The magic behind stop motion animation

A Canon EOS-1D X camera mounted on a motion control rig and positioned next to a puppet on the set of Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs.
Wes Anderson's award-winning stop motion feature film Isle of Dogs was made using 80 Canon EOS-1D X bodies. In this set the camera is mounted on a motion control rig and will shoot backwards along the bar, gradually moving further away from the character. © Tristan Oliver / Isle of Dogs

The animation by stop motion pioneer Ray Harryhausen in Jason and the Argonauts (1963) is compelling viewing even today. The skeleton fight scene and the animated giant bronze statue of Talos were groundbreaking in their day and are still realistic enough to keep the average child awake at night.

Ray Harryhausen was an influential force in the development of stop motion animation techniques, using it to bring much-loved classic films to life, from Mysterious Island (1961) to Clash of the Titans (1981). Many movie makers used his 'Dynamation' technique to make it appear as if actors were interacting with the animated models on screen.

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Ray Harryhausen's birth, as well as the release of the Canon EOS R Stop Motion Animation firmware – designed specifically to enhance the shooting experience for stop motion filmmakers – we caught up with three award-winning stop motion cinematographers. Here, they explain how they are continuing to push the boundaries in modern movie making and why Canon EOS cameras are helping them to create box office successes.

Cinematographer and DoP Tristan Oliver on the set of Isle of Dogs.
Award-winning cinematographer Tristan Oliver while making of Isle of Dogs. Tristan's career in stop motion started in 2005 at Aardman Animations and he first worked with Wes Anderson on 2009's Fantastic Mr Fox. © Fox Searchlight Pictures
A set on Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs.
"No set can really be called typical but this is a fair representation of a smaller set," explains Tristan. "The calibrated monitor is usually a matte screen EIZO and is set up to give the best possible approximation of what will be seen in edit, VFX and projection. The second monitor is there to give extra breathing room when there are multiple windows open." © Tristan Oliver / Isle of Dogs
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Understanding the creative vision

Tristan Oliver, DoP for Wes Anderson's award-winning Isle of Dogs (2018) – shot on the Canon EOS-1D X (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) – begins his projects by gaining a deep understanding of the director's vision. "If you're working on a Wes Anderson movie, then you've got a very tight remit," he says. "He has a very tight style: his framing is extremely symmetrical and his lighting is flat and even. He also demands enormously deep focus. But sometimes you'll work with a director who is content to let you do your thing, and you can go in with a vision and say, 'How about this?'"

He recommends getting to know the director and studying their previous work in order to understand their style. He also likes to sit down with a director and look at stills and film clips that they've both selected for inspiration. Eventually, they'll come to an agreement about how the film should look.

Tristan says it's a good idea to create a short film to show your ideas to the director, but stresses the importance of not trying to get it 100% right first time – if you get it wrong, you'll have wasted time and money. He says it's about having a starting point and giving the director something to have an opinion on.

Cinematographer Dave Alex Riddett (right) stands on the set of stop motion animation early man.
Cinematographer Dave Alex Riddett (right) and animator Will Belcher on a set for stop motion animation Early Man. © Studiocanal S.A. and The British Film Institute
Cinematographer Dave Alex Riddett sits on the steps of a model building.
Dave was also DoP on Aardman Animations' Oscar-nominated Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015). © 2014 Aardman Animations Limited and Studiocanal S.A.

Getting it right in-camera

Dave Alex Riddett, DoP on Early Man (2018) – also shot on the Canon EOS-1D X – made his first films when he was still at school, animating his Action Man figures and using an old 8mm camera. It was the beginning of an enduring love affair with stop motion. In the mid 1980s he joined Aardman Animations, working on classics such as A Grand Day Out (1989), The Wrong Trousers (1993) and Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005).

Dave likes to get as much right in-camera as possible. "I'm pretty old-school on that," he says. "The tendency these days, even in stop frame animation, is to use a lot of CGI or computer-built set extensions, but I like to get as much done in-camera so that what you're looking at and what you're lighting is what you get. I find it a lot easier to work that way."

Naturally, that requires a lot of testing and planning. Dave will often do a pre-light on a set before the set dressers come in to give everything a lived-in look. "After that, I will probably do a final light, by which point I will have worked out if there are going to be any camera moves."

Set accessibility is a big issue – as well as finding the right position for the cameras and the lights, the animators need to be able to access the characters, making DSLR and mirrorless cameras in the Canon EOS system range particularly good tools for the job.

Getting the necessary depth of field when you're working with small characters and close focusing is also challenging. It means working with small apertures such as f/16, and using exposures of several seconds in length – which at 24fps extends the shoot duration. Even when shooting with low apertures, it's sometimes necessary to shoot the same scene twice: once to get the characters and foreground in focus and again to get the background sharp.

A screenshot of the Dragonframe stop motion animation software showing the head of a puppet.
The Stop Motion Animation firmware for the Canon EOS R increases the Live View resolution when connected to compatible software, such as Dragonframe, making it easier for animators to hone in on detail in every frame.
Puppets of dogs and an astronaut positioned in front of a Canon EOS-1D X camera, with a green screen behind them.

Behind the scenes of Wes Anderson's film Isle of Dogs

Director of Photography Tristan Oliver reveals how this stop motion feature film was made, and why it took 80 powerful Canon DSLRs to shoot it.

Computer control

Because many of the characters in stop motion film are supported by an external frame or rig, some scenes also have to be shot with and without the characters and rigs in place. This means all of the camera movements and lighting have to be reproducible. Controlling the crane supporting the camera with a computer means the frame in each take can be captured from exactly the same position – and also enables the animators to go back and correct any errors.

The cameras are also controlled by computer software, and the industry standard is Dragonframe, created by animator Jamie Caliri and his brother Dyami. An award-winning filmmaker and animation director, Jamie's credits include The Little Prince (2015), shot on the Canon EOS 6D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 6D Mark II), and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004). Teaming up with his brother, a software engineer, meant Jamie was uniquely positioned to develop the software that software that stop motion filmmakers needed.

Dragonframe – which is highly compatible with Canon EOS cameras – uses the Live View feed from the camera and places it among the frames that have already been captured, so the preview appears like a frame in a shoot. While live action film scenes are recorded in succession, stop motions scenes can be recorded simultaneously with multiple versions of the same characters. The DoP can be running between multiple sets, or units, and a feature-length film can use 50 or more cameras. It's vital that each camera performs consistently and produces results that are comparable with all the others.

A screenshot of the Dragonframe stop motion animation software demonstrating focus peaking.
Focus peaking (shown here in red) highlights the highest contrast areas of a scene, which are usually also the sharpest areas, and gives the animator confidence that the focus is at the correct point.
A screenshot of the Dragonframe stop motion animation software demonstrating how the firmware upgrade produces a Live View image that's twice the size of the image from a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.
With the Stop Motion Animation firmware, the Canon EOS R produces a Live View image that's twice the size of the image from the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.

Jamie particularly recommends the mirrorless Canon EOS R for shooting stop motion movies. "When we first saw the Canon EOS R we thought, 'Wow, this might be the next great stop motion camera'. It doesn't have the mechanics moving around the mirror, it's got a big full-frame sensor, it's 30MP, it's got low light sensitivity… it seems like the perfect camera for stop motion."

Dragonframe spoke to Canon about tweaks it could make to the software to aid stop motion animators, which led to the Stop Motion Animation firmware. It increases the camera's Live View feed resolution from the standard 960x640 pixels to 1920x1280 pixels – offering animators vital extra detail. Focus peaking over USB has also been added, which means it's visible from within Dragonframe, and can reassure animators that they've nailed the focus.

"We don't usually go out on a limb and say specifically 'That's the perfect camera for stop motion', because everyone has their preferences," says Jamie. "[But] at Dragonframe we're really enthusiastic about this camera, we think it could be the future for stop motion shooting at a professional level."

The enhanced Live View helps produce smooth movement and enables the accurate positioning of small details, particularly when expressions need changing between frames and registration needs to be spot-on.

"Sometimes the characters' eyes can be really small, and it can look like they're focused on something, but in high definition you can see all the detail," says Jamie. "Animators get very nervous about tiny errors that could show up, so this is about really fine details and the accuracy of little movements."

Written by Angela Nicholson

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