THE SECRET - Using "Step To Live" for smooth stopmotion (this is how the pros do it)

This is a rough demo - can't call it a tutorial really, it's just the raw footage of me animating, and I'll write in the important details below - what you need to pay attention to etc. Keep in mind I'm no professional, and I'm far from a master animator - I'd consider myself on the newbie-ish side of intermediate. My info comes from a true master, Nick Hilligoss, who patiently explained this over and over on the old board till the dim light of comprehension began to glimmer somehwere in my head. And I welcome input to this conversation from anyone with anything to add or any changes to recommend to the process - together we can create a great thread to refer newbies to - an Animation 101 thread with tips and advice. 

It seems everybody starts off using Onionskin. And yeah, before anybody busts me - I know, way back on the original StopMoShorts I posted a tutorial on animating with it - hey, that was before I saw the light, ok? And onionskin does have its place in stopmotion, but in general the step to live function is much better. Not all framegrabbers have it - among Mac grabbers I believe Dragonframe and iStopmotion do, and Framethief, though sadly it's becoming rapidly obsolete now that the architecture of the Lion OS no longer supports it. I'm not sure if any of the cheapies or freebies have step-to-live - in fact it seems most framegrabber designers only know about onionskin! 

But enough jibber jabber - on with the demo!

First I look at the chest (or no wait - maybe the legs??)

This one might just be me, but as soon as I'm done moving the puppet I want to check and make sure the torso hasn't accidentally shifted in some unexpected way. It happens all the time - you grab the puppet by the chest so as you're moving an arm or the head or whatever he doesn't shift, and without realizing it you push him down a little or bend him or twist him slightly. Especially with my puppets - the spine and legs really should have been beefed up a bit more. Here's the procedure, and this is the technique you'll use to check each part, so pay attention here! 

Tap the back button several times to step backwards through the last few captured frames. On the Dragonframe controller it's the little left arrow just above the play button (long button in lower left corner of keypad). Also above the play button is the forward key - an arrow pointing to the right (imagine that!) 

Now tap the forward button several times - the same number of times you tapped the back button. I generally use 4 or 5 frames - I imagine a more experienced animator doesn't need so many frames to judge the movement unless it's a pretty complicated move. But at my current skill level, I'm sitting here with my tongue out and biting it gently, staring intently at the monitor like my life depends on it - and I'll admit it - sometimes I need to use 6 or 7 frames to really see an entire arc of movement! And as you can see in the demo, I often need to repeat the process quite a few times while I'm trying to decide which way to push things. Er - no wait - actually, I did that just in order to show newbies how it's done - yeah, yeah - that's the ticket! 

What you're doing as you tap these buttons is carefully watching your puppet on the monitor - beginning with the torso and shoulders. Often you'll notice it pop slightly to the left or right, forward or back, or maybe twist slightly (that one can be tough to understand when you see it and to figure out how to fix). Fix it. If you can see that it didn't move quite right but you can't really tell which way it shifted (hey, it can happen - the puppet is moving through 3 dimensional spatial coordinates in some very complex and tricky ways) then just grab it and move it whatever way seems right then run through the sequence again - 4 or 5 back taps, then 4 or 5 forward ones. If you moved the torso the wrong way you'll be able to tell immediately and now have a good idea how to fix it. Sometimes I have to go through this procedure several times before I get it all ironed out (and I mean just the torso!). 

When that's done, click through back and forth again a few times, this time watching the head. When it's fixed, do an arm - and pay attention to where the mistake is and which way it needs to be moved - is it from the shoulder, the elbow, the wrist - does it need to go up, down, back, forth - maybe a combination of those - or maybe rotational? 

You know - it just occurred to me - I wrote this to go with this particular video demo, only showing Cosmo from the waist up - actually if I had a full-length shot showing his legs too, then I'd probably start with the legs rather than the torso. Yeah, I guess you want to start from where he's tied down - or from where he's supposed to be bearing his weight (in case he's on a rig but the feet are supposed to be supporting him or whatever). So I suppose it's best to say work from the base up and outward - ending with the head arms and hands. Though this might be flexible depending on various factors - so far this procedure has been working for me. 

And don't neglect the hands! They can add a flourish to a movement and portray a lot of character. 

Using these techniques, the smoothness of your animation is limited only by your diligence and patience. 

Remember your Principles!! 

The 12 principles of animation - originally codified and laid down by the legendary 9 Old Men of Disney fame. Some of them, like squash and stretch, don't really apply in stopmo unless you're doing clay work or replacement. 

Beginners, don't get overwhelmed by the principles - just go into them one at a time. Start with Ease-in and Ease-out -- just practice it a few times until it starts to become second nature (and then first nature) - this is a principle you'll use on every move you ever animate, unless it's supposed to be brutally abrupt and maybe cartoonish, like a robot pile driver or something. Then after absorbing that one start to work on Anticipation and Followthrough or something. 

Take some time to study these demonstrations: Animated Cartoon Factory

On these little quicktime examples, you can step through a frame at a time forward and backward, just like when you're animating - just stop the movie playing by tapping your space bar (or I guess you could click the stop button) and then use the left and right arrow keys on your keyboard. 

Look at the mechanical movement examples and compare with the ease-in and ease-out (he calls them slo-in and slo-out - they're also sometimes referred to as cushioning). Also pay particular attention to the anticipation/followthrough and the pendulum and seaweed examples - when you're moving an arm or any multi-jointed part, think of it as seaweed. 


Ok, there's more I could write here, but this first post is long enough already, and I figure more can always be added in followup posts. Hoping to hear from some pros or just experienced animators who might have anything to add or change.

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I've used onion skin only when I've bumped an object and I needed to place it back.

For animation reference I use 'step to live' and 'play to live'. Whilst moving the puppet I check the animation many times stepping through 2-3 shot frames + live. When I'm happy with it, I double check by playing 1 sec of shot footage with live frame. 

IMO, onion skin works only for 2d animation.

Thanks Leevi!

You know, that thing I wrote about the legs above - that's something that just occurred to me as I was making the post, and I'm not sure about it. Afterwards, thinking more about it, I realize that I have little experience with animating legs at all! Since I discovered the secret, I've been using these puppets with tiny little legs that I can hardly bend, and most of my shots don't show the legs anyway. But I have come up with a little more insight by thinking back to a few shots I've done with leg-imation (not to be confused with Lego-mation!)

The tied-down leg is pretty well taken care of when you fix the torso - the other one may need to be adjusted a bit after fixing the torso. So essentially it really is work from the torso outwards. And of course - this applies to human/ humanoid puppets - different configurations might vary. 

Never liked onion skinning. Too confusing for my ape's brain. 

And although I have already in the past admitted my (koff!) fetish for surface gages, especially nifty old ones with their smooth as silk movements and lovely patinated surfaces and...ahem...anyway, I still think there is room for the old fashioned gage in the modern digital era. The few times when I've actually been able to pull off what I think is a really well animated/acted scene, the surface gage was integral to the process. There's just something about putting a physical object next to another physical object and making the initial move of the puppet as exacting as you can make it without having to go back and look at the computer screen, then pop through a couple of frames, then go back to the animation table and futz, then go back and look again...

I love Dragon (and framethief, too), but I loves me my surface gages even more.

I still use the surface gauge for some shots - for the tiniest of tiny moves when just starting to ease in, and for when the puppet is moving towards or away from the camera and the framegrabber can't really show how far it's moved.  I'm not so quite kinky about them as objets d'art - my armature wire glued into a block of aluminium is just as good as my genuine old gauge, as far as I'm concerned.  

I can do without the surface gauge for 80% of my shots, but just about all of them would suffer if I didn't use a framegrabber.   Not as bad as before I ever used one, I was firmly in the craptacular zone then.  Using a framegrabber seems to have trained me to be better even without one, but I still pick some bad moves when I check, that would have popped if I didn't see and correct them.  

I was pleased to learn that really top level pros like Anthony Scott also rely on step-to-live, not onion skinning, so it wasn't just me who found the overlapping images confusing.

Any tips on animating a four legged dinosaur? I am trying to animate a triceratops type dinosaur. I use a surface gauge made of a wooden block with a aluminum wire pointer. I don't like onion skin either. I normally check the previous frame (or two) for reference. I can't seem to get the sequence of the legs right. I tried starting with the front left leg and rear right, then front right and rear left but the end result was not good. Should I try locking down front right and rear left and moving front left and back right forward while pulling the body forward, and then repeating with opposite legs? I usually shoot on ones at 20fps.

I would imagine a triceratops would be too big and lumbering an animal to have two legs fully in the air at once... and that it'd move similarly to a rhinoceros.

Otherwise, it's the same technique as before, lock down the feet that aren't moving and slowly work your way upwards until everything moves smoothly.

Wallace Jones said:

Any tips on animating a four legged dinosaur? I am trying to animate a triceratops type dinosaur.

It's been a long time since I animated a quadruped, and I don't think I got the sequence of legs quite right either.  If I were doing it again today, I would do exactly what Sean says, look at some footage of a similar animal like the clips he linked to.  If possible, download the clips and turn them into QT movies so you can step through a frame at a time and work out what is going on.

But why go with a weird frame rate like 20 fps?  Any reference footage you find will be shot at 24, 25, or 30 fps.  It might be uploaded at half the rate, like 15 fps, to keep the file small, though I'm seeing less of that now.  And your animation is likely to be eventually seen at one of the standard frame rates, which means it will have to get converted, with dropped or added frames to maintain the right speed.  

Good points. Thanks Sean for the footage. I will study it and and work my way up during animation. Nick, you are correct, I should be shooting at 24 or 30fps. I was simply playing around with frame rates and stuck with the one that looked best, forgetting that when converted, frames would be dropped or added. I will post my results, before and after, when completed.

Ha. I've been doing this since day one without knowing it was called Step-To-Live. Thanks for this, I feel smarter now! Great puppet, btw. 

I've been doing this too, but as I don't have dragronframe or else, I'm doing it on my camera screen. I press the button (from the first photo to the last) and see the animation. If something looks bad I look at it carefully, frame by frame till I understand what's wrong.

I'm curious about framegrabbers and I'll probably try dragonframe one day. At least to see my animation in a bigger screen :)

Thank you for the tips Strider !

I'm going to paste in something here that Nick wrote on another thread:

"I always see a slight steppiness in footage shot on twos (12 or 12 1/2 moves per second, not so much at 15 moves per sec), but it doesn't have to be chattery.  The little bit you do have is probably from moving the puppet an uneven amount - to get rid of that you really have to check the frame in the framegrabber against the last 2 or 3 frames shot, and make corrections before shooting it if necessary.  What I mean is - how does the amount you just moved it compare to the amount you moved last frame?  Is it the same?  If it's more, is that because you are accelerating and moving a bit more each frame, or was it a small move, a bigger move, a small move again?  That will always chatter.  I also have to watch all parts of the puppet - the hand can be moving in a beautiful smooth arc, but if that was achieved by moving from the shoulder on one frame, and more from the elbow on the next, I get chatter.  If I got a bit moving in a direction I hadn't intended, I make sure I follow through with it over the next few frames,  and ease it off gently rather than stopping right away.  Changes in direction need to be in a curve, not a sudden right angle, to come up as smooth.  But you probably know this stuff so apologies for getting pedantic.

I had to animate on twos for someone  recently (not something I have much experience with), and to me it seemed less forgiving - any errors stand out even more than on ones."

Hugo - you're welcome, and a very interesting technique! If it's simple to step through your saved shots and instantly cut to the live view without having to go through any menu calisthentics (like hitting a different button) then that could work quite well, though of course much much better to see it on a big monitor! I don't think I can do that on any of my cameras though - I can certainly step easily through all the stored shots, but getting from the last one to the live view means clicking a different button, which means stopping to look at the camera and fiddle with it briefly which breaks the flow. Therefore I can't really see how well the live image fits in with what I've already animated - it's more like I can check the already-stored animation, but I'd still really be working blind, so that would downgrade my animation as a whole. The beauty of the framegrabber is that once you've got your fingers on those forward and back buttons you just keep tapping them without any need to stop to look at anything but the monitor, and you're seeing your animation plus the frame you're about to snap - in slow motion. Once you have to break to find a different button it's no good. 

Dragonframe is incredible! But if you don't want to spend the $300, you should consider iStopmotion. At $50 in the Apple AppStore, it's pretty damn impressive. They used to have 3 versions with 3 different price points, but with the latest update they consolidated them into one piece of software. If you're using a PC...well, I have no idea.

Hugo said:

I've been doing this too, but as I don't have dragronframe or else, I'm doing it on my camera screen. I press the button (from the first photo to the last) and see the animation. If something looks bad I look at it carefully, frame by frame till I understand what's wrong.

I'm curious about framegrabbers and I'll probably try dragonframe one day. At least to see my animation in a bigger screen :)

Thank you for the tips Strider !

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