Over the winter break a few years back, the kids and I were looking for a fun project to tackle indoors together on the colder days.
After tossing around various possible sets, scenes and scenarios collected over the years, we decided to enlist a few Lego Airport characters and begin work on a small stop-motion video project to see what could be learned. Several days and several hundred + frames later, we found ourselves with a few humble minutes of final footage.
Especially in these times of mandatory lock-down and quarantine, taking on challenging personal projects – such as stop-motion and time lapse composition – are both rewarding practices to stretch and develop new and useful skills that we might never acquire in the normal routine.
For example, by providing total control of exposure and focus for each frame in a given scene – as opposed to working in native 24fps video frame rate – stop-motion capture allows for endless creative flexibility in terms of setup and lighting. This kind of control can be a great place for photographers to hone necessary storytelling skills. Coupled with vision and imagination, the creative opportunities are truly endless.
In this tutorial, we’ll take a connected look at each step of the shoot/edit approach used in this project for those interested in exploring this highly rewarding (and potentially addicting) storytelling medium.
Setup & Lighting
For this project, we placed two continuous (5500º) daylight bulbs – diffused with a pair of inexpensive white shoot-thru umbrellas – on either side of a small card table topped with a 24 by 48-inch wood surface.
The scene is further backed with a standard sheet of white foam core to provide a backdrop and bounce in a little shadow-fill.
A third Yongnuo (YN-162) Pro LED light (diffused via 7″ AlienBees reflector sock) is mounted just above the camera on an adjustable flip-bracket as our key light source to add dimension and pop for our characters.
For those without access to continuous lighting, try placing your set in front of a window and diffuse with a pass-thru reflector or a plain white (bed) sheet to soften any specular highlights on the shiny plastic figures.
Position the camera as close as possible, leaving yourself enough room between the table and the window to set up and shoot without bumping the tripod out of position.
Making images of still objects in available (or continuous) light on a stable platform the benefit of working in any shutter length that accommodates overall scene exposure and desired depth-of-field.
Here, it’s all about the story. If you don’t have access to lighting, don’t let that stop you from venturing into the more rewarding results of movement and story-line.
Camera & Gear
This small set was captured entirely via my old crop-sensor Canon 600D mounted with a Zeiss 50mm prime lens, locked in Manual mode for full control over exposure (in this case @ f/5, 1/80s @ ISO400).
While the largest video format available on this particular camera is 1920/1080 at 24 and 30fps, the 18-megapixel RAW stills generated will produce a result in excess of 5K resolution at 5184 x 3456 pixels, allowing ample room to punch-in as needed -and re-sampling to a quality 4K video result.
To clarify: the term 4K refers to the video pixel dimensions, or resolution, of a camera’s sensor; such as 4000 by 3000 pixels, for example, which (area = length x width) equates to a 12-megapixel file. In today’s market, 3840 × 2160 (4K UHD) is the dominant domestic standard, whereas the movie projection industry uses an extended 4096 × 2160 (DCI 4K) format.
The majority of mobile cameras available on the market today easily offer level of image resolution and higher.
Our camera is mounted on a 48″ rail-slider (tripod-supported on one end, monopod on the other) in front of our scene and triggered remotely via cable release. A slider is by no means necessary, but helpful in acquiring and maintaining a good angle and to manually apply any sliding pan movements as well.
Be mindful that sliding pans can be challenging on a frame-by-frame basis at first in terms of distance and subtlety of movement. Whether stop-motion or time-lapse, the smaller and more frequent the movements, the smoother the footage.
For those without access to a slider, another solution to adding movement is to reposition the camera for a slightly wider framing, allowing room to zoom, or punch-in and apply movements by way of keyframing in Adobe Premiere Pro CC. Either way we go, applying subtle tracking movements is key to adding realism and life to our story.
Shooting & Staging Tips
- Avoid automatic shooting modes (if possible); dial in exposure and shoot in Manual mode to ensure consistent exposure for all images
- After acquiring a set exposure, turn ON the camera’s Exposure Lock feature (if possible) and lock down for consistent exposure
- Turn OFF Auto-focus (AF) for precise command and control over depth and focus in every frame
- Use artist clay to hold any loose, free-moving objects in place when needed (such as our fork-lift tines, for example, when loading the packages into the plane, etc.)
- Visually mark current locations when removing and positioning characters to help with placement (such as a tiny ball of artist clay, twist tie or pencil, etc.)
- Use small hand tools, if needed, such as needle-nose pliers or locking hemostat for character removal and placement in tight areas
- Start by practicing with smaller clips, such as a garage door opening and closing, or a passing car etc
- Dial-in walking movements and arm swings etc
- Practice animating normal everyday movements and activities
- The smaller and more frequent the movements, the smoother the scene
- Dial-in focus and use DOF freely with every frame to track a subject and draw the eye
- Try changing camera angles at key points by rotating the set itself, leaving the table and lighting in tact (if possible)
- Keep one damp and one dry cloth or microfiber on-hand for miscellaneous prop cleaning and polishing
As shooting winds-down and the processing phase begins, its a good idea to pause for a little housekeeping to make life easier down the road.
I would recommend creating a sub-folder within the overall project for each individual scene and file the originals accordingly. From here, my preference is to create (working, final and 4K) sub-folders within each scene to store any working files needed along the way.
When shooting is finally complete, the next step is to harness the bulk processing power of Adobe Camera Raw and Photomatix Pro to apply a few finishing touches to our images before animating and sequencing a final cut.
Pre-Processing in Adobe Camera Raw
Note: We’ll be using an Adobe Bridge to Photomatix Pro workflow in this tutorial. All steps are equally applicable for those who prefer a Lightroom workflow.
Step 1 – Navigate to a scene of images, CMD/CTRL+A (or right-click) to select all images, click the aperture icon at top to open images in ACR.
Once open in ACR, choose Select All images (upper-left region)..
Step 2 – Navigate to Lens Corrections Tab → Enable Lens Profile Corrections. If no changes occur automatically when activated, navigate to your lens Make and Model to apply corrections along with any vignette adjustments needed as well.
Step 3 – Navigate to Camera Calibration → Camera Profile. We decided on the Camera Portrait selection as the best contrast and fit for our project.
This step will add a little pop to our scene and save us a few contrast adjustments down the road. No rules here, play around and see what works best for you.
Step 4 – Navigate to the Detail tab to apply a small amount of luminance and color Noise Reduction, and provide a little Sharpening for our edges as well. Hold down the ALT key while dragging the Masking slider to apply the effect as needed..
Step 5 – Navigate to Save Images… and save out uncompressed TIFF files in a new folder (i.e. working). Our images are now prepped and ready for final (batch) processing in Photomatix Pro.
Final Processing in Photomatix Pro
Step 1 – Navigate to our new TIFF folder, drag a single file into Photomatix Pro and select Tone Map. Our goal here is to make a few tweaks to a single frame (as needed) and save out a preset to apply to the entire scene via batch processing..
Step 2 – For this project, starting out with a straight-forward Photographic preset, we applied a few Brightness, Compression and Contrast adjustments to achieve a high-contrast look for our scene.
Navigate to the Preset fly-out (scroll to top) and select Save Preset… to save our (working) preset before finally closing out of the image (without saving).
Step 3 – With our preset saved and ready, navigate to Batch Single Photos and we can apply these adjustments to the TIFF files in our working folder. Here, a new dialogue will open with the option to choose our source and destination file locations and apply our custom (working) preset.
With all settings double-checked and ready to go, select Run and Photomatix will take care of the rest, leaving us with a folder of final images.
All that remains now is to bring our frames to life by way of Adobe After Effects, and finally to arrange and export a final sequence via Premiere Pro CC.
Converting Stills to Video – Adobe After Effects
Step 1 – Open a new project in After Effects CC and navigate to File → Import… → File… Navigate to a folder of final images, click to enable JPEG Sequence and select Import to load images as stacked footage.
Step 2 – Right-click on the sequence file and select New Comp from Selection to create a new composition at our imported 4K dimensions. When created, right-click the comp file and navigate to Composition Settings… Verify dimensions are correct and choose an output frame rate, we went with a standard 30fps for web output.
I recommend expanding the timeline duration a bit larger than what is needed for clarity on the next step, which will be to stretch our clip from mere frames to a useable length. The 20-second range works well for short clips.
When the settings are good to go, save a preset to apply across all of our future scenes and select OK. Click on the new composition in the Project window, drag and drop into the Timeline window below..
Step 3 – Currently, this clip would last less than a second when played back in 30fps video, so we’ll need to stretch our clip and let After Effects compute and add the necessary frames to extend the scene. To do so, right-click on the timeline clip first and navigate to Time → Enable Time Remapping. We can now stretch the clip to a suitable length – in this case, to around 10 seconds..
To make the stretch, simply click and drag the end of the clip in the timeline to the right and extend to your liking, making sure to grab the out point and overall segment length and drag to match as well.
Navigate to Quality and Sampling (diagonal line above timeline), click twice to activate Bicubic sampling (indicated by a curved line) for best video sample quality, and activate Motion Blur for added smoothness as well.
Step 4 – Navigate to File → Export → Add to Adobe Media Encoder Queue… When the file opens in Adobe Media Encoder, click on the Preset option to verify our final output settings are where they need to be.
Step 5 – First, verify Format and select an output destination for the clip. We went with a compressed H.264 high quality mp4 at 4K resolution in this case. We’ll be adding an audio track in the next step, so no need to render audio at this point. Select Render at Maximum Depth with a constant bit-rate (CBR) of 50mbps for a quality result. Finally, select Use Maximum Render Quality and click OK to render our new, extended video file.
The next and final step is to arrange our new clips in a timeline sequence, add an audio track and export our final cut via Premiere Pro CC. But before we do, be sure to save out a Preset of this render condition to easily apply to the rest of the project as we go.
Final Processing – Adobe Premiere Pro CC
Our final step is to insert the individual clips generated in After Effects and create a connected final sequence with an audio overlay. It’s a good idea to move (or copy) all final clips at this point to a separate folder within the project before importing into Premiere for simplicity.
Step 1 – To get started in Premiere Pro, Navigate to File → New → Project… Enter a Name for the final clip and select OK to open a new project timeline..
Step 2 – To import clips, double-click in the Project window, or navigate to File → Import… CMD/CTRL+A to select all clips and Open to add to project..
Step 3 – When the files have imported, select all clips and drag to the Timeline window below to create a new sequence. We find at this point that Premiere creates a Composition file as well, but under the last file name imported. My preference is to rename the comp file to match the project title to clean the asset list up a bit..
Step 4 – Adding Audio – If so desired, it’s time to locate and import a suitable audio track for our project. We went with a bright composition with an upbeat pace for this particular animation (Too Many Chocolates by Ed Kalnins, Songfreedom.com). When located, simply import and drag into the audio portion of the project timeline. Click and drag to adjust final position and length as needed..
Note: For those interested, you might consider recording and building your own library of sounds (see Foley Effects) such as footsteps, engine sounds, door openings & closings, creaks and various nature sounds (etc) to add a higher level of realism to the story.
Step 5 – Applying Transitions – By way of the Effects panel (lower-left), select and drag over any video and audio transitions as needed. Here we can apply a clean fade (if desired) between clips and apply a smooth transition for our audio.
For video transitions, while an well-placed hard cut is always ideal, applying a smooth Film Dissolve tends to create a nice fade as well as dipping to white (or black) here and there as needed to establish a solid flow from scene to scene. In regard to audio, an Exponential Fade works well for a smooth lead-in and outro. There are a plethora of options, so by all means explore and go with what works best for your footage.
To apply, click to drag the effect onto a clip and drag to adjust duration. Sometimes clip ‘handles’ (denoted by a tiny triangle in the corner of a clip) can prohibit duration. If longer transitions are needed, we’ll need to click and drag to remove a few frames from each adjoining clip to make it happen.
For this reason, it’s a good practice to record a few extra frames on either side of a scene during the shoot to accommodate. To learn more, check out Transition Overview: Applying Transitions via the Adobe help desk.
Step 6 – Adjusting Clip Speed – To fine-tune the speed of our individual clips in Premiere Pro, simply right-click on any clip (or clips, by holding the CMD/CTRL key) in the Timeline panel and select Speed/Duration…
Here we can select a specific percentage or click to drag the duration as needed to dial-in a fluid consistency from scene to scene. Click to turn Ripple Edit ON to avoid any gaps by having the software automatically shift all downstream clips accordingly as we shorten and lengthen our clips.
Step 7 – Adjusting Workspace Size – Probably should have mentioned this earlier, but a quick note before rendering a final result: to acquire a closer working view in the Timeline window, click and drag the slider below the window to zoom in and out when applying and adjusting clip length/transitions, etc. Double-click slider to return to a full project view.
With all clips in place and adjusted as needed, the project is now ready for final render (as denoted by the yellow bar in the timeline) and export.
Step 8 – Rendering & Exporting a Final Cut – To put the final nail in this process, we’re finally ready to create our final product and start enjoying the fruits of our labors. It’s all downhill from here so take a deep breath, relax and get ready to impress yourself.
To render the sequence, click once anywhere inside the Timeline window (to make active) and navigate to Sequence → Render In to Out. This can take some time depending on length and number of transitions, effects, etc. When the clips are fully rendered (as denoted by a green bar in the timeline), we’re ready to export a final cut.
Navigate to File → Export → Media…
Remember that preset we made earlier when exporting from After Effects? Simply locate and apply the preset right here in Premiere as well, making sure Export Audio is activated and included in the current mix..
And finally, ensure Render at Maximum Depth, Use Maximum Render Quality and Use Previews are all ON (for best results) and select Export to bring our frames to new animated life.
Sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labor. Be ready for several small adjustments
We’ve but scratched the surface with the applications used in this tutorial. While the creative capabilities of the modern digital workflow are indeed vast for photographers, filmmakers and designers – the true reward of undertaking a stop-motion project is in the tedium of story-line and character placement.
We certainly made plenty of mistakes and ‘happy accidents’ (as Bob Ross would say) along the way that only added to the overall charm of the project, and we worked hard to improve in quality of movement as we progressed. In the end, it was a hugely inspiring learning experience for all and one we look forward to exploring more in the days and years to come.
Thanks for stopping by, as always. I hope you find the information helpful and that you enjoy watching as much as we did shooting. If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments below or drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Remember, any time you find yourself low on creative spark, just ask a twelve-year-old. They’ll get us headed in the right direction every time.
Mark Morrow is an active Virginia-based photographer and contributing author with Photofocus.com.