Stop-Motion Tricks – 3 Cheap Must-Have Items!

Hey there filmmakers! Maybe you’re like us, and you love using stop-motion animation to tell your stories. You get to choose what’s in every frame, and it’s often really affordable too!

We use Lego mostly, because the minifigures are at a great scale and have tons of customization options to make them unique. Lego also has simple articulation points, which are the places on the character that can move. Think the shoulders, hips, head and hands. There isn’t too much movement or too many joints to work with. Using simpler characters can help keep things simple.

It’s really common to use toys or other small things to make stop motion videos. It’s also really common to use a cell-phone camera or something like that to take the pictures. Often there are backgrounds, or even small sets.

We love this do-it-yourself approach, but it often leads to a few common problems. These problems won’t wreck your work entirely, but they can be extremely frustrating.

Here are three inexpensive items that we use all the time that will help you solve some of these problems, and make it much easier to execute your vision!

1. A Set of Clamps – helps with accidental bumps and wobbly sets, and keeps things stable.

Reaching into a tiny set to move a tiny figure can be tough for some people. Even those with really light fingers can move things too much. It’s not a problem if you can put the character right back where they were and restart, but sometimes you’ll nudge the entire set, or the background. If the set moves, it’s so tough to get it back. It’s really bad during a complicated sequence. Suddenly everything shifts slightly for no good reason. When that happens, we generally have to start again.

If your set is clamped to your table, it’s going to be harder to nudge it. The same goes for your backgrounds. If they’re made of something like paper, they also won’t move with the breeze. Floppy, wobbly backgrounds are very hard to light consistently, and often look strange.

We use clamps of various sizes, including some screw clamps that are best for holding a set to a table. They are metal, so we use foam or fabric in between them and our sets. Be careful tightening things too much, as you can crush or break your sets!

Clamps can also be used for all sorts of useful things, like gathering loose cables, holding back curtains, keeping curtains closed, and holding filters in front of lights. Plus thousands more.

Inexpensive clamps can be found at hardware and dollar stores, and can be substituted in a pinch with something like a clothespin.

2. Adhesive (or Blue/Mounting) Putty – helps with difficult poses and defying gravity, and keeps things stable.

It’s amazing when a tiny toy figure mimics lifelike movement and walks around a tiny set. But many small toys aren’t capable of movement like that. Look at the Lego people. No knees. No ankles. They stand still very well, and even stand on one leg because of the way their ‘feet’ fit onto Lego studs. But what about walking? Or running? Jumping?

There are a lot of movements and poses that are tough to do in stop-motion, because toys don’t just balance perfectly on one toe, or hang in midair so you can take their picture as if they’re jumping.

For those poses and moves that can’t rely on a toy foot sticking to a toy surface, we have putty. It is only meant to hold temporarily, and won’t hold every pose, but it will help a lot. Being temporary is good, because you often only want it for a shot or two. Then it’s easy to remove, and then re-use later. If you’re doing small toys in a clean area, a little bit of putty will last a long time.

The putty also helps with characters holding items that don’t fit their hands, or wearing things that don’t fit their bodies. It can also change how something like a hat sits on a head, and allows it to move in wind, for example.

Since you can shape the putty easily, you can get practiced at hiding it, making your moves look even more real. You can also find ways to remove it in post-production, though that can be tricky.

Adhesive putty can be found at hardware and dollar stores, and can be substituted with plasticine or something like that, but most other sticky substances aren’t as reusable or clean up as nicely as it does.

3. A Camera Trigger – keeps your camera still, and keeps things stable.

You may have noticed the repeated words ‘and keeps things stable.’ Those are really important. Stop motion is all about keeping things still in each individual image. The movement comes from those images being played one after another.

We know that we only want certain things in our scenes to move. Our characters will probably move a lot, but the backgrounds and sets usually don’t. It’s weird when they do. It’s weird when the whole set moves, because the camera has probably stayed where it is. For the same reason, we don’t want the camera to move unless it’s on purpose.

But most phones and cameras have a button that you press to take a picture. No matter how light your touch is, it’s possibly going to shift the camera a tiny bit. It gets a lot worse when you’re in close on a tiny subject. Even a small shift can throw everything off. Sometimes it can even change the focus, and make your subject blurry.

Having a good tripod that holds your camera very still is a good thing, but taking your hands off the camera completely is even better.

We use a Canon EosM50 for most of our shoots. We have the Canon-made trigger for the camera, and it’s indispensable. It even makes things simpler for a single person to both move a stop-motion character and operate the camera. If the focus is the same, and the camera doesn’t need to move, you just have to click.

Generic triggers that work with cameras, and more importantly, phones, are available at camera and electronics stores, some general big-box stores and online. Make sure your device is fully compatible before buying.

So that’s a wrap! We hope your stop motion is always improving, and that this information helped. Feel free to leave a comment about it! Also check out our tutorial on using DaVinci Resolve for stop motion. You can read it here, or check out the video here. Thanks for reading!

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