Animating a Stop-motion Effect in CG

This article is not a step by step tutorial, but rather an account of what CG animators sometimes go through in order to achieve a stop-motion look, and what constitutes a productive workflow. This is not to say that the various forms of stop-motion are any less desirable than CG, the computer merely permits much smoother animation at less cost than it’s analogue counterpart.

After working with other animators on various spots that required this kind of treatment, I’ve realized that it can be difficult for those trained in CG to “unlearn” what they’ve been taught (and practiced so diligently), and let the work be more organic and rough around the edges. They almost always want to take the shot and push it to a very high caliber of animation and then try to dumb it down with some sort of filter whether it be rendering on 2’s, or applying some kind of noise function on the f-curves after the fact. On paper, this sounds like a good idea, however it presents two problems:

  • For one, any photographer worth their salt will tell you that simply applying a photoshop filter such as “brush strokes” or “charcoal” will not turn a mediocre image into art. The same should be taken into account for animation. There is no “magic” filter to make one piece of motion look like another. If you carefully analyze stop-motion, you will notice that the rules of animation change a bit. Overlaps, holds, weight, etc. are all handled a bit differently. These techniques and characteristics need to be studied and understood in order to be properly emulated.
  • The second is that even if one could apply a “magic” filter that would turn buttery smooth, 24fps, CG feature level animation into a convincing stop-motion piece, it is still adding another step to the process. In an industry where both time and money are tight, and economy is often as important as quality, efficient and determined workflow is key to a successful production. Approaching the task from this perspective allows the artist to focus more on exploring the visual narrative and actually developing the look, rather than worrying chiefly about the time and budget constraints.

My solution to the problem is actually to remove the extra step that using smooth curves necessitates. I’ve had success by blocking the shot down to the frame (or every other), and forgetting about the idea of polish, which itself can be a very time consuming and arduous task. By leaving the piece raw and the f-curves coarse, I find I naturally get a more organic feel that resembles something hand-crafted. I suppose it’s because in the end, it is hand-crafted. Sure, the elements are not practical, but the motion retains as much as possible, it’s original, imperfect, hand-keyed quality. It’s still an animation modeled, textured, lit, and rendered on a computer, but when it comes to the actual motion, the human element is the strongest influence. The computer isn’t using any of it’s fancy math to calculate the flow from one pose to the next. It’s 100% me.

This kind of workflow is not all that different from how stop-motion is traditionally done, which is exactly why I believe it works so well. We still get all the benefits of using the computer, the job gets done quicker, and the results, in my experience, are unmatched. And remember, don’t use motion blur!

Big thanks to Matt Foglia for helping me edit this article.

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