Saturday, 5 September 2009

Lights, Camera, Action...

What camera do you use for stop-motion animation? What software do you use? What other vital equipment do you need? I'm in the midst of setting up a stop-motion studio and, having found a bewildering plethora of information, thought I'd provide an overview here. In this article, I'll look at the bare essentials and also what camera to use for stop-motion animation. In future articles, I'll give an overview of computers, frame-grabber software packages, lighting and sound capture.

The Bare Essentials
To set-up a stop-motion studio, you will need:

1) A camera with tripod (plus Firewire or USB 2.0 cables)
2) A computer with spacious hard drive
3) A frame-grabber software package
4) Lights (and blackout curtains for controlled lighting)
5) Audio capture device (if you intend to record your own sound)
6) A solid table (which you can drill into etc.)
7) Sandbags or similar (to ensure nothing moves - ever!)

A Load Of Old Bolex
When I first began to investigate equipment for stop-motion*, many colleges (and even some studios) were using re-conditioned film cameras, in particular 8/16mm Bolex cameras, as these could be bought cheaply and film processing costs were far lower (and subsidised for academic institutions). My advice now is DON'T buy Bolex cameras for stop-motion animation. Don't get me wrong, these Swiss engineered cameras are simply *beautiful* machines, which, if cared for, will last a lifetime. (I bought one in mint condition from a retired photo-journalist who also shared his stories of hanging out of bi-planes in the 40's and 50's to capture footage!) But in our digital age, shooting to film is NOT a cheap or easy option. Not only is film processing now very expensive, but many Bolex cameras are clockwork. This means that you will need a motor attachment, otherwise you will need to wind the camera up mid-shoot, risking movement. Also, you will need an adaptor for single-frame capture and you will be 'shooting blind' (no onion-skinning technology if you're shooting to film folks. You have to shoot, process and hope you've got it right when the reels come back!** Another reason why Ray Harryhausen et al were such outstanding stop-motion animators.)

* About ten years ago!
** In big budget shoots where film is still used, either a video camera is set up in parity with the film camera to provide animators with these facilities or the whole animation is shot digitally and then re-printed to film for distribution.

My Choice: DSLR Cameras
I could go on to provide an overview of video cameras for stop-motion, but it seems pointless as my research suggests that many professional animation studios and academic institutions are upgrading to DSLR (digital single lens reflex) cameras. Why? Because these cameras offer many of the benefits of film (high-resolution, extensive depth of field, 'cinematic feel') and, because they're digital, will talk directly with frame-grabber software packages such as StopMotionPro. Also, expenditure is comparatively low as there are no processing costs (unless re-printing to film later). I've gone with a Canon EOS plus adapter for Nikon lenses. However, your choice will rest on budget, software compatibility and personal preferences.

Happy shooting!