin
Lol, same here, but I never became a good filmmaker razz
Posted: Fri, 12th Jan 2007, 11:25pm

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NickD

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Sloth - Keep up the great work. Your films are inspiring to all of us, and the work you put in is amazing.

NickD
Posted: Sat, 13th Jan 2007, 3:21am

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Atom

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Klut wrote:

Redhawksrymmer wrote:

Nice spotlight as always, stop-motion is indeed very impressive. I started my "career" with stop-motion animating Lego! biggrin
Lol, same here, but I never became a good filmmaker razz
Haha. I started editing in LEGO-Pinnacle.
Posted: Sat, 13th Jan 2007, 3:50am

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SlothPaladin

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We started with a really old version of Uled (I think thats what it's called) and then looked at LEGOs studios and were horrified with how bad it was
Posted: Sat, 13th Jan 2007, 6:46am

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ben3308

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SlothPaladin wrote:

We started with a really old version of Uled (I think thats what it's called) and then looked at LEGOs studios and were horrified with how bad it was
LEGO Studios has editing software? I remember it just being a frame grabber.

On another note, congrats on your work, Sloth, it's all top notch, as I've noted in your movies' threads. (though I preferred Trinket and Vampire over Haiku)

Great spotlight as well, FXHome guys.
Posted: Sat, 13th Jan 2007, 8:47am

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SlothPaladin

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Yeah, they had editing software, it was like one video track, one wave track and one midi track or something ugly like that, good luck putting in sound effects
Posted: Sat, 13th Jan 2007, 4:05pm

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jmax

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It always surprises me how many people got interested in film-making with LEGO movies. I'm in that club too I guess, although I was more of a matchbox guy with my early stop-motion stuff.
Posted: Sat, 13th Jan 2007, 8:23pm

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ben3308

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I think it's because LEGOs are fun and appealing, as well as easier than coordinating actual people at first. From there, the natural step to make is straight-up filmmaking, or, if you are so inclined to commit enough time and dedication to it, something like what Chris is doing.
Posted: Sun, 14th Jan 2007, 1:53pm

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vilhelm nielsen

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I started with LEGO- movies, too. Once I made a 3 fps movie. It sucked. biggrin