Lights! Camera! Action Figures!

Lights! Camera! Action Figures!

Vee Ladwa, director at INANIMATORZ Ltd, a stop motion animation and design collective, shares his top tips for using action figures in stop motion animations.

Having had the opportunity to create stop motion animation for Hasbro’s release of their Marvel Avengers: Endgame, Marvel Legends action figure lineup in 2019 and directing and animating the official music video Animal from Claptone in 2018, has allowed me to explore new skills and imagine endless possibilities and fun by bringing action figures and inanimate objects to life through stop motion animation.

The experience was a huge inspiration to forming INANIMATORZ to share stop motion skills through a free, 4 week online workshop, which was successfully completed for the London Borough of Brent as part of the council’s celebrations for being awarded London Borough of Culture 2020.

INANIMATORZ were delighted when HUE announced they would sponsor the free online workshops and exhibitions taking place. Our project INANIMATORZ GO! – #Brentanimated – taught the basic principles of stop motion animation to interested first time animators and creators.

Participants used the HUE Animation software to create animations from home and we’ve had a lot of fun using the articulated HUE HD camera since! The ease and dexterity of using the HUE HD camera eliminates the need for a tripod and the flexible neck is handy for moving close to the action, capturing all the detail with HD clarity.

The craft of stop motion animation can be very therapeutic and creative. You’re guaranteed to learn a diverse set of skills from crafting and building worlds, creating characters and stories, aspects of filming and lighting… even building self-patience and mindfulness!

I frequently receive questions about using action figures in stop motion animation and I hope you find my top tips useful and interesting!

Figure it out!

Action figures serve as a great way to understand movement because most figures come with articulated joints depending on the scale of the figure, mould and manufacturer.

Companies such as Medicom Toys/MAFEX, Mezco, Bandai and Hasbro offer a range of articulated action figures that can be found easily online and won’t break the bank compared to more premium figures from other companies.

A great premium figure for animating is the Synthetic Human by 1000toys. The figure has interchangeable faces, genius articulation and engineering, sets of expressive hands and even moveable eyes, making it just perfect for posing and stop motion animation!

Once you have your figure of choice in hand, begin to move it around and just imagine a part of yourself in the figure. Play with it and imagine bringing it to life.

Understanding the movements and limitations of every individual action figure can be very unique to each so really get to know what your figure can and can’t do.

Fly Figure, Fly!

There is no easy trick to making a figure levitate or fly but that’s not to say you can’t give an illusion of flight and it is no different to the practical special effects techniques used in films.

I made the above clip as an example. Try positioning the figure within the lens of the camera and position whatever is holding the figure up off to the side of the screen so it is not visible in the shot.

In most cases you can keep the character in one position, adjusting slightly to give the illusion of wind in the cape or turbulence in the air.

Take thin pieces of cotton wool and try moving them across the screen to get a sense of depth and movement. The wool closest to the lens of the camera would move faster than the cotton wool positioned further in the distance behind the figure.

Other techniques you could look into and try are chroma key / green or blue screen, much like modern films where the backgrounds are superimposed and made up to suit the scene, much like the clouds in the above clip.

Stand up!

Action figures… they fall! Often, I would be filming a scene for an hour or two, and just as I turned to capture another image the figure would be slumped on the floor!

Setting up the character in the same last position can be tricky, so try to avoid this and secure your figure down. Fix the figure down with sticky tack, tape the feet to the base or use a figure stand.

I have often added magnets to the base of the figure’s feet and drilling holes in the back of the figure and rigging it to a stand also works wonders!

Lighting

When I started stop motion there was always a lot of visible flicker from frame to frame, usually from light changes in the room and because I would practice in daylight.

The correct way is to darken your room completely, stop all the light coming in and set up lamps within the room.

Continuous LED lighting works well and it’s good to have at least two lights set up but it really does depend on the mood you want to capture.

Watch your favourite films and look closely to why the film resonates with you, how the lighting affects the scene and the mood of the shot and try to create something similar.

If you want to remove hard shadows from the set, then a good idea is to use some white styrofoam and redirect the light onto the figure. I’ve also used coloured sheets of acetate and coloured post-it notes to give some subtle and budget effects. Cycle and bike lights also work well!

The 12 Principles of Animation

As a self taught animator it took me a while to get my head around how to time an action and to understand the key role anticipation of a particular move or gesture is played out by a character I was animating.

After extensive reading, research and practice I began to understand the importance of the 12 Principles of Animation, techniques popularised and developed by Disney animators to make more believable and appealing animations. The 12 Principles are:

  1. Squash & Stretch
  2. Anticipation
  3. Follow-Through and Overlapping Action
  4. Arcs
  5. Ease-In and Ease-Out
  6. Timing
  7. Secondary Action
  8. Exaggeration
  9. Staging
  10. Straight Ahead Action and Pose to Pose
  11. Solid drawing
  12. Appeal

I’ve spent the last few years uploading my stop motion to YouTube and there’s a bunch of videos on there from the very beginning that provide a very good example of how not to animate and will hopefully give you an example of the progression I’ve had in animating action figures.

In these older clips things are literally all over the place with no understanding of the 12 Principles of Animation.

I’ve also found it really helpful to go back and watch old Charlie Chaplin films and those from the silent era to analyse and watch the actor’s movements. Since the films had no sound the actors really had to put on a performance to tell the film’s story.

Anticipation, Action, Reaction! Picking up a box on the floor is not just simply a character seeing a box and then picking up the box in two movements. If the box is where you want the viewer to focus on then allow the viewer to visually see everything in the scene and really put emphasis on the box. Then you could focus on more of the character, maybe the character notices the box first, then looks around and glances back to the box and pauses for a while before leading on to an action like picking the box up. This really makes a difference and gives much expression to the animation.

It really helps when there is some anticipation played out before an action, and as we all know an action causes a reaction like this example here:

Sure there is so much to learn from stop motion animation, the medium is a great visual storytelling technique that can bring to life anything around us and of course it takes a lot of time to make a clip of a few seconds but have fun with it and organically things will come naturally to you with a bit of practice. I hope these tips have helped!

Vee Ladwa, Director / Animator at INANIMATORZ Ltd

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