Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Stop-Motion Animation Primer Part II: Software

(Note: For clarifications on the camera types mentioned in this article, see Part I: Cameras.)

Stop-motion animation software runs the usual gamut of computer programs, from freeware to professional applications. Due to a limited consumer base, however, even professional stop-motion software is relatively affordable. For this reason, I only briefly mention free software and instead focus on retail software offered to amateurs and professionals. Note that this is not a comprehensive list of available applications. Rather, this list primarily represents those applications which caught my attention while researching the subject for myself.

Also, few stop-motion applications provide the video-editing features required to assemble a full movie. Therefore, you may need to purchase extra software to complete your animations. I mention such considerations in my Case Study at the end of this article, as well as a few video-editing applications which I tested.


Free Stop-Motion Software & Apps


Although I never seriously pursued any free stop-motion software, that didn't stop me from searching. Programs like MonkeyJam, Stop Motion AnimatorStopIt, and AnimatorDV Simple+ will let you try your hand at stop-motion but only work with video devices, such as webcams or camcorders (or scanners in MonkeyJam's case). Free apps for cellphone cameras like GorillaCam and iMotion HD will let you make animations using a cellphone or tablet.

All of the major retail stop-motion programs have trial versions you can download however, meaning you can test them for free as well.


Amateur Stop-Motion Software


There are a number of inexpensive software applications aimed at stop-motion enthusiasts which may fit your needs if you don't require the advanced features of professional software. A few of them even offer features not found in some professional packages, such as sound effects and sound recording.  Note that two of the professional programs also retail in stripped-down versions for amateur movie-makers.

Claymation Studio (~$70) is software aimed at children and only works with video devices, such as webcams and camcorders. The program features everything needed to construct simple animated movies however, including sound recording and chroma key. A trial may be downloaded here.

iKITMovie (~$70) is aimed at enthusiasts in general and, like Claymation Studio, works primarily with video devices, though stills may be imported also. One of the main selling points of iKITMovie is the inclusion of over 2000 sound effects. Voice recording, simple visual effects, and time-lapse photography also number among its features.

iStopMotion (~$50) is software for Mac users and works with most video devices. The website claims that many digital still cameras may also be used with iStopMotion, but the description sounds a lot like directory scanning, meaning you won't see a live feed coming from your camera. iStopMotion also has the interesting feature of turning your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch into a remote capture device.

VideoStudio Pro (~$80) is actually video-editing software but includes the ability to create stop-motion animations. It supports a number of cameras and input devices, including DSLRs with live view capability. Time-lapse photography, screen capture and visual effects number among its features. You can download a trial from the Corel website.


Professional Stop-Motion Software


Professional stop-motion software is used by major studios to create films like ParaNorman and Frankenweenie. Although they contain certain features too advanced for most hobbyists, these programs retail for a relatively affordable price when compared to many other professional applications. All three listed here support a wide range of cameras (particularly Canon and Nikon DSLRs), 3D film-making, capturing multiple exposures at once, x-sheet and lip-syncing aids, and overlay tools for planning your animations.

Stop Motion Pro ($70-$295) is used by Aardman, producers of the award-winning Wallace and Gromit films. Four different versions are available, each aimed at a different audience, from novice to professional. The novice versions share features with Claymation Studio and can be bought bundled with a webcam. A lip-syncing application, Lip Sync Pro ($49), is also available.

AnimatorHD ($70-$572) also sells in four different versions, and offers a free older version of the program (AnimatorDV Simple+). The website boasts many advanced features as well as free updates, but doesn't mention major studios that use the software.

Dragonframe ($295) has a strong focus on animation and is used by studios such as Laika, makers of Coraline, and Disney (Frankenweenie). It has advanced lighting and motion control features as well as vector-based drawing tools for planning your animations. Dragonframe sometimes goes on sale on Amazon and comes bundled with a special keypad for convenient control while animating.


Case Study: My Personal Experience


During my search for stop-motion software I tried the following programs: AnimatorDV Simple+Stop Motion ProVideoStudio ProiKITMovie, and Dragonframe. My initial plan was to test my enthusiasm using free software (AnimatorDV Simple+) and then upgrade if I wanted more. Not long after trying Dragonframe however, I changed my mind. In fact, Dragonframe was the only application I instantly felt comfortable using.  Most of the other programs immediately present you with confusing prompts the first time you use them (to set preview resolution, framerate, etc.). Dragonframe lets you jump right in and presents you with a very intuitive, uncluttered interface.

Initially, I wrestled with the desire to have more features, as Dragonframe won't even let you import images (which caused problems that I discuss later). Nor does it include sound effects like iKITMovie, or have video-editing features like VideoStudio Pro (which unfortunately didn't support my first camera setup). I knew that I had Photoshop to back me up with my video-editing requirements however, and I wasn't ready to take the plunge into sound effects anyway. My main concerns were trying my hand at animation and enjoying myself in the process.

Eventually I decided to use the Dragonframe demo to create my first animation. After reading through the manual hands-on, I encountered my first problem.  Since Dragonframe can't import images, I didn't know how I was going to edit my high-resolution stills. My first setup required using a video-assist from the video-out port of my camera, meaning that none of the final shots would be imported into Dragonframe while I worked. Instead, only the low-resolution video-assist images would be captured (see my explanation on how to use a video-assist camera in Part I: Cameras). Also, my camera uses a first-generation Sony Memory Stick, so I couldn't use an Eye-Fi SD card to transfer my shots for directory scanning. I thought maybe I could edit the high-res stills using a different program but then I would have to redo all of the edits I had done in Dragonframe. Fortunately, after much head-scratching, I figured out a solution to my problem: I used a batch rename utility (the one found in Adobe Bridge) to rename all of my high-resolution stills so that they matched the names of the video-assist stills captured by Dragonframe. Then I simply moved the high-res stills into the folder with the video-assist stills, overwriting the video-assist stills in the process.

The process of creating my first animation was still quite arduous. The Dragonframe demo limits each take to 50 frames, so I had to stitch together around a dozen different takes in Photoshop to complete my animation (which you can see here). Still, I was sold on Dragonframe and eventually purchased it on Amazon while it was $25 off (I had seen it before for $50 off but wasn't sold on the program yet).

While Photoshop met most of my final editing needs, I also tried out After Effects and Sony Movie Studio. My main intent was to find a video-editing application that would allow me to add motion blur to my animations (I had seen motion blur added to other people's animations and was very impressed with the effect). After Effects and Sony Movie Studio are both capable of using a plugin called ReelSmart Motion Blur, considered by many to be the best motion blur plugin available. Several other programs can use the plugin too but either didn't interest me or don't operate on my platform (PC). I was very impressed with the plugin's result in After Effects but shied away from the price. Sony Movie Studio is much cheaper than After Effects but also felt less stable. Eventually I decided to use an effect called Timewarp inside of After Effects to add motion blur to my animation (you can watch a tutorial here). While it renders much slower than ReelSmart, Timewarp produced satisfactory results and allowed me to complete my animation with trial software (the ReelSmart demo adds a watermark).


Closing Thoughts


All of the retail software applications in this article have demos which can be downloaded for free, so don't hesitate to try them. And be sure to test your camera equipment with them before making a purchase. I barely scratched the surface as far as video-editing software is concerned. My animation needs were fairly specific and didn't include sound or fancy effects (other than motion blur). Your needs may vary greatly from mine.

5 comments:

  1. Great Review! Thankyou for your time in putting this all together. It's been really helpful! Best Future in Your Creative Pursuits!

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  2. hi, hi. i'm looking for animation software that will do automatic captures of my screen while i draw on my wacom tablet - pretty much whatever they're using in the "blank to blank" pbs series. can you please recommend any software that will do the trick? thank you!!!! dani

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    1. Hi, you would need screen capture software. There are a bunch out there and I don't use any regularly so I can't say which is best. I have used CaptureWiz in the past though and found it very easy to use. VideoStudio Pro, which I mention in this article, is also able to do screen captures. Just do a search for screen capture software and you should turn up plenty of options.

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    2. thank you so much for the direction, geoff. much appreciated. xoxox d

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