After completing pre-production work for 2 stop motion animation ideas in my last post, I continued on to production and post-production for one of them. With guidance on sound choices and establishing consistent rules for a story’s world from Liz Blazer’s Animated Storytelling: Simple Steps for Creating Animation & Motion Graphics, I brought to life my linear story idea titled “A Bigger Purrr-pose.”
Reading & Writing
When we think about animated storytelling we usually think about visuals, but sound is equally important. It’s easy to overlook sound because when done well it can feel so natural and intuitive that we don’t even notice it’s there.
The sound we hear and the visuals we see onscreen are inherently linked. In Animated Storytelling: Simple Steps for Creating Animation & Motion Graphics, Liz Blazer points out that sound is the result of objects vibrating and thus it makes sense that sound is tied to action, both in the story and the visuals of a piece.
Ignoring the importance of sound in storytelling can hurt the overall effectiveness of any animation you create. Missing, lacking, or badly timed sound can make something feel off to viewers or unintentionally communicate incorrect information about the theme, tone, or characters of a story. To ensure sound design is working for, rather than against your story, start thinking early about it and make sure your auditory storytelling is in step with your visual storytelling.
So, where do you start with choosing sound for your animated story? First, it’s important to know that there are 2 general types of sound you can use:
- Diegetic: sound that is literally coming from what’s onscreen or established by the story to be offscreen (spoken dialogue, natural sounds that objects or the environment makes, music played in the story that the characters can hear)
- Non-diegetic: expressive sound with no visual or story-based source (unnatural sound effects for objects or the environment, dialogue in someone’s head, other narration, a musical score)
Then you need to decide on what combination of the 3 elements of sound in animation and motion graphics work best for your story. The 3 elements are:
- Sound Effects
These can be the literal sounds that things make, or Blazer suggests you can get poetic, metaphoric, or symbolic in your interpretation of sound effects, and even consider using snippets of music. Sound bites from your piece’s score as sound effects, for example, can offer a sense of unity in your soundscape.
Whatever you choose, just be restrained in your use of this element. Too many sound effects can overwhelm and kill the enjoyment of an animated story for the viewer. Also, consider creating your own sounds to get exactly what you want rather than just finding pre-existing ones that are close.
Music can be an important vehicle for emotion and your story’s theme. For this reason, you should start by finding or creating the one piece of music that communicates your overall soundtrack’s theme the way you want, referred to as a temporary track. It’s from this music that you’ll decide on all the music for individual scenes and that represent characters. Just don’t get attached to music you can’t get the rights to use. Something can be great inspiration, though, even if you won’t be able to put it in your final piece so don’t limit yourself.
You should also question if you need traditional music at all. Consider using silent, or atmospheric music. It can set the mood and emotionally work on viewers in subtle ways they don’t notice. Plus, more natural and quiet music gives viewers a little more freedom in experiencing your story for themselves rather than being driven in one direction all the time as traditional music does.
There’s also the option of scoring against your action by using music that is emotionally juxtaposed to the action of a scene. However, since it makes viewers assume something off-center is about to happen make sure that’s true, so you don’t disappoint.
Use dialogue only when you can’t express something visually in your animation. When using dialogue, whether it be internal or spoken, strive to have it not only communicate information but also do so in a way that matches and reinforces the established personality of the character saying it. Character dialogue should also be naturalistic to how people speak, so paying attention to real-life helps a lot.
You should also play with subtext in dialogue to make it more interesting. And consider the mood of a scene and how dialogue can help establish it. Should it be faster, slower, quiet, hesitant, clipped? Word choices and delivery can both support the intended mood of a moment.
For motion graphic design with a strict time limit, planning this sound element in advance of animation is important for success. Focus on clarity and brevity in writing dialogue for these projects as well as think about corresponding visuals. Try performing it to test that its timing and rhythm work for the requirements of the project before moving to create visuals that support your dialogue. Also, be sure that any music used for your project complements your dialogue.
Animation allows you to play around and be creative with sound, but it’s important that you focus foremost on making good choices to support your story because an audience will accept whatever you choose as long as it makes sense.
Deciding on Your’s World’s Rules
This is also true for establishing the overall rules of the world you‘re creating for your story. The most important thing to remember is that once you make a choice, stick with it. Blazer says that you need to create a world that’s interesting, consistent, and believable. To do so you should decide on your world’s:
- Time and Place
Choose a time and place that will provide for interesting opportunities for your story. These are the most important decisions you’ll make because all of the other rules of your world will be based on these, so pick wisely and carefully.
- Physical Laws
Consider the natural laws of real-life then decide whether you want to use them or invent new ones. Don’t, though, change laws just because you can. Do so only if it supports and enhances your story. Also, be careful of creating an overly complicated world that competes for attention with your characters.
- Social Laws
You can sometimes help your story by breaking the social rules of the real world. But you don’t need to just invent new laws out of thin air. Look at nature and how other cultures or societies work today and throughout history for inspiration.
- Visual Laws
You can create new and innovative rules for many visual elements, including space, line, shape, color, contrast, and texture, to enhance your story and attract viewers’ attention. Be sure to create a list of established visual rules so you can maintain your intentions throughout building your visuals.
Establishing these rules is especially important if you want to grab attention with a motion graphic that uses branded products, identities, or logos. Understanding the values of a brand can help you make the right decisions for these projects.
Research to Inform
1. “WALL-E” is an amazing example of audio supporting storytelling in an inventive way and story being extremely dependent on audio. There’s very little traditional dialogue in this movie, yet when I watch it I feel like I’m listening to conversations because of the ingenious use of sound effects as vocalizations of the robot characters.
This combines with atmospheric sounds and an underlying bed of music that sets the emotional tone of scenes to create a soundscape that makes this story and its characters so dynamic and enjoyable to watch. It’s not surprising how successful this sound is, though, considering it was created by the same sound designer responsible for “Star Wars.”
2. “The Birds” stands out for me because there’s no non-diegetic music in the whole movie, which feels strange for a horror-thriller. The scene above features one of the only uses of music in the movie. The juxtaposition of the children singing rounds of a happy song in the distance as the camera cuts between Melanie on the bench and birds massing on the playground behind her with the subtle sound effects of fluttering wings is an unsettling moment of anxiety for the viewer.
Then when she finally realizes what’s happening and walks toward the building the sound effect of her shoes clicking on the pavement makes them feel like they’re shouting against the silence of the atmosphere. It’s enough to make me want to scream at her to walk quieter so she doesn’t disturb the birds. It’s a great example of how powerful restraint with sound can be.
Effective Text Animation
1. The first thing that came to my mind when I thought about effective text animation was the opening title sequence for “Stranger Things.” Not only is the typography choice for this opening evocative of the time period of the show and the depiction of this genre during that time period, but the animated text is literally the only thing featured.
By zooming in on the movement of this text as it comes together you get a sense of being almost inside it, which feels a little like being in a secret, supernatural world like the characters encounter in the show. The mysteriousness of what you’re watching before it’s revealed to be letters is very reflective of the story’s theme. It’s just a simple slow movement of letters coming together to form the words of the title, but it says so much about the show. Combined with the music, it’s not surprising that this title sequence became iconic almost overnight.
2. The opening title sequence for “Breaking Bad” is also really evocative of the show’s world and theme. The use of letters from the periodic table is a clever nod to Walter White’s profession as a chemistry teacher which makes the entire action of the series possible.
Having the clean-cut periodic table letters pull away from the chart as the shot moves through all the layers feels symbolic of Walter’s transition away from normal life. Then the fading in of the more ragged letters feels like a representation of the criminal world bleeding into him. The result of the construction of this title is that it’s of 2 conflicting styles, just as the show’s main character ends up of 2 conflicting worlds. It’s a great intro for a show focused on the theme of how mundane things can become dark and deadly in the right circumstances.
3. This is one of my favorite brand videos from when I worked in theatre and I just love how the story and values of this brand are told simply using animated text. Of note is that many of the movements of the text are based physically or thematically around the logo, which is appropriate considering this is a re-branding launch video.
The use of the visual concept of the logo being the same when turned upside down is used as an inspiration for many text movements. I particularly like that when it turns upside down “Take everything you know” the result is “Turn it on its head.” It’s on the nose, but still effective.
I also love that the deconstructed N of the logo has T’s for the top and bottom allowing for words to seamlessly grow in and out of it. A great example of branding somewhat inspiring motion design and of the use of motion for branding just making sense. All of the movements of the text combined with the music help to establish this driving, revitalized feeling of this brand. I’d love to be able to create something like this someday.
After completing pre-production work on 2 stop motion story ideas in my last post, I decided to continue on into production with my linear story titled “A Bigger Purrr-pose.” I stuck pretty close to my pre-production plan, except for the ending of my story. Instead of just having the cat come to the person and lay beside them to help comfort them, I expanded that moment.
Now after the cat comes to the person and the person reaches out to pet them, the person decides to stop working, moves their computer, and has the cat curl up on their lap. I then added a third clock scene to show the passing of time to the next day where the person once again comes to sit and work on the couch, only this time the cat has saved space for them.
When they sit, the cat opens one eye to check on them, and instead of walking away, annoyed at the disturbance, it stays and sleeps next to the person, showing how it’s adapted to the change. I’m actually really pleased with these new beats and how they’ve added more depth to the characters’ relationship and the emotion of the story arc. I think the ending feels more satisfying then it did before.
The most time-consuming part of the process was building all the elements I needed for filming. It probably took me over 12 hours to measure, cut, glue, and stitch all the felt pieces the way I’d envisioned and at the scale I needed. I’m extremely happy, and honestly surprised, with how closely the finished product looks to what I initially drew in my storyboards.
I actually did some research on building stop motion puppets before embarking on my build. Specifically, I watched a behind-the-scenes feature on “Kubo and the Two Strings” which helped me decide to make individual heads for each expression I wanted my cat character to make instead of arranging the tiny elements of his eyes and eyebrows with tweezers for each shot. For “Kubo” they made thousands of different faces. I ended up with 6 interchangeable cat faces. This not only made filming easier, but it gave consistency in the placement of facial features throughout the piece that I don’t think I could have achieved otherwise.
Even with helpful preparation, shooting this story took about 8 hours. I chose to do this piece at 12 frames per second, but to tell this story with all the beats I’d outlined still required hundreds of individual images to be taken. This was probably my least favorite part of the process. I definitely enjoyed the pre- and post-production stages a lot more than the production stage.
I’m usually a pretty patient person about projects like this, but the tedium of sitting over a table arranging felt, taking a photo, arranging it again, taking a photo got to me after a couple hours. Having to do this while also being sure to keep track of exactly where I was in the action of the story and create realistic movements – I’m still not pleased with how the person’s legs walk in and out in the beginning – was exhausting.
Post-production was the most exciting part of the process for me because it’s where I felt like the story really started to come to life. Part of this was getting the timing just right for each of the movements and moments, but adding sound was the real game-changer.
I decided I wanted to focus on sound effects, both diegetic and non-diegetic. I wanted them to provide both a relatability about the naturalism of the setting of the story, but also convey the emotion from moment to moment. My choices ended up being about 80% real-world sounds and 20% cartoon-inspired sounds. For example, the cat’s vocalizations are actual recordings of a cat, the person walking in to sit is someone actually walking in slippers, and I have keyboard typing sounds to imply the person is working on the laptop.
The cartoon inspired sounds include a slide whistle for the sped-up clock indicating the passage of time and the pop sounds when the cat’s head pops out from behind the person and when it’s one eye opens to check on the person at the end. Even though there’s obviously some distress and sadness in the story I wanted to keep it on the warmer, lighter side and allow for some humor. Along with color choices, these sounds helped to achieve that.
Some sounds, though, blurred the lines of reality and cartoon. The cat walking, for example, feels a little heightened like a cartoon, but the sound is actually of someone walking in snow. I heard it and it just seemed to work for the character. Getting to play and experiment with sounds and find surprising solutions like this was really what made sound design for this piece so enjoyable.
Overall, even though I’m proud of creating this piece, I don’t think I’m going to be a stop motion animator anytime soon. This is HARD work, especially if you have any perfectionist tendencies like me. This animation style requires absolute precision but alludes perfection and that can be difficult to reconcile.
There were definitely a few points in post-production where I had to force myself to accept that I’d bumped the camera ever so slightly without realizing or my felt elements didn’t always stay exactly where I wanted from shot to shot. To have done everything I wanted and fixed every noticeable technical problem with my piece would have taken far more felt, far more sophisticated equipment than the iPhone and tripod I shot with, and far more time than the week I had.
Focusing on whether all the elements of my piece were coming together to support and tell my intended story was how I was able to let go of my nitpicking. And, really, that’s the point of this whole project. Stop motion is magical and cool to make, but it’s the story that should be at the center of any production. Viewers can look past a certain amount of technical imperfection, but they can’t look past bad storytelling.