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SYNC OR SWIM STOP-MOTION ANIMATION.

Art is full of techniques and processes that we either take for granted or only have a surface-level understanding of. We forget that there is a science to it - that, at some point, someone figured out how to capture an imprint of life, harness waveforms and reproduce them, paint with pixels. It's super-complex stuff, and its ubiquity tends to result in a severe watering-down of its marvellousness. But we understand that marvellousness at some level - it's what makes us hold art at arm's length, label it as too hard or time-consuming or difficult or 'not my sort of thing'. The thing is, we've all been shown how interconnected art is to everything, and how perfect it is as a way to explore even quite complex concepts. Well...those of us who have watched children's television have been shown it. If you grew up with no TV, then you're on your own.

I was (and am) a big Sesame Street fan. It is the perfect show, and the best possible approach to education: an acknowledgement that learning should be, at its core, a mixed-media experience. When you think back to Sesame Street, you think of the Muppets bopping around doing things, but there were concepts delivered there that are so ingrained in your brain that they will live there forever. I still can't count to twelve without my brain emulating the Pointer Sisters' intonation (and my mind being enveloped in a flurry of pinball visuals). Sometimes they used music, association, metaphor, parody, monsters, humans, anthropomorphism and every possible form of filmmaking - literally everything. For a program like Sesame Street, the message was king and shaped everything around it. This is a stylistic understanding that you see replicated in some of the better explanatory producers (Vox, TED-Ed). It's a way of approaching content that is often sidelined in education for the usual reasons: space, time and an evaluation of our own skills or what we are comfortable with. But there is another reason: that classic human trait of pigeonholing.

The word 'animation' is super broad, but, as human beings, we naturally categorise; so, when you think about animation, you probably think of a specific form or style of it - probably even a specific animated work. For you, the word may conjure up images of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (William Cottrell et al., 1937), Wallace & Gromit or maybe the music video for A-ha's 'Take on Me'. And the further you think on it, the more you will categorise - that's just the human brain being the human brain and making things more difficult for itself. But, in truth, animation is really simple: the more simply you think about it, the more options you have; and the more options you have, the better chance you have of being able to explain that concept. You know the one. The one that your students just don't seem to be able to get. That one that never properly cements in their head.

WHAT IS IT?

Animation is just a sequential series of images. That is it. It's not necessarily a drawing, something you need to make out of clay or something you need to use a computer for. You can use those things, but they are not the essential part of the process. You can (and probably did) make an animation as a student just by drawing in the margins of your maths books. You have probably cycled between two or three photographs of someone on your computer to make them appear to be dancing. That's animation in a nutshell.

WHY USE IT?

When you widen the margins of what animation is, it becomes a lot more useful to a broader range of contexts. Animation is, by its very nature, a manipulation of time, so it is perfect for use in anything that requires time to be expanded or contracted. Time lapse is just a sequential series of images that appear over a long period of time. Those images could be separated by minutes, hours or days, but the idea is that the sequential nature of them (as well as the differences between them) shows change. So why would that be limited to only certain kinds of images?

An exploration of data often takes on the same features as time lapse - you're looking for a way to compress time in order to give you a chance to look at your data comparatively. All the data in the world is useless if you have no way to contextualise it (let alone use it). Blogger David Taylor (aka 'Prooffreader' (1)) has explored animation as a way to provide a snapshot comparison of data and effectively convey the passage of time. In his post on the distribution of last letters in the naming of baby boys, Taylor takes 133 years of data, gives each year about five frames and compresses that data into a reasonable, readable, decipherable and useful representation. (2) It's a snapshot of data you can see - data you can read. One of the hardest concepts to communicate in any data is the concept of time, and I think that's because time is experiential, time is a feeling and time is elastic. Using stop-motion animation to compress chronology like this enables time to be another aspect of the representation - because it is, both literally and figuratively.

Technological developments like 360-degree cameras and phones with in-built panorama functions have made it easier to compress space and show people more than one perspective. Stop motion is able to communicate the same concepts without the restrictions. In his 'Museum GIFs' Tumblr account, Matthias Brown captured artworks from a variety of angles and viewpoints, using stop-motion animation to stack these different sides together. (3) The images could be far away or close-up; it could be looking at it from every side; it could be from low to high - it was as close as you could get to actually being there and viewing it in person (without building a full virtual-reality replica). He helped you walk around the artworks, get up close, squint, tilt your head - everything you do to explore something in a physical space.

Stop motion is also capable of communicating emotion and feeling. Gemma Green-Hope's 2014 documentary short Gan-Gan uses stop-motion techniques to communicate her grandmother's wealth of possessions and how we feel about those kinds of artefacts. (4) This kind of staggering of images feels like a memory, like how we remember: a little jolty and meandering, with pops of information pushing us from concept to concept. We don't remember people as one experience, one quote, one snapshot, but rather as the culmination of a series of complex synapses firing to show every piece of information about them at once. Green-Hope captures grief and love and loss and that emotional connection to the inanimate objects we associate with those we love. Stop motion is both the medium for that message and what gives it power.

It's a strikingly versatile form that is only limited by your decisions on how to employ it. You can use graphs, PowerPoint slides, whiteboards, chalk, scraps of paper, scans, felt, objects. You don't have to be Jan Svankmajer creating surreal claymation nightmares; keep it simple and use a couple of Microsoft Excel graphs or photographs from an excursion, or go Gregor Belibi Minya's route and use screenshots of your computer monitor to take a trip down a rabbit hole. (5)

HOW DOES IT WORK?

These days, creating a stop-motion animation is very easy. There are only a few factors you need to worry about, and they all boil down to ensuring consistency.

The first is framing. Ensure that your subject is in the same position (or as close as possible to it) in each frame so that, as your stop-motion piece progresses, your audience isn't jerked around too much. For me, it's a matter of setting myself some specifics of movement between photographs: in this instance, I took two regular-sized steps - very exact and mathematical - as well as using the iPhone Camera's Grid function for framing my photos (yes, I just use my phone; the best camera is the one you have with you).

The next is consistency of frame rate. All video-editing software gives you control over the 'length' of any asset (whether that be a piece of footage, a title, a photograph or whatever), so it's just a matter of ensuring that you can set that to something consistent. We'll look at two different programs you could use to complete this process: a very basic editing program, and a more complex one.

We'll be looking at replicating Brown's technique referenced earlier, in which he utilises stop motion to compress space.

TUTORIAL 1

The basic editing program we'll be using for the first method is Adobe's smartphone editing program Premiere Clip. We did a full breakdown of this in Screen Education 86, (6) so we'll skip over some of the minutiae.

Once you've signed into Premiere Clip (Figure 1), you press the '+' symbol to begin a new project. You can add footage from a range of locations using this app (Figure 2) - you can even take photos as you go to piece your project together.

One thing to note about file formats - at the time of writing, Premiere Clip was not able to support the HEIF files used by Apple operating systems. There are two ways around this: the first is to set your camera format to MOST COMPATIBLE; the second is to save everything out as JPEG and then import it back in. I did this by uploading all of the images to Dropbox and then saving them back to my phone. I then shifted them all into their own folder (Figure 3) so that I didn't have to sift through my other photos. While this was a bit of an annoying process, it also gave me the chance to review my photographs.

As you select the photographs to be imported, you should ensure that you select them sequentially in the order that you want them added to your timeline. If you accidentally skip over one, the easiest option is to deselect those that were supposed to come after it and start again from the image you missed - it'll save you the hassle of reordering them later. Once you have them all selected in the right sequence, hit ADD (Figure 4).

Clip is capable of automatically generating a video for you by editing to the beat of some of their included royalty-free music tracks. This would be pretty cool in some contexts - especially given that you can alter the 'pace' of the animation to ensure that the program cuts to the fastest rhythm - but, in this example, we're going manual, so we'll select FREEFORM (Figure 5). This will open the editing interface. It's pretty simple: drag and drop, and the default duration on all of your photographs will be three seconds. The other default that will be set to 'on' is PHOTO MOTION, so we need to go into the settings to turn that off - that's the little cog (Figure 6).

When PHOTO MOTION is on, Premiere Clip will apply a subtle zooming effect to your photos in order to give them a nice feeling of movement. This is great when you have photos that are being held for longer durations (especially if they are cut to music), but for what we are doing, it will look terrible. You can adjust the overall look in the settings, too, to apply a filter to your whole project at once (Figure 7).

With PHOTO MOTION off, the next steps are simple. You just need to adjust each still's duration so that it is both short and consistent. Each one needs to be the same length. The simplest way to do this is to make them as short as possible: grab the purple bookends and drag them as far left as possible (Figure 8). Your still's duration will now be shown as less than one second. You can then complete this through the whole project for each still.

The best part about a stop-motion project is that, if you ever feel your project is moving too fast, then you can just slow everything down (Figure 9) without worrying about frame-rate blur. Each frame is just a still anyway, so they don't have the same hang-ups associated with slowing down moving images.

Once you have a consistent duration across all of your stills, you can do a play-through to see how it's looking. It's here that you'll notice any photos that are too close to one another (that is, in terms of the position from which the photo was taken) - these will make your film appear to stall or lag. Tapping the problematic still will reveal an 'x' in the corner, and pressing that will display a trash can (Figure 10), which, if selected, will delete the still from your project.

Once your project is playing smoothly, you can export it out. In Premiere Clip, you can export it to a range of places (including hosting it on the Adobe server). The option that gives you the most flexibility in the end is to save it back to your device, so SAVE TO CAMERA ROLL is usually the best option (Figure 11).

TUTORIAL 2

For the second method, we'll use Adobe Premiere Pro. For the purposes of keeping things simple, this tutorial will assume a beginner- to intermediate-level knowledge of this program.

Normally, the first thing you do in Premiere Pro once you have your project set up is to import your assets and start editing together your sequence (Figure 12). In this one, though, we are going to make a slight settings change before we begin, to make things a little easier. Navigate to the EDIT drop-down menu, and then select PREFERENCES. The option in the PREFERENCES list that we need to make changes to is the TIMELINE tab (Figure 13). In here, we are going to change the parameters of STILL IMAGE DEFAULT DURATION from SECONDS to FRAMES, and set the number of the latter to around two to four - choose a number based on how quickly you want to cycle through your images (Figure 14).

Once you've set this, you can import your stills (Figure 15). This change will affect how the stills are imported, which is why we need to do it beforehand. Otherwise, you'll need to change their durations afterwards. Once imported, select them in sequential order (ideally, by utilising the ordering of the NAME column). Drag them into the timeline, and that's it - done (Figure 16). Preview the video to see if it slows down well, remove any frames that are causing trouble, and then export the project.

OTHER APPROACHES

There is a third technique for stop-motion animation that you can try, by using Adobe After Effects. It's covered by the great Evan Abrams in his 'Sequence Animation' tutorial; (7) along with the basics of using sequencing assets, he covers how to include exponential growth in your sequencing - meaning that you can have a stop-motion piece that starts with a slower frame rate and then speeds up (which can be super cool in a range of contexts). Basically, though, there are many different pieces of software that will let you make stop-motion animation - the only thing you need to ensure is consistency.

Endnotes

(1) Yes, he spells it with an extra 'f'!

(2) David Taylor, The Meteoric Rise of Boys' Names Ending in "n"', prooffreader.com, 7 April 2014 <http://www.prooffreader.com/2014/04/baby-names-rise-of-n.html>, accessed 27 September 2018.

(3) See <http://museumgifs.tumblr.com>, accessed 27 September 2018.

(4) 'Gan-Gan', Vimeo, 25 April 2014, <https://vimeo.com/92915163>, accessed 27 September 2018.

(5) See 'SCREENSHOT', YouTube, 4 May 2015, <https://youtu.be/rZTf4bRb8-g>, accessed 27 September 2018.

(6) See Kevin Lavery, 'Sync or Swim: Adobe Premiere Clip', Screen Education, no. 86, 2017, pp. 100-5.

(7) Sequence Animation - Adobe After Effects Tutorial', YouTube, 8 November 2013, <https://youtu.be/J6ZFfgD9t1M>, accessed 27 September 2018.

Kevin Lavery was an Art and Media teacher in Melbourne for nearly ten years before packing up for life in Brisbane. He is now the Training & Liaison Officer for TAFE Queensland's eLearning Services. You can find Kev's finished stop-motion piece from the Queensland Art Gallery's gorgeous garden space at <bit.ly/stopmotionQAGOMA>.
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Title Annotation:TECH'D OUT
Author:Lavery, Kevin
Publication:Screen Education
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2018
Words:2729
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