Great Kids Afternoon Project: Claymation!

I had a great Sunday afternoon with my kids today. We combined three of my favorite activities together to do something unique, fun, and easy-to-do - we used digital cameras, some play-doh, and some pretty simple software to make claymation animations. Here's my daughter's first claymation:

The kids spent about two hours completely absorbed doing the project, and they absolutely loved the results when they were done. I was surprised at how easy it was to make something that looked reasonably competent, and how quickly the kids caught on to the technique, and started to master new ones, even while still making their first movie.

What You Need:

  1. A compact digital camera, capable of 640x480 (VGA) resolution ( I used a Canon SD850IS, which is overkill, almost any compact will do)
  2. Some play-doh, or other soft clay
  3. A tripod or mini-tripod (I used a Manfrotto 709)
  4. A mat of some kind (I used 4 sheets of white printer paper taped together, and taped to the table)
  5. Some software that does stop-motion animation (I used Quicktime Pro, $29.99 for the Mac or for the PC)

First the kids taped four pieces of paper together to make a mat so that the clay wouldn't stick to the dining room table. We taped those down at their workspaces, so that they could be comfortable, and set up the tripod and camera pointing at the mat.

Next, set up the workspace in a place that isn't directly lit by the sun - it should be evenly lit and relatively low contrast, I'll explain more later. I zoomed the camera a bit so that the mat filled the frame, but you can do whatever you like with focus and zoom, it makes for interesting effects - for example, we kept the camera zoomed out for my son's claymation, and that led to an interesting clay+reality mixture:

Make sure that the camera is locked securely to the tripod, and that the tripod will stay in place as well.

Next, you need to make some changes to the camera settings. First off, you don't need all those megapixels - in fact, you should set the resolution of your camera to its lowest or nearly lowest setting - 640x480 is usually more than enough. Using higher resolutions will actually be a hinderance to you, and won't give you much additional benefit. Of course, if you want to do claymation in HD, you can increase your resolution to something like 1920x1080 if your camera supports that. If you want to improve things a bit, turn the JPG compression to fine or super-fine, which will retain a bit more detail. This is one of those times when you definitely want your camera to be storing in JPGs, the smaller the better!

You'll also want to turn the automatic flash off, as it'll just ruin your exposure. If you can turn off autofocus, that's even better, but my experience is that it doesn't make much of a difference. You'll want to turn off the auto--shutdown feature of your camera as well, as you don't want the camera turning itself off and on between frames.

I put the camera into its manual mode, and also try to compensate the exposure for the whiteness of the mat - generally that means overexposing the built-in meter by about 1 f-stop. If your camera produces a histogram, you can watch the histogram to make sure that it is a smooth bell curve right in the middle of the histogram.

With your camera on the tripod, turned on and set, and your workspace set up, you're ready to do your animation! The trick is that you're going to take a photograph of your scene, then move the clay a small amount, and then take the next photo in sequence. When you stitch all of these photos together at 15 or 30 frames per second, it looks just like one of those flipbooks you probably had when you were a kid. It relies on the phenomenon of persistence of vision, which is how all movies work.

Now go have fun. I found that it took about 10 minutes for my 6 year-old to understand what he needed to do in his workflow, and my 9 year-old understood it immediately once I showed her. You might want to make yourself the cameraman, and let your child do the animation - it makes for great teamwork, and it's fun to do different things with the clay, like roll it into balls, make snakes and caterpillars, and do chase scenes. Moving the clay more means that it will appear faster in the movie. When you've told your story, or you've filled up your memory card, you're ready to do the software magic that brings everything together.

Moving to the computer

Once you've got your masterpiece filmed, it is time to dump the memory card of your camera onto your computer. I prefer to start with a completely empty memory card which means that there's nothing to mess up your movie, but you can usually tell which frame is your first by looking at the dates of the images.

I then fired up Quicktime Pro (unfortunately you can't use the unlicensed Quicktime player for this, you need to be able to create new movies, which means you need to shell out the $29 for Quicktime Pro) and went to File -> Open Image Sequence so that I could stitch all the frames into a single movie. You'll be then asked for the number of frames per second - generally, 15 frames per second works prety well, but if you're really getting expert, you can go for a video look (30 fps) or a cinematic look (24 fps). The higher the frame rate, the more quickly your movie will play.

There is other stop-action software out on the market, but I've found that Quicktime Pro is the easiest and fastest way to go from the camera into a viewable state. don't forget to save your completed movie when it comes up, and you can import the movie into other non-linear editing software, like iMovie, Adobe Premiere, or Final Cut if you want to do further edits, cuts, or ad audio, subtitles, or credits.

The best part is that if you're not a video or computer expert, you can still have a lot of fun with a very low-end camera and computer, and the quality of your end-product is entirely limited by your (or your kid's) imagination!