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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Wow - yeah, that sounds pretty useless! Strike that one off the list! Why is it so hard for programmers to get a framegrabber right? 

Wallace, something else about your animation - that seems to be a very young stego - it's very skinny and holds its body, head and tail really high on long legs, so it wouldn't walk ponderously like a full-grown stego with the huge belly hanging just above the ground, holding its head and tail low. If you look at young rhinos and hippos etc, they run and frolic like dogs or pigs rather than plodding along like massive giants:

Ok, I don't know why I kept calling it a stego - I know it's a triceratops! (Though it seems to be more of a uni-ceritops actually). Just had some kind of dino brain-fart there, sorry! 

I'm using AnimatorHD and i cant work out how to do step to live. does anyone know if it is possible on this software. It seems the way to go

thanks for any help

That's ok. The armature was originally made for a stego, so that may be what threw you.

Strider said:

Ok, I don't know why I kept calling it a stego - I know it's a triceratops! (Though it seems to be more of a uni-ceritops actually). Just had some kind of dino brain-fart there, sorry! 

CraftCadet said:

I'm using AnimatorHD and i cant work out how to do step to live. does anyone know if it is possible on this software. It seems the way to go

thanks for any help

I haven't used that software, but just took a look at the PDF manual for it, and it looks like they don't really offer step-to-live. I see the 2 key is for stepping backwards, and the 3 key steps forward, and there's a "toggle to live" function using the Tab key. So you could hold a finger on each of those 3 keys and try to work out how to press them in the right sequence and probably get a fairly decent process worked out - tap 2 several times, tap 3 the same number of times, then tap Tab. Not perfect, but seems like it should work.

You could email them and ask about getting this function implemented in a future version - maybe link them to this thread so they can see what you're talking about. 

 So you could hold a finger on each of those 3 keys and try to work out how to press them in the right sequence and probably get a fairly decent process worked out - tap 2 several times, tap 3 the same number of times, then tap Tab.

And before you know it, you'll be performing Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata like a pro  

Thanks for that. As I am a two finger typist I think I'm going to have issues with this method. I will try to get the developer to implement Step to Live in an Update. I can see the benefit of this method and thanks for sharing the wisdom

Lol, I'm also a 2 finger typist! It doesn't really seem all that difficult though - I just tried it on the keyboard by typing a string of 2s and 3s in the white reply box, 3 2s followed immediately by 3 3s and then the tab key, without looking at my fingers. After a couple of flubs I got it down pretty easily. My main mistake was hitting the tab key after the 2s (back-stepping) - not a problem really, just means I'd be seeing the live view at the beginning as well as the end of the sequence. I could definitely work like that if I had to, and after doing it for a while it would become second nature. But yeah, it would be a lot nicer to have it automatically switch to live view after the last stored frame just by hitting the same button one more time. Doesn't seem like it would be hard to program either - I'd imagine just about any decent programmer would be glad to implement it if they can be convinced that this is the way most pros like to work and wouldn't care to use a grabber without it. 

Beyond Craft said:

And before you know it, you'll be performing Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata like a pro 

Well, maybe Chopsicks.. 

Having made it 2/3 of the way through Will Vinton's stop motion/Claymation course, I have a slightly more educated perspective of animation than I did on the old SMA boards. This may gloss over the eyes of some, but it's all valuable information...

* The last 2 or 3 frames plus step to live  is generally enough to see the spacing of your move and know if it's right (whether accelerating, decelerating, or moving evenly).  Sometimes, though, for timing purposes or when animating to a dialog track/tightly synced sound track, you might need even more than that (6  is a good starting point, especially when doing a hold because 6 frames is the shortest duration of a hold you can get away with before it looks like a mistake. On dialog, I do about 7 back-taps and 9 forward taps (two frames past live on the audio track). This makes it easier to animate lip sync on two's- you're constantly looking ahead of where you are and hitting every accent on the vowel.If you can't do that on two's because you don't have enough frames to work with in the audio track, switch to one's and hit the open vowels BANG-ON.

*When animating a walk or any excessive upper torso movement, pay close attention to where the head is on every frame. On a walk, unless the character is drunk, the head should be straight up and down. If the character is about to tip over, stick his butt out backwards and yank him up from under the armpits as a grab point. Any time your character starts to tip into a walk, you have lost control of the butt and head positions of the puppet (I know that sounds funny to read, but it could not be more true). 

* Onion skinning with more than one layer will confuse the image, and therefore the animator. If you use it at all, set it to one layer and leave it somewhere around the middle (depending on the contrast of your lighting). 

*When doing lip sync, move the head last after all other changes and allow it to "drift" slightly in a particular direction over several frames (12 in each direction, at the least) This will smooth out the tendency to not register the head perfectly (as in,  completely still)) every frame. 

* Principles- super important. Without those, you are lost at sea without a compass. Convincing movement simply will not work without the principles in mind- and properly executed. Paraphrasing  a Mr. Miyagi-ism, "one can not paint house if they not know how to hold brush!"

When I animate a walk, I put a surface gauge on the nose. After I move the legs I check the head and move it back to the gauge point if it drifts. Glad to know that I was doing something right, lol. Thanks for the info Don.

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