How to Create a Set for Stop-Motion Animation
This article is the next step for those who have created their polymer clay figures for stop-motion animation and now need a set on which they may film them. (If you have not made any figures yet, please read my article How to Create Simple Polymer Clay Figures for Stop Motion Animation first to learn how to do so.) The set consists of two pieces: the background, and the items with which one dresses the set, such as furniture or plants. The set can be as simple or complex as the animator would like it to be, which means one can make a set without spending a tremendous amount of money. I will first give instructions for building a simple, inexpensive set, then give examples of how you may make it more elaborate according to your skill and budget. (This will, in keeping with my first article, be on a hobbyist level; I am not presenting anything Hollywood-style here!)
There are five basic items which you will need to build a set for stop-motion animation:
- Heavy cardboard
- Box tape
- Bamboo skewers or dowel rods (these are optional, as I shall explain)
- A glue stick (or double-sided tape)
- Heavy weight white paper, such as card stock or watercolor paper
Anything else you might use beyond these items is a matter of how you envision your set looking.
Before you begin to buy and/or collect items to be used on your set, however, first sit down and think about what you want to do with your characters on this set. Are you going to use this merely for exploring different techniques for filming? You may want to keep the background very simple in this case. Do have a specific storyline written for your characters? Consider the scenes in your story and where they are set, as well as the items your characters will use in each scene (e.g., a teacup, or a park bench, or a piano). This will give you an idea of how complex your set will have to be, and whether you will need more than one set. Once you have thought through what you are going to do with your set(s), draw a rough sketch of how you will want it to appear once it is built. This should include the main features of the background, as well as the larger items to be included on the set.
Set-Building at a Glance
- Consider how you want to use the set.
- Draw a sketch of the set.
- Write down the items that will be on the set, including small things not included in your sketch.
- Assemble a list of supplies based on what items will be on the set and what will make up the background.
- Purchase or collect all the items on your supply list.
- Build the background.
- Dress the set with items bought or built for the scene.
The "bones" of your set are as important as whatever you decorate your set with. You must pay careful attention to the measurements, as a set that is too small will have to be re-made. A set that is too large can be repaired, though it will mean wasted time for the creator.
In order to determine how large your set should be, first take into consideration the height of your character(s). The taller the character, the bigger the set must be. When using multiple characters, make your calculations based on the size of the largest one. I will be using a six-inch-tall figure to form the basis for the dimensions of the set in this article.
A set background should always be at least five to six inches taller than your character(s). This is to ensure that any wide shot, or shots that have the character in the foreground of the set, will not show the top edge of the set. The background base (the cardboard which you are overlaying with the background elements) can be even taller than this, but the finished portion should extend well above the heads of the characters. The same goes for the width of the set: it should extend far enough out to accommodate any wide-angle shots without showing the set edge. If you are building a set that represents an indoor setting, make sure any side walls constructed are far enough apart so as not to make filming difficult. You can check the parameters of your set before putting too much work into it by doing a test run with the base. I will explain how to do this in the next section.
Building the Background
The first thing you will want to do when setting up the background is assemble your cardboard pieces. There are a couple of different ways you can do this. You can either take a box, open it up on one corner, and trim it down to size (fig. 3.1), or tape together individual pieces of cardboard (fig. 3.2). Whichever method you choose for the "walls", you will also need a large piece of cardboard to form the bottom of the set. For the sake of stability, this bottom piece ought to be larger than your actual set area; the excess will be hidden by the back and sides (fig 3.3).
Tape the back and sides to the base with the box tape on both sides (fig. 3.4), being careful to push the tape flush with the cardboard (fig. 3.5) and making sure it has no wrinkles in it on the front side. Next, tape the back and sides together if you are using individual pieces.
At this point you may add the skewers or dowel rods as a means of reinforcement. Cut them to a size that will not show over the top of your set, then drive one end of the wood into the bottom cardboard piece, right behind the walls of your set (this is why skewers work best, for the pointed end is easier to push into place). Tape the supports to the back of the walls (fig. 3.6). As I mentioned earlier, this step in optional, since the cardboard is usually stiff enough on its own to remain upright. Three cases in which you may want to add these reinforcements would be if your set is very tall (over 12 inches); if you plan to hang a lot of things on the walls when you dress your set; or if you only have a back piece and no sides.
Stop at this stage and do a test run with your largest character. Can you film wide shots easily with the width and height of the set as it is? If you added set pieces such as furniture, would you still have enough room to manipulate your characters, and would the set not feel over-crowded? If the you are satisfied your set has the proper dimensions, then you are ready to move on. If not, then make your adjustments before adding any elements to the background structure.
Now it is time to cover the walls and floor of the set. If you are wanting the background to be plain, then using the heavy white paper will suffice. Using double-sided tape or a glue stick, cover the bottom of the set first (fig. 3.7). If you have to use more than one piece of paper, try to place your seam off-center, and away from where the focal point of your character's action will be. Next, cover the walls of the set, keeping the seams out of the corners to avoid gaps between the pieces of paper (fig. 3.8).
If you are going to paint a background on paper or use patterned cardstock to create the look of wallpaper, it is unnecessary to cover the walls or floor with the white cardstock. See the pictures at the end of the article for an example of how using patterned cardstock would look (the method of application to the walls and floor remains the same no matter what sort of paper you use).
Dressing the Set
It is usually the things that occupy the set along with your characters that make the scene come to life. Some items can be easy to find in a ready-made state; others will have to be finished or crafted from scratch.
If you have a decent budget for your hobby, or only plan to dress one set, I would suggest trying to use items that can be bought at a local craft store or online (fig. 4.1). Ready-made items consist of things such as furniture, dishes, trees, and fences. Dollhouse furniture of the correct scale is excellent for a claymation set, albeit sometimes expensive. Trees can usually be found in miniature around Christmastime, since people often use them as part of a table-top Christmas village.
Usually unfinished dollhouse furniture costs less than completed items. The main perk of unfinished items is the fact that they allow you to make the furniture conform more closely to your vision for the set's overall appearance. The hutch in the photo (fig. 4.2) was unfinished wood, which allowed me to stain it the color I wanted it to be. The same is also true of the baseboard and chair rail in the sample set (fig. 4.3). The baseboard was made from craft wood strips, and the chair rail was made for use in a dollhouse.
Sometimes you will simply be unable to find an item already built, or it will cost far more than you wish to pay for it. In such a case, you can try your hand at making the item. I made the piano (fig. 4.4) out of balsa wood pieces I picked up from a craft store. The keyboard on it was made out of clay. Since the angles of my shots during filming did not include the bottom of the piano, it was unnecessary to add the pedals that are on a real piano. I say this because when making your own furniture or other set pieces, it is not always a necessity to make it an exact replica of the real thing.
The floor of this set was actually very easy to create (fig. 4.5). I replicated the look of a wood floor by simply painting stripes with acrylic paint across paper in an appropriate shade of brown. The tapestry was just a material remnant I picked up at a craft store (you could also use a piece of an old table runner to create the same effect). The curtains were also made from small bits of lace and velvet fabric. These were put on dowel rods and then pinned to the wall with flat-head sewing pins (fig. 4.6). The advantage of using these small pins to attach things to the walls is that they do not leave a noticeable hole if you should choose to remove the item. Just make sure to cover the sharp ends of them with masking tape, lest you stick yourself with them whenever you move your set!
Some small elements can be fashioned out of clay; items such as the candles and gifts in the photo below were made in this way (fig. 4.7). Always ask yourself, "Can I make that myself?" before buying items. You will find that you will save more money that way, and also hone your modeling skills in the process.
You may find yourself departing a bit from your original vision as you work on your set. Sometimes things in real life look different than they did on paper, or you cannot find or make an element you want. Try to learn from your mistakes as you work, and run with whatever changes you need to make. Most of all, have fun being creative!