Pixilation is one of my favorite kinds of animation both to make and to watch. You can think of it as full-body stop-motion animation. It’ll get you up out of your comfy seats and active!  Even better: you can go outside to shoot.

In stop-motion animation, like that of Ray Harryhausen, Wallace & Gromit or Gumby  you animate an inanimate object by taking a picture,  and then moving it or parts of it a little bit,  and taking another picture. You string these pictures or “frames” together  in video-editing software to create the illusion of motion. People in pixilations appear to slide around without moving their legs, move between two different points in the blink of an eye, or even fly (!)  because they run from one place to another between each frame. That’s why we spell “pixilation” with an “I”  not an “E”: it’s about  turning the subjects of the short films into magical pixies of a sort.

I got a lot of tips for this project from my friend and colleague Matthew Searle, who put it best: “The best thing about pixilation is that you have the most articulated puppet one could ask for – the human body! Just be sure your “puppets” are patient and excited about the project.”

You can see how it works in these classic examples:

  • Neighbours” (1952), a National Film Board of Canada short by Norman McLaren that is an allegory about peace and war,  demonstrating some simple tricks that pixilation permits. I recommend skipping the first 2 minutes that’s when the magic starts, and who wants  to watch the two  argumentative men light and smoke their pipes. (Which was normal 60 years ago, but not so much now!)
  • A personal favorite in our household is the video for “End Love” by OK Go. Directors Jeff Lieberman and Eric Gunther shot the video over 18 hours on site at Echo Park in Los Angeles, including overnight– this can give you a sense of how much time you can invest in a project like this!  Similarly, in the video for “Sledgehammer” (1987) by Peter Gabriel director Stephen R. Johnson engaged Aardman Animations (the makers of Wallace & Gromit) and the Brothers Quay and Peter Gabriel  was stuck under glass for 16 hours! It won 9 MTV Video Music Awards (still the record!), and it is MTV’s all-time #1 animated video.
  • A few faculty and 140 high school students from Hunter College High School put together nearly 2,000 photos at 8 frames per second, for a terrific music video all shot on a Canon T3 camera. And here’s one more pretty fun one by Pixillation Lab Orizzonti 2010, a group of kids ranging in age. The first 2 minutes has no pixilation in it, so you can fast-forward past the first third of it.
  • Matthew’s favorites: Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb, a very strange movie with a tiny clay character interacting with human characters. Fresh Guacamole and Western Spaghetti: while not all of PES‘s films are pixilations, they will give you lots of ideas of how to create a collection of equivalents to animate with your actors. Food, a totally wild short in which Jan Svankmajer used clay to expand the human faces as they ate large objects.

Matthew and I describe below how to do this with still pictures. There’s another pretty easy way to get similar results, developed by another friend, David Yoon. Check out his tutorial: http://vimeo.com/71447335

Project Steps

Get your software

Download iStopMotion by Boinx. You can buy it for about $50 or try the demo version. The advantage to this program is that you can see what you are animating as you take each frame. This advantage is lost if you do not have a camera that works with the program, so either do some web research, try out your camera, or contact Boinx. Otherwise you will be doing “blind” animation, which is a fine way to do it, but harder to line things up.

Other video editing software that you have already on your computer may do the trick for putting all of your still images into a single video file, but you will have fewer of the extras that make stop motion easy in Boinx’s software. For example, you will not have a way to see the difference between one frame and the next, which will have you operating blindly as you shoot your pictures. But that might be OK for your first pixilation video!

Get ideas and plan it out

Watch some of our suggested videos (Neighbours, End Love, Sledgehammer, Hunter College High School, Pixillation Lab Orizzonti) and others online to figure out what stop motion magic your group wants to do. Sketch it out as a storyboard, drawing where different actors will be in each scene and what kind of motion you want, fast or slow. You can skip this step if you just want to play around and watch the results. Matthew adds, “A little storyboarding, even on your pizza box that you fed your actors from, will go a long way.”

Incorporate these silly and surprising motions into your storyboard plan: — Disappear/Reappear — Walk Through Walls — Magically Transforming Objects — Make Things Ooze / Bleed / Blow Up — Sliding — Flying

Decide on your frame rate

How many pictures will you need to take? The one by Hunter College High School used 8 frames per second (FPS), while 24 FPS is fairly standard. Some 35mm movies get projected at 72 images per second! Scientists estimate that our eyes and brain can process 10–12 separate images per second. Your frame rate will affect how many pictures you shoot to complete an action or movement.

Set up

Set up your camera and your stage or staging area.

Take picture #1

Put everyone in the scene who needs to be there. (This placement of actors on a stage is called “blocking.”) Take your first picture.

Move, click, repeat

Move everyone in the scene incrementally–a little bit or a lot, either changing their locations, moving a limb, etc. Take your second picture. Move again, take a third picture. Move again, take your fourth, fifth, sixth, and so on. Keep on shooting until you capture all of the pictures you planned for your short. Hint: if you want to “fly”, jump up into the air when you take the picture. for a long flight, it may be easiest to jump over and over again, moving forward, using video rather than still frames, and then delete the frames where you are on your way up and back down again, so that your flight follows a straight path.

Integrate objects that are equivalents or replacements

Look around and collect items that have similarities, similar shape, size, or color. Between taking frames of your animation, you can replace your actor, your actor’s clothes, the objects your actor is holding or sitting on or interacting with.

Same color, different size: orange road cone, orange plastic sword, carrot, cheeto, orange crayon

Same size, range of color: actor holds yellow object, yellow-orange, orange, red-orange, red. Crayons, paper, clothes.

Having all of your actors wearing the same outfit will allow you to interchange them.

Having all of your actors in solid colors will allow you to trade them out for objects of the same color.

Favorite example for demonstrating replacement/equivalents: Slowly shrinking to nothing – have your actor in a large colorful jacket, walk to the center of the screen (taking a frame at a time of course), hunch down on the ground, scrunch into the smallest ball they can make, take the jacket off and put it over them, replace the actor with an object slightly smaller than them, smaller object, smaller object, scrunch up the jacket each time, replace the jacket with material the same color, keep scrunching that up, until you replace it with less and less of that material until there is nothing left.

Favorite go-to material: A packet of large sheets of colored tissue paper – it will go a long way since it can be flat planes of color, scrunched up balls of color, or even flattened versions of objects that get smooshed in your animation.

Also note that these strategies help make smoother transitions in your animation and that even simply putting something where your actor was or putting a new actor there will have continuity because the viewer is expecting something to be there.

Test your video

When you have dozens to hundreds of pictures, it’s time to see what you have made! You don’t have to wait until the very end to take a peek–it’s fun to see the motion along the way! Simply hit the “Play” button in iStopMotion, or import your pictures into your video editing software and lay them out on your timeline specifying the duration of each still based on your frame rate.

Share your video

Keep going, and when you are all done with your pixilation, upload it to YouTube and share the link on Google+.

Animate the camera (optional)

Yes, you can leave your camera in one spot on a tripod and it will even provide great consistency in your animation, but animating your camera can create a whole new set of parameters for your film. Move your camera – slowly around your actor, up above your actor and then back down to reveal a change. Zoom – zoom in and out, reveal something as you zoom out, make something appear as you zoom in, zoom in on an area of color and then replace the object with something that is the same color before you zoom out.

Make the impossible arc (optional)

This is something borrowed from clay animation to make an actor look like they are leaping or doing back flips. Start your actor in their most recessed position (i.e. lowest to the ground while on their feet), animate them moving up, and up, and up, until they are on one foot, arm outstretched in the direction they are going, fully expressed. Then put them into the position they are going in to (now standing on a chair, clinging to a wall, landing on their hands) and have their body fully expressed to overlap as much as possible with their previous position. Then animate your actor into their next most recessed position. This is kind of like animating a ball bouncing and having the ball compress when it is landing and then move upward into the height of an arc and then start to decline until it is compressed again.