When Lightning Strikes: Storm Effects

Lightning can be created by using a black light and a high-wattage halogen lamp. If you do not own a black light, you can typically find one in a craft or party store. Many grocery stores also carry actual black light bulbs that can then be screwed onto an existing lamp in your home. The halogen bulb should be about 500 watts, much like the brightness of a torchiere lamp at full blast. Be mindful of the fact that 500 watts can become extremely hot, so set your lighting far enough away so that it will not melt any materials (such as clay) that might be on your set or characters!

For two frames, let the halogen bulb wash over your set. The lighting should look extremely bright. Now turn the lights off and let the set bathe in the glow of the black light. Repeat this as often as necessary to achieve the look that you want.

If you want to add fog to your dark and stormy night, place small bits of dry ice along the edge of your set. If you cannot find dry ice, you can use a humidifier that is placed somewhere beneath your set and either diffused through a strainer or a plastic funnel. Use caution when working with a humidifier, as there will be moisture and your set may become damp.

Rain can be simulated by placing a sheet of glass between your characters and the camera. The glass can then be sprayed with water, creating raindrops while keeping your set dry. If you need a wet environment, set a spray bottle to the widest opening possible and spray from a slight distance away. A fine mist will keep your set from becoming immediately drenched, and the smaller droplets will help you to avoid continuity problems. You can also create hand drawn cels which can be placed between the camera and the action in order to create the illusion of rain.

If objects in your scene need to have an involvement with the water, drops of glycerin or dried glue from a hot glue gun can be placed on your character or set items to resemble beads of rain. This technique was used during the filming of the movie, Chicken Run. You can also use relatively stiff hair gel, which can move and roll off of your character if you blow onto it through a straw. Hair gel can be purchased at your local grocery or drug store, and is available in larger “tub” sizes and several different colors.

Now that you know the secrets to creating a storm, play with your options! Remember that lightning can be shown exclusively, and you don’t necessarily have to involve water in your weather plans. You can also focus exclusively on creating a dense, shadowy fog that roils about the set tumultuously. Whatever you decide, the effects are sure to captivate and impress your audience.

Weathering” your Set and Characters

Fantastic effects can be created by using paint and other natural materials. When creating the exterior of buildings, make sure to use multiple coats of paint in varying tones of the same shade. You may want to apply darker colored washes in-between coats to add an even more realistic touch. Play around with your brush. Most buildings are not shiny and smooth. Bricks are rough, wood has grain and texture, even concrete has chips and imperfections. As you build your layers of paint, do not be concerned about applying soft, side-to-side strokes. Repeatedly push the bristles straight into the paint in a stabbing motion. Increase this agitation in some areas more than others. Go back to your paint and dip the brush in lighter and then darker colors, using your finger and the bristles to flick some areas of your set with each new application. This will give a more dimensional feel to your buildings.

Are you using a tin roof, or would you like to create a rusty metal boat? Perhaps your character’s car is badly in need of repair. Take your metal material and scratch it judiciously with steel wool. Leave it out in the rain. Burn parts of it to give it an old-time, weathered feel. You can also use a hammer or a screwdriver to add a few dents or small indentations.

If you are painting a street, allow the surface to dry almost completely before using a crumpled paper towel to dab at the area. Use as much pressure as you wish in order to add some texture to your “paved” surface. You can also add oil marks after the fact by applying a very dark wash or stain to certain areas either before or after the final coat of street paint. Skid marks can be carefully applied using a dull-colored pastel crayon, and faded if necessary by going over the lines with a damp paintbrush.

One of the best ways to weather your objects is to add actual dirt. If you are painting a wall grey, add a large cup of soil to your paint. The paint will dry as normal, and you will have an incredible texture to whatever surface you treat. For last minute touch-ups, use your fingertip to rub cold ash on objects or surfaces. It will age them instantly.

Shiny, one-dimensional sets may look nice up close, but they can stand out like a sore thumb on film. Adding these final details will ensure that your project achieves maximum believability with the audience.

How to Avoid the “Flicker Effect”

What is it, and how is it caused? Better yet, how can it be avoided? Believe it or not, the flicker is most likely created by elements outside of your set that can easily be controlled.

In order to make sure that your camera is not the culprit, be sure to set automatic controls to manual. These include white balance, shutter speed, shutter speed and focus. Make sure that your image stabilization is turned off. If any of these options are set to automatic, your camera will create a flickering interference throughout your film.

Try to film only at night. The room where your filming takes place should be completely dark, allowing no light from outside sources. If you must commence shooting in a room that contains a window, use care to ensure that it is completely covered so that there can be no interference from outside light sources.

Make sure that you do not use fluorescent lights, unless you are trying to create a specific lighting effect. Fluorescent bulbs have a flicker that, although sometimes not visible to the naked eye, will eventually captured on film.

Try to make any superfluous objects in the room as dark as possible. If you have a makeshift studio set up in a bedroom or office, be mindful that white or light colored objects have a way of reflecting colors into the room. Use dark sheets to cover these items, or remove them altogether. This applies to your clothing, as well. Try to wear dark clothing to make yourself as inconspicuous as possible.

Remember that you are most likely the object that is closest in proximity to the set. In many cases, the flicker you see when your animation is played back can be the result of your own shadow as you lean in to shoot your frames. Look carefully at your set before each picture is taken in order to make sure that you are not affecting the lighting in any way.

Finally, sit back and wait a few seconds before taking each shot. Sometimes the camera needs a moment to ready itself, and taking this small break can make a world of difference in the final product.

If you have already gone through the task of making your film and are seeing the flicker for the first time, there may no be much that can be done to remedy the situation. You may be able to remove the brighter frames in post production and create copies of the normal shots that came immediately before or after the lighting change, or you may want to avoid the hassle and decide to embrace the “silent-movie” look of your film.

The good news is that, if you aren’t pleased with the final product, you can follow the steps outlined above to ensure that your next film doesn’t suffer from the dreaded flicker effect.

Seascapes and Swimming Pools: Water Simulation for your Set Design

The first step to making a body of water is deciding what materials to use. A very innovative way to create the look of water without getting anything wet would be to use a floral design product called Wonder Water. This is a clear gel which thickens and hardens, yet looks exactly like water. You could add dye to it in order to create a more dramatic color, even possibly shape the top with a tool as it hardens if you need to create a choppy oceanic setting!

Another good item to consider is called Friendly Plastic. This product comes in tubs and consists of small, soft plastic pellets that soften when placed in warm water. You can then clump them together and literally mold whatever waterscape you desire. The plastic can be dyed or painted, and the best part is that you can reuse the material over and over again simply by placing it back in warm water to soften! This can become an excellent advantage if you make an error in shaping your “water”, or simply want to save money by being able to use the plastic later for other purposes.

These creations can be embellished in many ways. You can add drops of glue to the surface to enhance details and define ripples in the water. A glue gun will create perfectly sized beads that can serve as bubbles for the edges of your surf. Hair gel can also be added in or smoothed over the top of your creation and will be soft and pliable enough to allow you to animate a constantly rippling water surface.

Perhaps these options do not work well with the style of your particular film. Another nice trick to try is to use opaque, patterned glass (similar to patio table glass) and blue reflective paper underneath. When shooting your frames, simply move the paper underneath the glass to create reflective ripples on the sparkly surface of the glass. The effect can be quite dazzling.

A surprisingly realistic look can be achieved by using only a blue sheet (or paper) and plastic wrap. Place long sheets of kitchen plastic wrap over your sheet or paper and then carefully crush and scrunch the surface to create movement. The plastic wrap can lift and peak in some places, creating nice whitecaps and waves. If you keep the movement going between frames, the overall effect can be fantastic. For added shape, do not be afraid to use scotch tape behind some of the plastic wrap in order to help you achieve the look that you desire.

Any of these techniques can be manipulated in post-production, but you may find that these in-camera effects will require no extra tweaking after the frames have been shot. Experiment with several of these methods until you find the one that works for your film, and then dive in!

Review: Crazy Talk Software

Crazy Talk’s easy-to-use interface allows users to import photos, sounds and recorded images in several different file formats. You can even import images from PowerPoint! Once the program has captured the picture, it will add realistic movement and expression to humans, objects, animals, and animation. The program uses a revolutionary technology known as Facetrix, which enables you to define different areas of the face. Once this is complete, the software goes to work, using a range of emotion to project lifelike expressions and movements onto your character’s face.

Using the Expressix speech animation feature, you can either import sound files from your computer or create your own narration by using your computer’s microphone. There is an audio timeline that will enable you to lip-synch your audio precisely to the animated movements of your character’s mouth.

The special effects that are available for use in Crazy Talk 4.1 are almost too numerous to mention. Emotive templates allow you to choose a theme that will match the tone of your film. If you choose a sad or angry Emotive, your character will be animated with dozens of small facial inflections and gestures that are true to someone who feels those real emotions. This can make your figure quite lifelike, and help you to achieve an amazing, realistic look to your stop motion animation. Not only this, but you can precisely adjust the level of anger or sadness that your character expresses. Perhaps they are hiding their emotions? Maybe they are angry to the point of violence. There are 100 different levels of varying strength that you can review and select from.

If these special effects aren’t enough, you can add in multiple audio tracks and mix them for multi-dimensional sound. There is even an added chroma key feature, designed to allow you to use the program during green screen sections of your film.

Want to add features to the design of your puppet that you have not yet considered? This program allows you to create digital eyes and teeth for your puppet, adding wonderful new options for you to experiment with.

Your scenes, once run through the Crazy Talk program, can be exported as raw .bmp content which can then be imported back into your 3-d animation software This is especially useful if you are working with separate background effects. You can also export your finished files in .wav, .avi or tgi formats. If you like, you can also send them to others via cell phone or email.

Crazy Talk 4.1 has fully realized the possibilities of digital animation technology. Not only can you save an amazing amount of time with your animation, but you will be able to achieve an endless variety of realistic expressions that might not be possible without computer simulation software.

Read My Lips: Character Animation

There are many variations to mouth movements. Of course, if you are working on a low-budget or experimental project using Claymation, you may simply want to roll out a pair of tubular lips and manipulate them with your fingers. If you prefer a more precise and detailed mouth, however, it all begins with the design of your puppet.

The best way to work with an animated mouth is to create the head of your figure without one. Construct several different mouths out of the same material as your character’s head. These mouths can be shaped according to the various looks your own mouth creates when you say certain sounds in front of a mirror. Do not be concerned about the prospect of having to make hundreds of different replacement mouths for each sound that humans create. If you make roughly ten to fifteen different shapes, you should be able to have enough movement to simulate the correct motion of a wide variety of dialogue.

Place a piece of plastic wrap, cut to the shape of the back of your mouths, on the front of the head where the attachments will rest. When you get ready to film each frame, place the corresponding mouth onto the plastic wrap. Use a knife to carefully pull the attachment off of the plastic wrap, and then use a replacement mouth for the next frame. The wrap should serve as a protective covering which is designed to keep the head and attachments from incurring damage throughout the switching process.

Another great tip is to create a single mouth, but insert teeth made of a harder, plastic material. If you need to move the shape of the mouth, you can carefully go in and press the teeth with a toothpick in order to manipulate the shape of the mouth without unwittingly smashing it with your fingers.

When your character does speak, remember that most people do not close their lips entirely between sentences. It is important to animate your character’s mouth in a semi-open state in order to avoid this problem.

To address the issue of lip-synching, you may find it helpful to utilize software such as Magpie or Crazytalk software. Both programs are designed to help you match your character’s movements to spoken dialogue.

If you do not wish to go into tedious detail with your animation, you can simply show a different camera angle when your character speaks. If you choose to focus on their profile, then you can easily animate a side view of the mouth without having to create as much movement as you would from a frontward-facing position.

Silence is golden, but it can result in a boring film with an unremarkable storyline. Creating a dialogue between your characters will give them a new life and personality with which to enrich your film.

MonkeyJam: A Freeware Boon for Animators

MonkeyJam is exactly that. Initially created for two-dimensional line drawings, this software program has evolved into something special for stop motion animators everywhere. Created by David Perry, MonkeyJam acts as a frame grabber and offers a spreadsheet-style format.

The program will capture images from a webcam, or an analog or digital camera. Should you feel adventurous, it will also retrieve pictures from certain types of scanners. You can also choose to import your work in color or black and white. MonkeyJam saves each frame as you record it, so that you can come back at a later time and continue any unfinished work. Projects can be saved in many different file formats, such as jpg and bmp. The software also allows you to go back and review previous frames one-by-one, in order to help you achieve continuity in your film.

Should you find that an error was made when filming a scene, the program allows you to go in and cut individual frames. You can then copy other frames, or shoot a new frame and replace the old one. This is an incredibly important feature because it is not included in all animation editing programs. Another useful tool is frame averaging, which will make your animation flow more smoothly and add to the clarity of your picture by decreasing the amount of noise or grain in your frames. Should you need to change the speed of your film, an adjustable fps rate gives you the option of doing so.

You can also import sound from either wav or mp3 formats and add them to your film. The program features sound synch to assist in matching voices to mouth movements. In addition, you can take advantage of a sound scrubbing feature, which enables you to locate specific sections of a sound or music track.

While the user interface may be a bit strange for beginners, it is relatively easy to figure out and does not take long to become accustomed to. It is currently being developed in multiple languages. This program is not accessible for Mac users, but is Windows compatible and works with Direct X from Microsoft. The file is less than two megabytes in size. It can be downloaded from www.giantscreamingrobotmonkeys.com.

It is surprising to find such a program that is so widely used and recommended by the stop motion community. The beauty of MonkeyJam is that it contains most of the features available in other animation editing software programs, but remains completely free. Although Perry has no immediate plans to charge users to use this software, he does accept donations through his website which enable him to continue to design better and more efficient versions of MonkeyJam. As he puts it, the money serves to “help my wife understand why I spend late nights at the computer”.

Brickfilms: The LEGO Revolution

Thus began the cultural phenomenon known as the brickfilm. A brickfilm is a movie that is created by using LEGO’s, MegaBloks and other plastic, brick-shaped connective toys. Many people, particularly those who had long been LEGO collectors, started to use their blocks to build intricate sets and characters, carefully posing and then repositioning them for frame after stop motion frame.

The MovieMaker set was quietly discontinued soon after its release. The camera quality was poor, and it could no longer justify the high-dollar price tag. It had, however, sparked a wonderful interest in using LEGO’s to make stop motion films. These building bricks were the perfect medium for aspiring animators. They were small, portable, plentiful, and did not require painstaking set design or armature construction. It was, essentially, an untapped concept that began to blossom into a marketing bonanza for LEGO.

Customers began to publish their brickfilms on the internet. Jason Rowoldt, a brickfilms fan, designed a website with the same name and used it to display various brickfilms that he had viewed on other internet sites. He accepted submissions from other brickfilm enthusiasts, and the site quickly grew into the wildly popular internet destination that it has become today. It is currently owned by Josh Leasure, who took over duties in 2003.

Brickfilms.com is a booming, thriving community. It is made up of collectors, animators, special effects junkies and all-around fans. The website has an immense gallery of homegrown brickfilm productions (as well as some that look like big-budget feature films), and often features contests to sharpen the member’s competitive edge.

Animators can access busy forums, enjoy private email accounts, and even create their own websites within the Brickfilms.com domain! Members have also begun to collaborate on larger projects which they call “community” films.

In March of 2006, a brickfilms podcast was recognized on iTunes, appearing prominently on the iPod music and podcast page. The brickfilms podcasts are a revolutionary blend of animated films (from various members of the brickfilms.com community), tips and tutorials designed to educate the public at large and promote the brickfilm phenomenon.

Many amateur filmmakers who have created truly great brickfilms are regarded with the same low-key awe and respect from fellow brick filmmakers as the general public acts towards prominent Hollywood feature film directors

The movement has become so strong that there is now an annual film festival dedicated to the craft of brickfilm animation. This year’s event will be held in late August in Washington D.C. For more information, visit this fascinating website at www.brickfilms.com.

Though LEGO has shied away from its initial marketing strategy and seems to dislike the growing success of brickfilms.com, they unwittingly started a trend that is not likely to go away anytime soon.

A Beginner’s Guide to Stop Motion Animation (On a Shoestring Budget)

Stop motion films are making a comeback. With the long and successful run of digitally animated productions, artists who subscribed to the old-school methods of animations were having a difficult time coming to terms with the dwindling popularity of Claymation and stop motion films.

Now that their films are being recognized, most notably the Academy Award-winning, “Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit”, stop motion animation has returned to the forefront of people’s minds and hearts.

To begin creating your own animated film, you must first purchase a camera. Many stop motion filmmakers use simple webcams, many of which are available for less than $40.00 (some are even occasionally advertised as free after rebates). Connect the camera to your computer, and you are almost ready to go!

It is essential that you have a good animation editing program in order to piece your movie together. Visit www.giantscreamingrobotonkeys.com and download a free copy of MonkeyJam software. This is an excellent program which is used by many professional editors today. And, best of all, it is completely free!

For lighting, gather up as many lamps as you can find. Take off the shades and place them around your set. Another trick is to use work lights that may be readily available in your garage. Remove the grills, and hang them above and beside your set.

Now that you have your basic equipment, consider the story you wish to tell with your film. Are you going to create an experimental stop motion film which explores what really happens when people close their refrigerator door, or do you want to break out that old box of LEGO’s under your bed and create a parody of a once important, pretentious film?

Gather together the items you might like to use as your characters or props. If you wish to build sets and create shapes from clay, let no-one discourage you! But remember, for a first film it may be a bit easier (and more economical!) to pry your daughter’s Barbie doll from under the sofa and dust off her hair.

Create your set in a place that is convenient for you to capture frames on your webcam. You may want to clear off the surface of your computer desk in order to utilize the space for filming the scenes of your movie. Once your characters are positioned, move them in very slow increments in between frames. Refer to your software program as often as you shoot your film! Compare the pictures that you take with the ones you took before. This will ensure a smooth flow and continuity to your character’s movement.

When you have finished shooting your film, and want to add some sound effects, visit www.grsites.com/sounds. You will be able to browse through one of the largest free sound clips collections on the internet.

If you follow these steps, an entertaining and fun film can be created for little to no money. Upgrade your equipment over time, and focus on the craft. Above all, remember that practice makes perfect!

Review: Xipster Animation Software

Xipster FullStop is a program dedicated to producing stop motion animation with ease. Simply use your webcam or digital camera to upload a photo of your character, and let the fun begin! The software will allow you to create a fully animated stop motion masterpiece in a matter of minutes.

It is designed for the average-Joe who has little or no knowledge of the stop motion animation process, which makes it perfect for beginners. FullStop contains a music and sound effects library, and will also allow you to add your own voice or music files to your project.

Once you have created a film, you can export it in QuickTime format. This will allow you to send your work to family and friends through email or add pizzazz to your website! Xipster software has developed such a following that the company website has created galleries where users frequently visit to upload their creations!

They will soon expand on this idea by allowing the most dedicated animators to become XAP’s, or members of Xipster’s affiliate program. These artists can create characters which are then made available for others to purchase and use in their own Xipster films.

If you have several different stop motion films in progress with Xipster, you can combine them into one larger project. This is especially helpful for someone who doesn’t have the time to produce a complete film, but loves to work on individual scenes.
The FullStop program sells for a very reasonable $29.95, and comes with a test drive in case you would like to preview the program before making a purchase.

For those who would like to venture into other forms of animation, Xipster FreeStyle could be for you. It includes pre-animated characters that can be customized by uploading personal photos. Your new creations will then animate themselves around a variety of props and backgrounds to create a mini-film.

Audio can be imported from pre-recorded or MP3 tracks and combined with sound and music effects made available through the software. When you are finished with your project, the files can be exported and shared with others in a wide variety of formats.

The Xipster FreeStyle program has many different plug-ins that enable animators to add to their creative options. XipPacks feature new characters, props, backgrounds and music to expand the scope of your project. The core FreeStyle program costs $39.95 and offers a free test-drive preview, if you wish to review the software before making a purchase. FreeStyle is also available with several XipPax add-on programs which increase the final cost by anywhere from $9.95 to $130.00.

For the animator on-the-go, Xipster is a fun and unique way to experiment with the possibilities that can be achieved through stop motion animation. For less than thirty dollars, it is a beginning animator’s best bet.