A Stop-Action Movie in 8 Lessons

10/21/2011 1:18:16 PM

by Guest Blogger D. Salmons

A chance to learn and expand our knowledge base can come along in many different forms. In fact, a complete learning project, comprised of multiple lessons and all working towards a single goal, is perhaps one of the best ways for a student to see how simple parts join together to make a seemingly complex finished product.

The overall goal of the project is to let the student create a work that is an expression of his or her imagination. In doing so, the student will learn to follow simple steps that lead to a logical conclusion. In addition, many of the lessons will reinforce previous lessons, ensuring that the basic concepts are understood and implemented.

The Project

If you have spent much time at all on any of those popular Internet based video sharing sites, chances are you have seen a few user-generated videos of the stop motion variety. Such videos are often made of clay, but some of our favorites are those made from children's building blocks. Such videos often use the blocks to extend the imagination in ways that entertain and inform.

As a great technology learning project, we thought it would be fun to design and create our own Lego movie masterpiece. We will be focusing on the basics of creating the project. If you find it interesting, you can use these concepts to make your own stop motion masterwork.

To make it easy to follow, we will break down the process into 8 simple steps. We will take a look at each step, and try to go into what each step needs to complete. So, without further ado, let's look at step 1.

Lesson 1 - The Concept

  • The student creates an original story idea for the movie, which stimulates creativity and imagination.
  • The student creates a preliminary budget that considers resources and time. The student is forced to weigh both expectations of the project's completion as well as the items needed.
  • Creating a budget teaches the student about overall management of their times and resources, which could be a valuable life skills lesson.
In order to make an entertaining short movie, you need to come up with an entertaining concept. While the technology will make it possible, the concept will make it plausible.

In creating the concept, stop to consider the medium in which you are working. Sure, it may be great to recreate the siege of Troy, but modeling that in Lego blocks could be cost-prohibitive. Think of your budget at all times to make sure that you have a good chance in finishing the project.

Budgets are often split into two categories, time and resources. In this case our budget will consist of Lego blocks on hand and the time it will take to build and manipulate the models. The models are just another way of referring to the things that we build out of Lego.

With the budget in mind, let your imagination wander. Sure, it might be hard to rebuild Troy and all of the attacking ships, but building characters on a single ship should sound doable. Take the ship concept to space and think of an adventure in the stars. Or make a story based in your everyday surroundings, such as home, school, or sports practice.

As long as you keep your budget in mind (time + resources), you can afford to be creative. Whether it is a comedy, an action flick, or a space opera, have fun with it. But if this is your first animated short, be prepared to revisit the concept later in order to fit the budget better. After all, it is hard to get a good feeling about the time it takes until you have done it a few times.

Lesson 2 - The Storyboard

  • The student envisions the movie from start to finish, sparking creativity and imagination.
  • The student creates a working storyboard that puts the imagined movie into tangible form.
  • The student becomes more adept at expressing ideas and concepts through the action of creating the storyboard.
At this point you have your concept in hand, and you are ready to start building and recording. Not so fast there - we need something to translate from the concept to what we need to do next. This so-called "translation" piece, if done correctly, will more or less detail everything we need to build and show us a roadmap to completing our movie.

In its simplest form, a storyboard is a series of rough drawings and notes that show the major story parts from the view of the camera. This will let you get together all of your required stage elements as well as account for any and all characters. Once you get to the recording, you will find the storyboard to be the steps of the movie, from start to completion.
When you go to create the storyboard, put yourself in the viewer's seat, and think about what you want to see on the screen. Sketch it out or otherwise compose it only as neat or detailed as you need to convey the ideal to others (or maybe just yourself) later. Index cards on a corkboard work great for a storyboard, but I have known some that used a computer and a presentation slide program such as Power Point to keep it together in a form that can be easily rearranged.

You will want to have a storyboard image (or note) for each major action scene of your movie. For example, if you change scenes or major camera angles, make a card of the new scene. Also, if any major action takes place that changes from the rest of the movie, storyboard it. For example, two characters carrying on a conversation might not need but one card. But when the swords come out, add another card to show that action.

If you want to do something special in the movie, such as zooming in on a smashing blow to the wall, add it in to your storyboard collection. You should find that it is easy to add, remove, and rearrange movie ideas as they come to you. The storyboard, although simple in its execution, gives the moviemaker a place to create before it ever goes to the actual recording. Expect to go over it several times, and look for an opportunity to insert items of interest.

Lesson 3 - The Software and Hardware

  • The student researches the different hardware required to create the movie.
  • The student researches and gathers the required software as needed for their selected hardware choice.
  • By matching the required software with the selected hardware, the student learns how some items are dependent on a decision (the hardware) and how it affects the project. This reinforces the student's decision-making ability and its outcome.
Whew, we came this far in a technology project and only now are we getting into the technology itself. But that should not come as a surprise to anyone, since we should be focusing on the vision first, then simply implementing it.

Now that we are implementing it, we are going to need some software and hardware to make it all work. First, the hardware - ten years ago this may have been more challenging, but today most laptops and the best notebooks come with a built-in camera. For our intended uses, I think that such a setup (laptop with built-in camera) will work out just fine. But I like Macs, so let's make it a MacBook with a camera. Of course, an iMac will work fine as well.

Next, we need the software to capture the stop motion images and put them together into a rough-cut movie. Now, one of my favorites for this purpose, and it happens to be free, is an app called Frame by Frame, and it runs on a modern Mac of your choice, equipped with a camera. For Windows users, good choices include Monkeyjam and AnimatorDV Simple+. Stop Motion Pro, previously one of the best free stop-motion programs on the Windows Platform, is now so dated that I would suggest avoiding it on anything past Windows XP.


Now, we will want to add sound to our project - after all, what's a multimedia project without sound? For this, consider the free program Audacity. You will find it available for a variety of operating systems, and it is a very capable piece of audio editing software. For the sound hardware, if you are using a modern personal computer, the chances are that audio recording hardware is already on the machine.

Lesson 4 - The Stage, the Set and the Models

  • The students build the base stage from available components.
  • The student designs a set that fits within the idea put forth by the previous lessons of the concept (lesson 1) and the storyboard (lesson 2).
  • The student designs and builds the Lego models as required for the concept story at hand.
Now we are up to discussing the stage and the models. As noted earlier, the models are what we will build with the Lego blocks and/or other Lego pieces we incorporate, such as that great Lego Darth Vader character.

But what is the stage? Well, the stage is where all of the action takes place. If we are using a laptop, then the stage might be a small tray with legs that positions everything above the keyboard and up to the camera. Now, here is something to look for in a stage with a laptop - find something high enough to let you still use the keyboard and trackpad if you are not using a Bluetooth keyboard and a wireless mouse.

If we are using an iMac or similar machine, then our stage might be a stack of books or other items that simply brings the level of the stage up to the camera as required. Since you would otherwise be blocking the screen, consider two stacks of books and a thin board to go across them. This works well with both desktops and laptops.

Okay, now for the set. The set is basically the background that defines the area that the action is taking place. For instance, if we are doing a short that takes place on a space cruiser, then the set might be a background of stars and enough blocks to make parts of the spaceship interior. If the action is taking place in a classroom, then the set is probably a background that has items drawn on it from a typical classroom.

Lesson 5 - The Action

  • Using the components from the previous lessons above, the student begins acting out the concept story using the set and the models. The storyboard is used as the working guide for production.
  • The student, after getting into production and its requirements, is asked to reconsider the budget from Lesson 2. This reinforces the budget concept and helps with successfully reaching the goal.
  • The student becomes more proficient in computer skills through the use of frame capture software
Did someone say action? Well, that is exactly where we are at by this point. We have our storyboard ready to go, a stage to hold everything, a set that defines where the action takes place to the viewer, and our models to do the movement. Now we set up each scene as roughly described in our storyboard and check the view in our capture software. If everything is a go - and you know it is by this point with just a little adjustment, the action commences.

Of course, by action we mean that you take a picture with the capture software, move the models the equivalence of a frame, and take another picture. Do this and repeat until you have worked the entire storyboard.

You may be asking yourself how big is a frame? Well, that depends on how smooth you want the animation to appear in your stop-motion video. In practical terms, 15 frames per second (fps) looks pretty good played back. But that means taking 15 pictures for every second of movie time. So, for a 1 minute short, you will need 60 x 15 = 900 pictures. This is a slow process, no other way to describe it. In a pinch you can drop down to 10 fps, but even that is 600 captures per minute. Grab your shots, and when you are finished, save everything and export the video.

Now might be a good time to visit that budget again. If you have designed a storyboard with 5 minutes of movie time and only a few hours to do it, go back and change the storyboard to something that you can afford on your budget.

Lesson 6 - The Sound

  • The student creates an original soundtrack, using visual clues from the movie as a guide.
  • The student has to imagine what sound effects would fit the movie at that moment, enforcing creativity and encouraging exploration of sounds.
  • The student becomes more proficient in computer skills through the use of audio software
So far, we have not deviated much in the process from the way that real cartoons and movies are made. We are getting ready to change that now, at least in regard to other animations. In a typical big screen animation project, actors come in and lay down the audio track, then the animators work to match the audio. We are going to be taking our fresh made stop action video, and set the sound to match the action.

Now this is where a good multi-track audio editor comes in handy, such as Audacity. The first thing we need to do is to create a detailed sound map for our audio. This is actually an easy process. Basically you will want to watch the video, and note any visual clues that require sound effects. When you see them, make a note of the video counter time and the required sound effect. For example, if you have a sword fight, you may need a clanging sound every 3 seconds for 3 times, and a whoosh and a scream added in between.


With your sound map in hand (okay, some notes with sounds and time stamps listed), go to your editor and add in the sounds effects at the times required. You may consider if you want any background music, easily added as another track, and you can even add in special effects like echoes and more. Also, don't forget to record any voices you need to add to your movie. Voice acting is not hard, but remember what emotion you should have for that particular phrase. Audacity allows you to easily record audio into a project. After you have the sounds in place, save the audacity project (in case you need to adjust something later) and export the track as a single audio file.

Lesson 7 - The Wrapup

  • The student completes the movie by taking the products of lessons 5 and 6 above and merges them into one movie file.
  • The student considers the opening presentation "look and feel" of the movie by adding an opening title sequence or screen.
  • The student considers and assigns value to their actions in the previous lessons by adding credit screen to the closing of the movie
  • The student becomes more proficient in computer skills through the use of movie-editing software
At this point you've got two files of interest - a video file that has no sound, and an audio file. You are going to need to put these together into a single file. For this, if you are on a Mac, use iMovie. If you are using another operating system, then use something similar, such as Windows Movie Editor.

Start the video editor and load the video file. Next import the audio and add it to the audio track. At this point we can easily add in a nice opening title and closing credits. Don't forget to credit the producer, director, animator, voice actor, sound editor, and storywriter - even if it is all you. Save everything, preview it a few times to make sure everything is just how it want it, and export the final movie. Congratulations, you are now a moviemaker, coming in just under budget, hopefully. And if not, don't feel bad - not many of Hollywood's best can do that either.

Lesson 8 - The Distribution

  • The student gains insight into sharing their work as they consider the distribution of their movie project.
  • The student gains confidence in their abilities as they promote their work.
  • The student becomes more proficient in computer skills through the use of DVD creation software and/or online interaction.
The question now is, how are you going to share this work of art, this stop motion cinematography masterpiece? If it's short enough you can email it to everybody, or better yet consider putting it online on YouTube or something similar, then email everyone a link. You can also easily embed it in a web page for your visitors. And you can always burn it to a DVD for distribution and home viewing.

Now that you have your first stop action movie behind you, it will be easy to parlay that experience into bigger and better projects. A good working knowledge of concept creation, storyboard mechanics, sound editing, and successful project completion can be valuable in any number of media projects. So, what's stopping you from your first short feature? All you need is a laptop (or desktop), some free apps, Lego blocks, and a great imagination - but the last one is the most important.


At this point, the student has successfully completed a project comprised of 8 interactive lessons. The finished project can be shared with both people around them and friends and family out of the area by emailing the movie or a link. The student's confidence in producing media should have greatly increased, and it should not be surprising that the student will soon look to their next movie project with eagerness.

Guest blogger D. Salmons is a freelance writer and social media consultant for several companies, ranging from individuals to Fortune 500. She is a bit of a geek and enjoys writing about tech and gadgets at Test Freaks, a website that collects information about products, such as best netbooks and other consumer electronics.

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