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 am using a PC and for about the same amount of money ($59.99) I use Claymation Studio 3.0 by Honestech. This software pops up on eBay from time to time for next to nothing. You can step to live as well as onion skin. Their chroma key is pretty good too. Not bad for the beginner or learning animator who is using a PC.

Here are my before and after shots. The "dimetrodon" (old alligator puppet turned into a impromptu dinosaur) at the end represents the before and the monoclonius and pterodactyl scenes represent the after shots. Before and after as in before reading the quadruped animation tips and after. Remember these are tests so we are mainly concerned with the sequence of the legs of the quadrupeds. I tried to hide the legs of the dimetrodon with foreground, but they are as bad as you can imagine. I think the monoclonius had a great start but I lost it somewhere in the middle. I am encouraged by these tests and am thankful for the advice given. I am not as frustrated now and can see how things need to progress. Here is the link:

Wallace, one thing that would make your pterodactyl flight look better would be to raise and lower the body slightly to match the beat of the wings. When a flying creature's wings go down, the body is pushed upward. Likewise, when the wings flap up, the body moves slightly downward. 

It would help a lot with the walking shots if you tie the feet down - they're sliding around when they need to be solidly planted. Stopmotion is really just problem solving - you're faced constantly with new problems and need to work out solutions - I had a similar problem with my bartender's hand in a shot where he had one hand resting on the bar while he's using a towel to clean the counter - his resting hand kept sliding all over the place no matter what I tried (and of course there are no tie-downs in the hands). I ended up doing that shot probably 5 times before I hit on the idea of using a tiny C clamp to solidly attach the hand down to the counter - luckily there were bottles right in front of it so you never see the clamp. Once I did that, it looked good because no matter how his torso was moving around (as it would if you're scrubbing vigorously against a tabletop) his planted hand stayed planted. 

After I walked away from the computer to make breakfast, I suddenly realized - the way your puppets move looks very familiar to me - and as I was cooking it hit me - they move just like my earliest puppets. Those were made with the wrong wire, which was way too stiff - in fact my 1st one used coat-hangar wire!! You should be making love to your puppets, not fighting them (well ok - I retract the making love thing - but they should respond to your lightest touch). Are you using annealed armature wire, and following one of the tutorial methods? 

Does anyone know how to make "step to live" work in istopmotion? Whenever I step back to the finished frames the overlay automatically goes to 50% every time.

Its funny you mention that. The monoclonius has a poorly machined ball and socket armature. It is a recycled armature that I made many years ago, originally designed for a stegosaurus. Last night one of the legs popped out of joint so I had to open the model up to repair it. I had to really tighten the joint to get it to stay in. Due to this, the model is very hard to move. It took so much force to bend that leg that I actually cut my finger on the rough edge of one of the plates! Upon closer inspection, I found the tie down nuts welded to the underside of each foot plate had become stripped. So I was trying to shoot a puppet with no functioning tie downs that was also very hard to move. A bad combination. So, I am going to make a new quadruped, possibly salvaging the head from the old model. I thought of trying a new steel wire that I have been experimenting with but should probably stick with aluminum wire if I have enough. The pterodactyl and dimetrodon both have aluminum wire armatures.

Strider said:

After I walked away from the computer to make breakfast, I suddenly realized - the way your puppets move looks very familiar to me - and as I was cooking it hit me - they move just like my earliest puppets. Those were made with the wrong wire, which was way too stiff - in fact my 1st one used coat-hangar wire!! You should be making love to your puppets, not fighting them (well ok - I retract the making love thing - but they should respond to your lightest touch). Are you using annealed armature wire, and following one of the tutorial methods? 

Ralph Syverson said:

Does anyone know how to make "step to live" work in istopmotion? Whenever I step back to the finished frames the overlay automatically goes to 50% every time.

Hmmm, maybe I was wrong? It's been many years since I used iStopmotion, and come to think of it, that was before I knew about step to live. That would be weird* though if it had an almost-functional step to live feature, except that it doesn't quite work. There's probably some way to fix that - maybe you've also got onionskinning switched on and that's why your live view is semi-transparent? 

* weird. The word doesn't confrom to the rules - the E comes before the I, even though it's not after C and doesn't sound like long A. Need to have a talk with my English teachers... 

Wallace Jones said:

Its funny you mention that. The monoclonius has a poorly machined ball and socket armature...

Yeah, if you're having armature problems then animation technique deosn't even matter really - it's like trying to practice special athletic techniques to make you run faster if you have a broken leg. Gotta get the armature right first before animation technique even becomes an issue. 

This is a little annoying with istopmotion but not too much of a hardship. Hold alt and press 1, that gives you the recorded frame, then whilst still holding alt press 3, that give you the live view. 

It's slightly annoying in that you have to hold alt the whole time. :P

Ralph Syverson said:

Does anyone know how to make "step to live" work in istopmotion? Whenever I step back to the finished frames the overlay automatically goes to 50% every time.

Ok, I can see where that would be do-able - as long as you're just holding down the alt key continually then you can use the other hand with a finger on 1 and a finger on 3 and be able to cycle through while watching the animation, but one thing I don't understand ---

You say pressing alt+1 gives you "the recorded frame". You need more than one frame to do this - you need to at least be able to move smoothly between the last 2 recorded frames! In fact, more than that, you need to be able to step through several frames backwards and then forwards smoothly, all the way to live. Maybe going backwards isn't necessary - as long as you can start several frames back it would work with only going forward. Is that possible, to step smoothy through several recored frames and directly to live? 

Or maybe pressing alt+1 is for stepping backwards, and then maybe alt+2 is forward? Pretty tricky to cycle through while concentrating on the animation! I'd think about getting a Dragonframe keypad (a nice thing to have regardless of what grabber you're using - nice to be able to stad 10 feet away from the computer and animate) and see if you can program the keys so you don't have to mess with the alt key. 

I don't remember what it was about iStopmotion that I didn't like when I tried it, but something made me stay away from it after my initial test. One of my criteria was that I wouldn't use a framegrabber that doesn't auto-save each time you take a frame, maybe that was it? I don't recall. But it sounds like it's a rather difficult framegrabber to use, at least for step to live! Why would they make it so finnicky, it's like they require you to juggle while riding a unicycle on a tightrope just to actually see your animation, which is the only thing a framgrabber is supposed to do and should do seamelessly and intuitively! 

I find istopmotion to be really unintuitive to be honest and not really built by anyone whose ever animated before, I could be wrong however. I don't enjoy using it and I would say it gets in your way.

I cannot wait for the day that I can afford dragonframe. Which shouldn't be too long now :P

But no, in istopmotion you cannot cycle through frames to live. The alt trick will only work for the last frame taken. :(

unless I'm doing it wrong.

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