Stop Motion Tutorial Part 1

Using Chroma Key for Stop Motion, setting up professional lighting and creating sets and backgrounds for your characters

The first chapter of this stop motion tutorial focuses on setting up and using Chroma Key (green screen), the equipment required to do so, lighting in stop motion (and how to use it properly), and creating physical backgrounds and sets.

The first thing you have to think about, after creating the story and developing a plan of what your film should be about and what it should look like, is creating backgrounds and scenes to set your characters in.

When it comes to stop motion the possibilities are literally endless, and you can use any type of setting you want. It could be a cardboard box you drew on, a blank wall, a park bench, a digitally drawn background or anything else. It will depend on what type of film you are creating, what type of mood are you trying to achieve, how much knowledge you’ve already got and how much money are you willing to invest. Of course, hypothetically, you could hire a design team and pay them tons of money to make your ideas come to life (and the result would probably be amazing), but, at least for most of us, money is an issue, and before you become a famous stop motion pro, you’ll definitely have made a few low budget films yourself.

This chapter is meant to give you an idea of what equipment you should get to start you off and all the quintessential things and details you have to look out for. This is a brief tutorial on creating your own green screen backgrounds, setting up lighting, and trying to create your first DIY backgrounds.

Chroma key (green screen) – How it works, why we need it, materials, editing

Chroma Key (green screen) is a widely used post-production technique for layering (compositing) different layers of video or images based on color hues. Basically, what it enables you to do, is shoot something, and then remove the original background and replacing it with a custom one. It can be done with backgrounds of any uniform color, but green and blue are the most commonly used ones, since they least resemble the human skin tone, hence they are easier to digitally remove without leaving any trace. Green is also the color image sensors in cameras are most sensitive to.

Professional Green Screens

Professional green screens, such as this 10×10 feet one by Limo Studio are perfect for stop motion. It’s easy to set up and to assemble, it comes with a stand, so that you don’t have to hang it over the closet door or tape it to the wall. It’s extremely endurable, the fabric is almost wrinkle free (in case of any wrinkles just use an iron), and the color is perfect. They are affordable, they cost around $60, and what’s most important – they get the job done perfectly. Click here for more information on Limo Studio green screens.

Setting up your first Green Screen

The process is simple. You set up a green backdrop behind the object you are filming (minding that there are no similar colors in the scene, since they would be removed in editing), and after you are done, you simply digitally remove it and replace it. This technique is often used in news reports or in weather forecasts, during which the presenter appears to be in front of a map, which is only set up afterwards, and the actual footage was done using a green screen. The good thing is that anyone can set up a green screen and use the technique for almost no money. The only thing you’ll be needing is a green material, a camera and editing software. When it comes to stop motion animation, this technique is crucial, since it enables you to create custom backgrounds, whether they are from real life, hand drawn, or created digitally. One of the most important things you have to be aware of when using chroma key (green screen) is uniform, even lighting and avoiding shadows, since the process is much easier when you have a narrow color range that has to be replaced, and light creates shades and hues.

The best starting kit

This amazing studio set by Limo Studio includes a green screen, stands, umbrellas, a light difuser and adjustable lighting. The best thing about it is that regardless of its low price ($139) it’s sturdy, high quality and endurable. Every piece is easy to assemble and transport as well, since the set includes a bag. When it comes to price/quality ratio, and if you consider the fact that with this set you’ll only be needing a camera, a tripod and something to actually photograph, this is by far the best choice for stop motion. For more information and customer reviews click here.

When choosing the material used for green screen, you want something that can be evenly lit. Shades and uneven lighting can result in “blank” or dark spots which can’t be registered easily. Shiny materials that reflect light are a good example of what not to use. Recommendable materials are cloths such as cotton, or endurable matte paper. The size of the green screen will of course depend on the size of the scene you are planning to shoot. Professional screens are available online, and the prices range from around $30 to several hundred $. You could also go for the DIY approach and just buy large sheets of paper. Basically, any right colored surface is going to work, but with a little investment, you could get professional gear and save yourself a lot of time and effort which should be spent on the actual film. The difference will be subtle but visible. For video editing and removing backgrounds, most people use software such as After Effects. You import your photos into the program (each piece of software is different, but they all basically serve the same purpose) use an option to remove the backdrops and replace with what ever you’ve decided to go with and that’s it.

The Green Screen Handbook is an amazing tutorial on mastering Green Screen techniques. The author, Jeff Foster, has been working in the production of digital and traditional images, photography, motion graphics and special effects for more than 20 years. Click here for more information.

Creating backgrounds and sets

If you decide to mix green screen and actual backgrounds together, or to only use actual backgrounds, there is several things you should know. Firstly, don’t limit your imagination. You could shoot your stop motion masterpiece on your balcony, in the car, or in any other real space. You can also draw the backgrounds and edit them digitally, create 3D models, or create actual sets yourself. This part is dedicated to creating your own sets and scenes, using affordable materials, simple tools and your own imagination and knowledge. The first thing you should do is a storyboard. It doesn’t have to be drawn professionally, it doesn’t even have to be good. It will serve you as a guide later on. The point is that you have to decide on the number of scenes you will be shooting, the number of sets you’ll be needing, how big they’ll be etc. Once you have done that you can get started on step one – creating the sets. The second most important step – character creation, is covered in chapter 4 of the tutorial.

Chroma key green screen
A set from Aardman Animations; source: Wikimedia Commons

You can use any material for making backgrounds, but there are some which work better than others. Wood is by far the most commonly used material. It’s used for television sets, for animation, theatre etc. The downside is that you kind of have to be a handyman in order to handle it. Don’t be afraid, though, there are simple tools which everyone can use. They are rather affordable and easy to handle. The tools you are going to need are a screwdriver, a drill, pliers, bolts, a hand saw, wood glue, and the actual wood. With these few items you are able to create almost anything you want. It does take time and effort, and it certainly might be easier to just have somebody fashion it for you, but the beauty of stop motion animation is the fact that you can make everything yourself. And you probably have most of these items at home, or someone you could borrow them from.

Here is a list of the essential equipment if you decide to go DIY. Every item is among the most valuable when it comes to price/quality ratio, and it should suffice for creating most sets you could imagine. Perhaps you don’t imagine animators drilling and sawing wood all day, but the truth is (in stop motion that is) that they actually do more often than you’d think. Once you get the grip of things, your designs will come to life, and you will be able to create your own sets and sceneries in no time.

chroma key (green screen)

  1. A drill – you will need it constantly during the construction process, and it will become your best friend. We recommend this extremely affordable Black and Decker drill. It’s cordless, it’s powerful, it gets the job done. You really won’t be needing high tech expensive tools. This drill costs around $50. Click here for more information.
  2. Screwdrivers – not much to say about these. You probably already have around fifty at home, but if you don’t, here is a great affordable set which is perfect for creating sets. Stanley 20 piece skrewdriver set ($20).
  3. Pliers – a must have tool for any wood work or crafts. Here is a 3-piece set by Sanley which only costs $8.
  4. A Handsaw – it will allow you to saw through wood and create custom models and shapes. They are very easy to handle and extremely useful. This 12 piece set only costs around $20.
  5. Wood Glue – not much to say about this one…it’s glue..for wood. Gorilla wood glue is my favorite (around $4).
  6. Wood – plywood is the best option for crafts and woodworking because it’s easy to work with and to cut and saw through. You could use any type of plywood, but birch is a solid and reliable option. This set includes six pieces of 3mm thick 12 by 24 inch boards, which should suffice for at least 2-3 different sets. It costs around $30, but there is cheaper options as well.

Besides wood, you could also opt for materials which are easier to handle such as cloth, leather, cardboard or Styrofoam. The point is that anything will do, as long as it suits the project you are working on. Coloring your sets is the second part of the process. With a lot of work and effort, once you’ve constructed your set, you can color it and bring it to life, and create sets like the ones from the Corpse Bride, The Boxtrolls and many other stop motion masterpieces. You will need three things: paint, brushes and a primer. The primer is needed because painting on bare wood can result with lumps and uneven strokes. The primer creates a uniform base layer making the paint apply evenly and easily.

Try this amazing 12 piece acrylic paint set (100ml bottles) by MyArtSpace ($39). High quality paint perfect for working with wood.

Lighting

Light is one of the most important things to master when it comes to stop motion. It just has to be perfect. Just as the camera has to be still, the light must be uniform and consistent throughout the entire shooting process. There are professional studio lights which are affordable enough. They are easy to set up and to use, and with a little practice you will have no shades or uneven lighting. You could, of course, use any light available (as long as it’s not daylight, since it changes constantly). There are cheap led lights or just simple desk lamps that do the job, but professional lighting comes with adjustable stands, umbrellas and other equipment which just makes the process a lot easier. Once you have created a set, you will need to block out any natural light and set up your lighting in a way that suits the scene best. It’s important that you don’t move the lights around during the filming, and there should be no problems with the finished work.

This professional photo studio lighting set by Limo Studio is perfect for Stop Motion photography. It’s high quality and extremely affordable ($55).

We hope that you found this advice useful, and that it will help you start your first stop motion project. All the things listed above are just bare necessities, though, and you will have to keep expanding your knowledge as you go along. In the next chapter we are covering stop motion cameras; what they should be like, which requirements they should meet, pros and cons, pricing and more. You are welcome to send us any feedback, comments, suggestions or questions to animataurus.info@gmail.com, or contact us via our contact page.

If you liked this part of the tutorial, please feel free to share it! Thanks and happy animating!

Continue to Part 2 – Stop Motion Cameras

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