Alexandra Friedman is a Designer at Fat Pencil Studio
Since we at Fat Pencil use such a wide variety of tools and techniques to help tell our clients’ stories, it makes sense that our team members come from a variety of backgrounds as well. Before joining Fat Pencil, I was a set designer on a number of stop-motion projects, including the features Missing Link (at LAIKA) and Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (at ShadowMachine). I knew my experience in 3D modeling would serve me well in my FPS work, but I’ve also discovered that my understanding of stop-motion animation is very pertinent.
Like any project, each film has a limited budget of time and resources, so we don’t want to waste time designing or constructing scenic elements that will never be seen on screen. This is especially true for stop-motion, where all the sets and props are typically custom built at a specific scale (or often, multiple scales).
Therefore, storyboarding is vital: once we define the shots we want, we can identify what will be visible and what’s important. What is the widest angle at which an environment will be seen? Are there walls that will never be in frame? Where do we need to put certain visual elements to make sure they have the level of prominence needed to help us tell our story?
It can be very satisfying to fully build out a set, but the big picture is what matters most, so it’s important to never lose sight of the team’s ultimate storytelling goals. All of this should sound very familiar to our regular readers… it's the essence of The Fat Pencil Approach.
For those unfamiliar with the process, stop-motion animation is created frame-by-frame: the animator sets up a scene, takes a photo of it, makes minute adjustments to the puppets or objects that need to be moving, takes another photo, and so on and so on. Here’s a short overview video, and a delightful longer video about the medium’s history.
While this process is time-consuming, it has many benefits: it requires minimal technology and can be created by a single artist, allows for all sorts of wild transformations, movements, and textures, and has a uniquely tactile feel. It also puts a special trust in its viewers, who will need to fill in the moments between those captured on film.
For us at FPS, stop-motion is a vital storytelling tool. Our focus is not on creating full-frame (24 to 30 frames per second) animations of events, but on understanding key issues in a case. Sometimes we use existing video evidence to position figures and vehicles in a digital 3D model, so we can see things from a different perspective. Sometimes we rely on witnesses to guide us in positioning human figures so they can better explain their expert opinion of how something occurred or a memory of what they directly experienced.
In any case, we are careful to avoid presenting conjecture as fact. We place objects and pose figures according to the best available testimony and evidence. We use digital models to aid this process, but ultimately it’s a human not a computer driving the process, and there’s a limit to the number of “scenes” we can complete. We choose the minimum amount of frames necessary to tell the story, and leave out the in-between movements for which we lack the time or proper foundation to depict.
If you’re interested in learning about the process of stop-motion animation and are local to Portland or will be visiting soon, there’s a fabulous exhibition up at the Portland Art Museum called Guillermo del Toro: Crafting Pinocchio up through September 17, 2023. It includes lots of puppets, sets, and other elements from the film and helps illustrate all the steps and artistry that went into it. There’s also a campaign by a bunch of brilliant stop-motion artists to start a permanent Museum of Stop Motion Animation here in Portland. And, if you find yourself in Seattle before the summer of 2024, you can check out Hidden Worlds: The Films of LAIKA at the Museum of Pop Culture.
It’s heartening to know that despite the leaps and bounds we have made in computer-generated content over the last few decades, there is still a solid place for mediums like stop-motion and hand-drawn animation, and a wide group of fans eager to see how we can fuse old and new technologies to tell captivating stories.