Thursday, April 26, 2007

FIELD REPORT: ASIFA-Hollywood Stop Motion Expo

Last Saturday was a instructive and constructive stop motion gathering of professionals and enthusiasts held on the beautiful campus of Woodbury University in Burbank. I had never heard of The International Animated Film Society or Larry Loc, who, from what I could tell, was the fellow along with other volunteers, that organized and put in the tremendous work and coordination involved to make this sort of event happen. My thanks goes out to those involved in putting the expo on and for those coming out to speak and spend time.

It was scheduled with panels from 9 am until 5 pm and was followed by two sets of animation film screenings until 10 pm. The members of the various panels, on Stop Motion Education, Sets, Lighting, and camera, and evolution of Stop Motion, were big names and highly expert in the medium. How this event pulled the likes of creative geni, Will Vinton and The Chiodo Brothers, Jim Aupperle, et al, is a mystery to me, but that may be my ignorance of the organization involved. Everyone brought a reel to run during the panels, some of which was dazzlingly great. One of the chief things I came away with was the realization that I know exactly what I'm doing for my projects and furthermore have permission from those who have marshaled the craft into an industry to go forth and create as I see fit. Hooray.

I casually went about getting there at 10:30, not feeling a need to rush there for opening remarks. I arrived during the first panel on Stop mo in computer age, recognized the remarkable animation talents of Justin and Shel Rasch (from their photos on their blog) seated in the audience. I cuddled up and whispered hello, like we've been pals for years, which is how I feel. Their eyes got big until they realized I wasn't a stalker exactly and just their fellow stop mo geek. I got to chat a bit, too briefly, with them during the break for lunch though it was enough to be completely confirmed in my feeling that they were bright, open, natural, and sweet people. I look forward to the day when their films hit the world and they emerge to everyone as the superstars they are.

The first panel was headed by the riotously dynamic T Reid Norton who, from my point of view, single handedly commanded life into a very quiet and withdrawn or perhaps just sleepy collection of animators up on the stage as if he were a Dr. Frankenstein's pork pie hat wearing cousin, Benny. Animators must be by definition introverts, people who prefer to spend their time alone with puppets and little worlds rather than with other people. That's why communicating with each other via the Internet fits so comfortably with the field. So, it would be no surprise if even its most successful practitioners were not sparkling public speakers. Misha Klein however, master performance animator, made several comments I thought were noteworthy enough to write down.

He used the new to me term for stop mo animators being "Sculptors in time".
He suggested having a character tell YOU as the animator what it wants to act out for performance.
He said to consider the qualities of the character's movement, sad/happy, etc, in order to sustain the level of emotion even while your life changes during the interval of filming a sequence. Filling in the character's emotional blanks when your mood has naturally changed was to him one of the greatest performance challenges.

Devolving into Random Notes
**Design your character INTERNALLY (their back story) then build them externally.

It was said that the "problem solving" required in stop motion is possibly the most satisfying aspect of it.

It was pretty much the consensus of the day that Stop Motion as an art form is the most rewarding. It requires more abilities than any other single form and demands the artist to do it all, from the artistry to the technical, etc. It is an intuitive medium, not yet in it's Golden age, despite being over 100 years old. It was felt it was a dormant art, the funnest, if the truth were known.

"don't recreate the world, create a new reality"

There is a perceived tangible quality to stop motion that isn't possible in 2D or CG.

"Stop motion is ALWAYS real, CG, no matter how well done, is ALWAYS fake." --Stephen Chiodo

It's always Performance over Technique.

Geek Out Tips
Tinderbox: a plug in for Final Cut Pro that removes unavoidable camera flicker from animating with digital still frame cameras.

In case you had to ever remove a burned out light bulb or otherwise make a repair to a light head during a shoot one could put paper down on the floor and trace the shadow of the existing light(s) on your final set up and then match the position to back to the tracing.

Soft directional light makes it flattering to your characters.

You could affix a laser pointer pen to your camera and mark on the wall behind your characters the exact trajectory of your shots for matching later. By securing a ruler you could lengthen the handle on your tripod to make even more precise incremental movements during pans.

Secure everything as though it needed to remain as it is during an earthquake. This means heavy sandbags on sturdy tripods, taping down the lens setting in position, all lighting taped and stable, etc.

Always shoot a clean blank of your finished set before characters are on it for erasing rigs, etc.

For consistent light power levels, rent or buy Variac transformers (Harbor Frieght has best price) to plug all your lights into and then under power the voltage by about 10% to extend the life of the bulbs dramatically. When you power up the lights each day do it from the transformer by slowly dialing up the power rather than turning off and on the unit. Same at end of day. If you can, get a line conditioner in order to filter or compensate for drops in city power supply. [follow safety rules]

Cross the character eyes slightly, so as not to appear wall-eyed.

When you light your set, light with miniature heads as if it were a live action fully human scale set, using all the same pro techniques. Jim Aupperle, unarguably the finest stop motion lighting director in the world's general method, first get your ambient light for the mood, make it theatrical, then install your fill lights, get your detail in the shadows, bounce on white foam core or white silk, even making snoots if needed for soft but highly directed light (gradated directional spots to concentrate light as spot.) Then lastly add your key light. Gels add color, Jim finds he uses CTO orange and blue most of all. Rim lights, diffusion, new use for LEDs, blaa blaa.

Watch Vittorio Storaro for an education in cinematography, as he's an artist painting with light.

**Test your character designs as they MOVE not just as sketches or maquettes.

Some Wows
Jim Aupperle brought some real gems on his reel. One was a sequence from the movie, [corrected] Runaway Ralph (1988), where they shot the stop motion mouse riding a motorcycle on a highway OUT OF DOORS!! IN NATURAL LIGHT!!! Jim said that the "chatter" of the clouds and the leaves on the trees moving during the filming were smoothed out because of the frame rate increase? I didn't follow exactly but I can say that the footage looked so natural and inspiring.

Another Jim gem was an old clip behind the scenes of ROTATING SET by John Mathews for the film, Frog and Toad Are Friends (1985) I'd love to see it in full--hell, I'd buy a copy! I found it hidden on this dvd, if you can find a copy. The camera was more or less fixed while the set rotated giving a spectacular illusion of following the cycling from over hill and dale. Man--I am so doing that. I had originally thought of it for my main set, but then thought it unpractical, no more!

Biggest Shock of Day
Why dear God in heaven, are HUGE amounts of luxurious cash, hundreds of thousands of dollars, being forked over to inchoerent beginners so they can make sort-of-sequels to lame yet peculiarly popular, albeit intrepid efforts?
Maybe it's because these people have actually done something, anything, that can be held up as an actual achievement. There's a point to that. I better get down to my work.

An Elephant in the Room
For all the awe power in the room all day from people who have spent decades of their life innovating, laboring, and living with animation, and as much as I'm grateful for being able to attend an event of this kind and get to see the people involved and hear a bit about how and why they work, for me there was a big issue unaddressed. I see a lot of shorts by professionals and amateurs alike being a complete and utter waste of time.

Crafting even the briefest of stop motion clip takes an incalculable amount of time, effort, money, and collaboration between many talented individuals to make happen. So why does it seem to me that much of what is done is either pointless, shallow, callow, or even puerile?

Much of the paid animation work freelance talent does these days, at least the work hired for tv and film studios (OLD MEDIA), is geared for juvenile tastes and profoundly trivial results. I'm taking it too seriously, it's just entertainment, right? Maybe. But I wrassle with why so many truly talented and skilled artists/animators spend their precious decades making what I consider to be pure crap. I'm sorry, apologies to my betters, but what's the point of singing vegetables and the like? I should be more accepting of everyones contributions and expressions, maybe it means something deeper to those who made it? Or maybe making meaningful art isn't everyone's objective.

I am beyond supportive of everyone on the green fresh earth making their art, whatever it is, good, bad, meaningful to them, drivel, whatever. I think there is room for every stitch of it on the Internet. Each one of us can and should have their own online channel to express through, in whatever way we wish. Let numbers of viewers decide what's popular. Bring it on. I think what irks me is the gnawing question of whether or not these expert animators have anything other than crap to say. Are they deep-down-shallow? Am I missing their point? Is the point that there is no point? And why is crap paid for? It must be that it makes money. Is this a half-hearted planet then? Is there an opportunity for people to go deeper?

I will say that the sincerely talented Will Vinton (he is so much more than a dancing raisin, check out some of his showcase reels here), indicated that his experience of JOY and FREEDOM as an independent animator was in direct proportion to how much business overhead he had to carry. His greatest satisfaction came at his most independent phase. He's doing his own handmade "Free Will" thing now with total creative freedom, but then, he has the fame, name, and I assume bank account for some well-earned sovereignty. His advice to go for it as an independent is well taken.

I come away from the day clear that my work is my own, with a personal agenda, that may or may not have anything to do with what animation means to experts involved. I know now that I'm not after any job in the industry. I am free.

Biggest Highlight of Day
Getting to meet a friend for the first time. Mark Fullerton "Mefull", long time eFriend and reader came up for the expo too.


  1. Excellent review and commentary on the expo. Thanks for posting it Shelley. Apparently there are videos from the expo appearing over on StopMoShorts and/or YouTube.

  2. Thank you so much, Grant. I'll go check out the vids, thanks.

  3. Shelley I think you covered the highlights of the show pretty well, including all of the best tips and tricks from the panels. (I want to copy off of your test in school, you take good notes!) :-o

    It was great to meet you in person, and Mr. Halfland (Paul) as well! A highlight of my day for sure!

    The eight hours or so seemed to pass in a blink of an eye. I think that means I was having fun.

    It was an eclectic group that showed up, but who would want it any other way. The cross-pollination I saw going on was great.

    Thanks for a perfect field trip report!


  4. Thanks, Mark! I was a bit sorry to have missed the festival, especially since I'd paid for it upfront, and more especially because I could have seen Africa Parting but My head had had enough, it was a beautiful evening and I couldn't see making Paul wait for me until 10pm. That's asking too much, even though he would have done it.

    Next time!

  5. Hey Mark, you and your super cool Moon Man armature looked great in the vids of the day!

  6. Yes, I was glad John was there taking videos, I know he has hours more, I hope he posts the rest on StopMoShorts.

    MoonMan armature has had his 10 seconds of fame and so have I.


    I wanted to post about the expo as well.....but you did it so well.

    I have a folder on techniqes and tips....this post will join the folder.


  8. Thank you, Justin! More fuel for the bad ass stop mo dawg, go get em! Grrrrrrrr.

  9. Ace, only wish I could have been there, It aint easy being in England not Hollywood!

    Some Links:

    Go here:

    and here:

    and, and here:

    There are a few Pics there, Is this Frog and Toad?, I saw a VHS of that on E-bay going for over 100 dollars but couldent find it again, someone snapped it up probobly.

    Go Get Em!

  10. Hi Ben! Great find on that Joel Fletcher site! Yes, that is the same Frog and Toad from the film clip I saw. How great to have the three large still shots from it, thank you for finding it! Check out that great spider web!

    As for the video, I believe the three episodes of it are tucked onto a Curious George dvd (see the link in the post) for some odd reason. I'm going to look for a copy that way. So cool.

  11. That is all so interesting and inspiring, I am jealous! I wish I was learning something as exciting. So glad to see a pic of you! (that is you?)
    xoxox Kim

  12. You're right, Kim. It is exciting to learn stop motion filmmaking, I totally agree, but I thought that was just my particular geek tweek. hee. Yep, that's me with Mark, on the right, being shorter, and a girl. oxox.

  13. Anonymous9:04 AM

    Hi there,

    I'm not sure if this post will show up or not, but I just wanted to weigh in about what Shelley touched on when she spoke of vacuous, safe, and homogenized/clean/sanitized animation being produced commercially. I would say that, given no professional experience of my own in the field (I just started freelancing and working on my first paid project at age 29) but based on my observations made over many years, work for hire is created at the mercy of the director; the animator just follows his/her vision with no creative input or control.

    While that is a shame, some of the best independent animators and even some major studio ones (Misha Klein, Tennessee Reid Norton, Anthony Scott, etc) started out working the grind on those TV shows like Gumby and Bump In The Night. While I don't care much for Gumby, the facelift Clokey Productions gave it in the 80's was awesome and a step up from the original series.

    These animators went on to make some amazing films on their own, so I would say that ANY experience as an animator working with deadlines, tight budgets, the need for quick problem-solving is invaluable to the process of learning the craft. I think, as a general rule, it is not the animators who are shallow; it's what the client wants, and they tend to play it safe and innocuous and, in the case of the California Raisins, that actually worked.

    In fact, I can't think of anything produced by Vinton Studios over the years that was complete and utter crap, except for the Barbie commercials. However, the ANIMATION in those was still credible, and required a great deal of talent and sense of timing.

    Let's hope that stopmotion doesn't go the way of CGI,though, with big budgets being thrown at awful storylines and vast money money resources being blown on projects which consist of much adieu about nothing, aimed at brainwashing young children to BECOME nothing. (I'm looking at YOU, Disney Channel!!)

    Pram Maven
    stopmotion animator

  14. I appreciate the thoughtful position you took here, Pram.

    And I was delighted in a way to hear from Mischa on John's vid interview of the expo day, that he was moving up to better professional work after toiling in the crap caves of recent tv.

    But--there is no longer any need to sell your soul to a chicken. As long as there is a web & cheap cameras, anyone literally can make their art, if there's any in there to make.

    It may take 20 years because you're working for a living at something other than animation, but everything one needs to know is now online, thanks to people like Anthony, Eric, and Mike.

    I can see a certain value in learning the techniques on a job but to me time is too precious to spend any of it doing something I don't fully support with body, mind, and soul as much as possible.

    Watch out what you do with your time, I say. That was my lesson from reading about Leni Riefenstahl. Individuals lending their powerful talents to the wrong master can have far reaching detrimental effects on everyone. In bad animation's case, probably just a dumbing down of a culture.

  15. Anonymous3:36 PM

    Hmmm, well, my info was gleaned mostly from the 90's, so my stance is perhaps a little dated, seeing as how we didn't have the developed internet at that point, but what I was mainly getting at, was, it's best to learn by just doing it. When I started out fifteen years ago, all I had was an editing VCR and a camcorder, and shot everything 30 frames per second. I can't animate at that rate anymore, I might be getting old. 24fps is as high as I'll go, and thankfully, that means "less mistakes per second".


    PS: Were you referring to Meesh in your last post? He spells his name "Misha" instead of "Mischa".

    Better you heard that from me than him! ;)

  16. It was a typo, but thanks for the fair warning!


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