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How to Create Polymer Clay Figures for Stop-Motion Animation
Stop-motion animation is an entertaining form of 3-D animation that usually employs polymer clay figurines which can be moved by degrees in order to take individual shots that are then strung together to create the illusion of motion. While cinema-quality stop-motion animation is too complicated for the average person to produce at home, anyone with a few basic tools can produce a simplified version of this animation for their own enjoyment. This article will cover how to make one of the core elements of stop-motion animation: a human figure.
What You Will Need
To get started on making a human clay figure, you will need the following tools:
- florist wire or wire for jewelry-making (22 gauge)
- ruler or measuring tape
- wire cutters
- needle-nose pliers
- white polymer clay
- a skin-toned polymer clay
- other colors of polymer clay for clothing and accessories
- a set of basic clay-sculpting tools that include a roller, cutters, and at least two types of shapers (cheap plastic ones work just fine)
- toothpicks (not colored ones)
The wire needs to be at least 22 gauge so that it maintains its position when you are posing your figures. I would not use wire that is too much heavier than this, however, for then you will have the problem of getting the wire to bend without smashing the clay. The white polymer clay forms the mass of the character's body over which the colored clay may be placed (with the exception of the head and hands). I say this only for the sake of economy as white polymer clay is more readily available in bulk packages than are other colors. All of the tools listed above are readily available at the average craft store.
Once you have your supplies, the first thing you must do is determine how large you want your characters to be. I would suggest making your figures between four inches and eight inches tall. Anything smaller will make it difficult to manipulate the figures; anything larger will cause you to have to make your set for filming too big (six to eight inch figures are the easiest to use). When creating the skeleton of your figure, make sure to make it roughly one-quarter to one-third of an inch shorter and thinner than you want your finished product to be -- remember, you are putting clay over the wire framework, which adds thickness and length to the entire figure.
For my example in this article, I will be making an approximately six-inch tall male figure. My proportions will be close to "normal", though you can make a character more cartoon-esque by fudging with the physical proportions. Since this is a type of cartoon, it is not necessary to have the character's proportions absolutely perfect.
Start by cutting two 3-1/2" long wires for the legs and feet (fig. 1.1). Next, cut a 1-3/4" wire. This will serve as the "pelvic bone" for your figure. Bend each end of this wire 1/8" from the end to form a narrow loop (fig. 1.2)*. Now, do the same with the end of each leg, bending the wire backwards 1/8" from the top, but do not close the loop completely yet (fig. 1.3). Insert the loop on each leg into the loops on the "pelvic wire" and close the leg loops (fig. 1.4).
Next come the torso wires. Cut two wires 2-1/2" long, forming loops 1/8" from both the top and bottom on each one, once again not closing the loops completely (fig. 1.5). Fasten both wires onto the "pelvic wire" on one end, placing the them just inside the loops where the legs are attached (fig. 1.6). Cut another 1-3/4" wire now to use as an upper connector for the torso, the arms, and the head. Bend back the ends of this wire like you did for the pelvic wire. Connect the other ends of the torso wires to the upper wire (fig. 1.7), just inside the end loops.
Cut two 2-1/2" wires for the arms and form a partially-closed loop 1/8" from the end on each one. Attach the arm loops to the loops on the the upper connector wire and close the loops on the arm wires (fig. 1.8). Finally, cut a 2-3/4" piece of wire for the head. Bend the wire in the middle so it looks like a croquet wicket (fig. 1.9). Now, curve the wire in a little over a third of the way up on both sides to form the neck (fig. 1.10). Bend the ends of the head/neck wire 1/8" up to form loops and attach these loops to the upper connector (fig. 1.11). The loops on the neck should sit in between the torso wires on the connector.
You now have a complete skeleton. It will be rather unwieldy at first, but once you apply the clay to it all of the pieces will stay in their proper places.
*Clamp the wire with the pliers just above the spot where you are going to bend the wire in order to get the loop to be the proper size (in other words, I would place the pliers a bit shy of an eighth of an inch in order to get an 1/8" loop).
Adding the Clay for the Body
Before you add the clay to your wire skeleton, you will have to knead it to get it pliable enough to work with properly. Start with the white clay and work it around in your hands. Do not take too much at a time or your hands may get tired. Once you have a decent amount of white clay that has been kneaded, start by taking 1/2" balls and applying it to the joints of the skeleton (fig. 2.1). This will keep the skeleton from flopping around and make it easier to form the rest of the body.
(Note: Always have clean hands while working with the clay, as lighter colors pick up dirt easily. Also wash or wipe down your hands when going from color to color, particularly when going from dark to light. The colors can transfer!)
At this point you should determine what sort of clothes you will be putting on your figure. If you are putting the figure in, say, shorts, you will only want to use white clay down the leg to a point that ends right before the shorts will end. I will be putting my character in pants and a short-sleeved shirt.
Fill out the torso, making the figure as skinny or hefty as you want it to be by adding more or less clay (fig. 2.2). Please note, however, that a certain amount of clay must be applied over the wires to keep them from protruding when you bend the figure, so if you want something very thin you will have to start with a slimmer skeleton. Making a figure too stout for its skeleton can also pose problems as the the skeleton may not be able to hold up an excessively large mass of clay. Always think about your character's end appearance when deciding how wide the skeleton should be.
When you are filling out the torso, make a dip in the clay below the neck (fig 2.3). This is the spot where the flesh-colored clay will meet up with the white clay. You do not want white clay appearing where it is not supposed to be showing. Stop the white clay about an eighth of an inch above where the arms/hands and legs/feet are to meet with the clothing (fig 2.4).
Once you have filled all the areas that will be covered by clothing, knead some skin-toned clay out for the head and extremities. For the head, roll out a 1" ball in your hands and then push it down gently over the head and neck wire (fig 2.5). Mold the clay around the base to form the neck (fig 2.6). As long as no part of the wire is visible, you may leave the rest of the head as-is for the moment; the shaping of the head and face will be discussed in the next section. If any wire is showing, spread a layer of clay over the area until the wire is thoroughly covered, blending in the new clay with the existing with your fingers.
The arms can be form by rolling balls of clay out into "snakes" that are a thicker on one end than the other. (The snake actually should sort of have a carrot-like shape when done.) Since you will be adding the rest of the wrists to the ends of the hands, the ends of the arms need to be thin to compensate for this. You will want the bottom of the arms to hang about 1/8" off the end of the wires. The reason for this is when you move the figure's hands around at the wrist, you do not want the end of the arm wire constantly trying to poke out of the clay. By stopping the wire short of the wrist, this issue can normally be avoided. Hold the clay snake up to the arm wire before putting it on to determine whether it is too long or short. Push the arm wires straight down the middle of the snakes, starting with the thicker end. Make sure the wires are as straight as possible, or you will have them trying to exit out the sides of the "snakes". Mold the upper ends over the shoulder clay a bit to fuse the two pieces together (fig 2.7).
Create a hand by taking a roughly 1/2" ball of clay and grasping it halfway between your left thumb and forefinger. Grasp the other end with your right thumb and forefinger, holding the clay so that your thumb faces downward (fig. 2.8). Pinch both sides, flattening the left side until it is about 1/4" thick, and the right side is about 1/3" thick. Then mold the right end a bit until it looks somewhat cylindrical (fig. 2.9). The hands will seem a bit large for the body, but this is necessary in order to make the fingers thick enough to be able to be moved properly. Using the slanted cutting tool from your modeling set, make cuts about halfway down on the left side of the piece (fig. 2.10). Gently pick up the piece and stick the side opposite the cuts on the the tool that has a knob on the end (fig. 2.11). If your set did not come with this tool, then something like a small dowel rod will work. Shape this end over the tool into a wrist (fig 2.12). With the hand still on the tool, separate the fingers and mold them so they are rounded (fig. 2.13). You may have to pinch small bits of clay off the tips and/or sides of the fingers to form them into their proper length and shape. Remove the hand from the tool by gently peeling back the wrist from the tool (do not worry if the wrist rips a little, since you will be blending it into the arm anyway). Place the wrist over the end of the arm, with the thumb on the hand pointing forward, and then mold the clay of the wrist to the arm (fig. 2.14). Make sure to blend the two well, but be careful not to squeeze the arm too hard or it will "grow" longer than you want it to be. Repeat the preceding steps to make the other hand.
The legs are formed by making "snakes" again, and applying the clay to the leg wires the same way as was done with the arms. Use white clay if covering the legs completely with clothes, otherwise use skin-toned clay. Make sure to stop the leg clay at least 1/4" up from the bottom to allow for the feet, leaving more wire out in proportion to your character if necessary -- I left 1/2" out on mine (fig 2.15). Once the leg clay in on, take your pliers and bend the ends of the wire to form the feet (fig. 2.16). If your character is going to be wearing shoes that cover the feet, you can skip the remainder of this paragraph. If the shoes you are putting on the character will show part or all of the feet, then keep reading here. For partially-covered feet, say, for a female character wearing dress shoes, put enough skin-toned clay on the wires to form the top of the feet, plus a little on the bottom and sides (fig. 2.17). You may then form your shoe over this base. For a figure wearing sandals, the whole foot will have to be formed on each leg. Form the feet with skin-toned clay over the wires for the feet, starting at the ankles and working your way down to the end where the toes will be (fig. 2.18). Now, take your cutting tool and form the digits at the end of each foot (fig 2.19), gently shaping each one one with your fingers and tools until they look like toes (fig. 2.20). Sandals may then be formed over these completed feet.
Forming the Head and Face
The most complex part of making your figure will be forming the head and face. There are many tiny details involved, and thus patience is necessary to form them correctly.
Start your figure's face by shaping the front of the head about a third of the way up from the base of the neck. Pull the clay forward and round out the underside to form a chin (fig. 3.1). Now pull a smaller piece out of the center of the face to form a nose (fig. 3.2) Next, take your cutting tool and with the tip of it cut a small line in the face between the nose and chin (fig. 3.3) to start the mouth. Do not start the mouth too close to the chin or you will have problems manipulating the mouth later on because the chin will be too narrow. Use a toothpick to make the opening larger until it can be easily elongated or widened for simulating speech (fig 3.4). Do not worry about lips, teeth, or a tongue. These make mouth manipulation difficult and can be added temporarily if necessary. For the eye sockets, take your tool with the pointed end and make two holes of equal size on either side of the bridge of the nose (fig 3.5). Then take a toothpick and form the holes so the eye sockets are more oval in shape than round (fig. 3.6). Take two tiny pieces of white clay, roll them between your fingers, and stick one in each eye socket (fig. 3.7). Make sure they fill the socket. Remove any excess by carefully scraping it away with a tool or your fingertip. Now, take even smaller pieces of colored clay (one that you would use for an eye-color) and roll them between your fingertips. Once they are balls, flatten them slightly. Their diameter should not equal or exceed the size of the eyeballs already in place. If they do, start over with even smaller pieces of colored clay. Once they are the right size, place one on the end of a toothpick and gently press it to the center of one of the eyeballs (fig. 3.8). Now do the same with the other piece, placing it on the other eyeball. These eyes are fixed-focus, meaning they cannot be moved. As this is a starter figure, movable eyes are not of great concern. In most short-form stop-motion animation shot at a wide angle, you will hardly notice that the character's eyes do not move or blink.
If the figure's ears are not going to be covered by hair, they can be made as follows: take two small pieces of your skin-colored clay (you can make the ears smaller or larger depending upon your preference), roll them into balls, and then flatten the balls somewhat. Shape each one so that they are straight on one side and rounded on the other, with the rounded side arching upwards a little (fig. 3.9). Place one on each side of the head with the straight side facing forwards. They should rest about halfway back on the head, with the upper end roughly level with the corners of the eyes, and the bottom end level with the mouth. Take your flat-edged tool and gently press the straight edge of the ear into the head, then blend the clay together with your fingertip at that spot so that the ears adhere properly. (fig. 3.10)
Hair can be added using your choice of color and style. For this character I will be doing short hair. For a man's short haircut, take an approximately 1" ball of clay and flatten it out to slightly under a 1/4" thick. Place the round of clay onto the back of the character's head (fig. 3.11), molding the round forward and back to properly cover the head (fig. 3.12). Use your cutting tool to remove any excess and your shaping tool to round off any edges. Use the pointed tool to add texture to the surface of the hair so that it does not just look like a blob sitting on the figure's head (fig. 3.13).
Finally, the eyebrows may be added. Determine how large you want the eyebrows to be, and then pull off an appropriate amount of colored clay to make them. Thicker eyebrows can be made from short, fat cylinders the have been flattened (fig. 3.14). Thinner eyebrows can be made by rolling out super-skinny "snakes" with one end being more tapered than the other (fig. 3.15). Gently apply the eyebrows above the eyes until they just stick (fig. 3.16); if you press too hard they will just mash into your figure's forehead and look strange.
Making the Clothing
I have found that the easiest way to make the clothing for a figure is to select your colors, roll the clay out into thin pieces, and attach the pieces to the body of the character in sections. For the figure I am making here, I will start with the pants, since I am going to make a shirt that will hang out over the pants. Reverse the order if you are going to make the shirt appear to be tucked into the pants. (Note: The amounts of clay and their measurements are based on the figure I am making. If you made yours stouter or skinnier than the one shown, you may need more or less clay for the clothing.) Keep the arms and hands of the figure away from the colored clay as much as possible, and do not touch the "skin" areas after handling the colored clay unless you have washed your hands.
To make pants, take about a 1-1/4" ball of clay and roll into into a 2-1/2" snake. Then take your rolling tool and roll the snake of clay out into a strip until it is roughly 1/8" thick and about 1-1/2" wide (fig. 4.1). Wrap this piece around your figure's hips, with the top placed where you want the waistband of your pants to sit (fig. 4.2). The back ends of the strip should just meet or barely overlap; if you have more than that in the back, cut off the excess. Mold the clay strip to the body and smooth out the seam where the ends met (fig. 4.3). Next, take two 1" balls of clay and roll them into 1-1/2" snakes. Flatten the snakes into 1/8" thick ovals, focusing on the width rather than the length of the two pieces as you roll (fig. 4.4). Check to make sure that these will go around the legs (you may need more clay if your figure's legs are extra bulky). Cut off any excess that goes beyond the point where the clay meets in the back and also where it meets the top of the pants (fig. 4.5) Blend the seams in the clay together gently with your fingers, removing evidence of lines (fig. 4.6). If you have a point where the clay did not quite meet in the back, take one of the discarded trimmings and use it to cover the hole, blending it in to the clay around it. Cuffs, belts, and the like can be added to the pants at your discretion. You may embellish any of your characters' clothing as much or as little as you wish; keep in mind that excessive detail may end up being detrimental to posing the character easily as you will constantly have to be making sure you do not squash some aspect of its clothing. I will add cuffs to the bottom of these pants after making the shoes. (Side note: if the pants are not going to have cuffs but are going to still rest over the tops of the shoes, then do the shoes first.) To make shorts, follow the same steps as above, except make the length of the leg pieces shorter than they are for the pants.
To make a shirt, roll out a 1" ball of clay on a clean, smooth surface until it is a round with 1/8" thickness (fig. 4.7). From this round, cut out a piece that will fit over the front of the figure and halfway around its shoulders and sides (it is also helpful to cut the collar shape out before you attach the front piece). Repeat the aforementioned steps to create the back of the shirt. Fit the back piece onto the figure, meeting the front piece halfway around the character (fig. 4.8). Do not worry if you have excess clay anywhere. Just trim it off evenly, and then mold the two pieces together where they meet, using your fingertip to gently eliminate any lines (fig 4.9). For the sleeves, roll out two 1/8" thick strips (fig. 4.10) and wrap them around the arms, molding together the top of the sleeves with the body of the shirt (fig. 4.11). Simply adjust the length and width of the strip to make the sleeve as long or short as you want it to be, and to fit the circumference of the character's arm. To add features like cuffs, collars, and buttons, cut out small strips and add them to the sleeves, neckline, and shirtfront, and attach tiny discs of clay to the strip on the shirtfront for the buttons. I am doing just a simple "vee" neckline here, made from a single strip of clay wrapped around the neck (fig. 4.12).
Even though I am making a male character, I will briefly mention dresses and skirts here in case any of my readers would prefer to make a female character. The top of a dress or a blouse to go with a skirt will follow the directions given above for shirts. The skirt can be made as wide or narrow as you want it to be. For narrower skirts, roll out a strip of clay 1/8" thick, and to the desired length and width. Wrap it loosely around the figure, molding it with the top piece if it is to be part of a dress. A wider skirt will need to be rolled out to the same thickness, but with the bottom wider than the top to allow for fullness (more triangular in shape, in essence). For a particularly full skirt, you may need to add some wire supports to the underside to ensure that it retains it shape.
Shoes are relatively simple as long as you are not interested in too much detail. Pick the color you want to use, and, if it is to be a shoe that covers the whole foot, you will use that color to mold the foot itself. Take 3/4" balls of clay and push them onto the foot wires, adding or removing clay to make the foot an appropriate size for the figure (fig. 4.13). Mold the clay until it is tapered at the end, rounded at the back and on the top, and flat on the bottom (fig. 4.14). Shoelaces are not necessary unless you want to go to the trouble of making them -- most people will not notice one way or the other. Add pant cuffs over the line between the pants and the shoe at this point if so desired (fig. 4.15). For shoes that cover part of the foot, mold balls of clay to the approximate shape you want them to be, with an indent along the top of each one where the foot stubs on the character can be inserted. Mold the top edges of the shoes to the foot stubs to make sure the shoes stay on the feet (fig. 4.16). Add finishing touches to the shoes once they are on the feet. If you want to attempt to put heels on the shoes of a female character, use thick, block-like heels (if the heels are too high or skinny they will not support the character's weight and cause it to be off-balance). Sandals can be formed from flat, 1/8" thick ovals that have some sort of straps attached (fig. 4.17). "Flip-flop" and slide-style sandals can have the straps added before placing them on the feet; other styles may require that you add the straps after the bottom pieces are placed under the feet.
Now that your figure is complete (fig. 4.18), he is ready to pose for the camera!
- Do not become frustrated if something does not come out perfectly the first time—this does take practice. Plus, clay is forgiving in that it can be remolded. So, if you have a hand or a foot that looks odd once you put it on the figure, just pull it off and try again. Unfortunately, once the clothes are on it is difficult to correct some aspects of them if they are put on improperly, so take your time and be careful.
- I recommend Sculpey® III or Premo! Sculpey® clay since they are both very pliable and are not prone to crumbling. Hard, crumbly clay is very difficult to knead and mold, and is not well suited for a beginner. I have also noticed hard clay tends to split and break more easily when one is handling the figures, which is not a good thing when one is trying to use the figures for animation.