Everything You Need to Know About Armatures for Stop Motion Animation Characters

by Joost | Last Updated: July 11, 2022
I love creating free content full of tips for my readers, you. I don't accept paid sponsorships, my opinion is my own, but if you find my recommendations helpful and you end up buying something you like through one of my links, I could earn a commission at no extra cost to you.

What is an armature for stop motion animation characters? An armature is the skeleton or frame that gives shape and support to a character. It allows the character to move. Without it, they’d just be a blob!

In this guide, I’ll explain what an armature is, how it works, and why it’s so important to stop motion animation.

What is an armature in stop motion animation

An armature is a skeleton or framework that supports the figure or puppet. It gives the figure strength and stability during animation

There are many different types of armatures you can buy ready-made, usually made of metal or plastic. But if you want, you could even make them yourself. 

Best ball socket armature for stop motion | Top options for life-like characters

History of armatures in stop motion animation

One of the first majorly complex armatures used in film would have to be the classic gorilla puppet developed by Willis O’Brien and Marcel Delgado for the 1933 film King Kong. 

O’Brien had already made a name for himself with the production of the 1925 film The Lost world. For King Kong he perfected many of these techniques, creating smoother animation.

He and Delgado would create models made out of rubber skin built up over complex articulated metal armatures allowing for much more detailed characters.

Another pioneer in the work of armatures was Ray Harryhausen. Harryhausen was a protege of O’Brien and together they would later make productions as Mighty Joe Young (1949), which won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.

Although a lot of big productions came from the US, in Eastern Europe in the early 1900’s stop motion and puppet making was also very much alive and thriving.

One of the most famous animators of the time was Jiri Trnka, who might be called the inventor of the ball and socket armature. Although many similar armatures were made at that time, it’s hard to say if he really can be called the first inventor. 

We can say that his way of building the ball and socket armature has been a great influence on later stop motion animators.

Character design & how to choose the right type of armature

Before even thinking of starting to craft your own armature, you must first think about the specs of it. 

What does your character need to be able to do? What kinds of movement will be required of them? Will your puppet be walking or jumping? Will they be filmed only from the waist up? What emotions does the character express and what is needed in terms of body language? 

All these things come to mind when you are building your armature.

So let’s look into the different kinds of armatures that are out there in the wild!

Different types of armature

You can use all sorts of materials for armatures. But when it comes to the most versatile you have basically 2 options: Wire armatures and ball and socket armatures.

Wire armatures are often made out of metal wire such as steel, aluminum, or copper. 

Usually you can find armature wire at your hardware store or get it online. 

Because it’s so easy to find at a cheap price. A wire armature is a good place to start if you want to create your own armature. 

The wire is able to hold shape and is pliable at the same time. This makes it easy to reposition your character over and over. 

Ball and socket armatures are made out of metal tubes connected by ball and socket joints. 

The joints can be kept in position for a long time if they are tight enough for your clamping requirements. Also, you can adjust their tightness to your preference.

The advantage of ball and socket armatures is that they don’t have fixed joints and instead have flexible joints which allow for a wide range of movement.

Ball and socket joints allow you to imitate natural human movement with your puppets.

This is important for stop motion animation because it allows the animator to position the puppet in any number of positions and create the illusion of movement.

However it would not surprise you to hear that this is a far more pricier option than the wire armature. 

But ball and socket armatures are really durable and could make the investment worth your while. 

Next to these options you can also choose to go with puppet armatures, plastic beads armatures and another newcomer in the field: 3d printed armatures. 

You can safely say that 3d printing has revolutionized the stop motion world.

With big studios such as Laika being able to print out parts in big numbers. 

Whether it’s for puppets, prototypes or replacement parts, it has for sure led to more and more advanced puppet creation. 

I haven’t tried making armatures myself with 3d printing. I think it would be important to have good quality 3d printing machines. To make sure that all the parts are connected in a stable manner. 

What type of wires can you use for making armatures

There are a couple of options out there, and I’ll list a few of them.

Aluminum wire

The most common option is aluminum 12 to 16 gauge armature wire. 

Aluminum is more pliable and lighter than other metal wires and has the same weight and the same thickness.

To make a stop motion puppet, an aluminum wire coil is the best material because it is highly durable with low memory and holds up well when bent.

Copper wire

Another great option is copper. This metal is a better heat conductor so it means that it’s less likely to expand and contract due to temperature changes.

Also, copper wire is heavier than aluminum wire. This is ideal if you’re looking to build larger and stronger puppets that don’t topple over and weigh more.

I wrote a buying guide about wires for armatures. Here I go deeper into the different types of wire that are out there. And what you should consider before choosing one. 

Whatever option you choose, I’d suggest getting a couple of them and to try it out. See how flexible and durable it is and if it suits your puppets needs. 

How thick should the wire be for making armatures

Of course there are many different use cases for the wire but for the body and the leg parts you can go for a 12 to 16 gauge armature wire, depending on the size and format of your figure. 

For arms, fingers and other small elements you can opt for a 18 gauge wire. 

How to use an armature with rigs

You can use armatures for all sorts of characters. Be it puppets or clay figures. 

However one thing you mustn’t forget about is the rigging of the armature. 

There are many options available. From simple wires to rig arms and complet rig winder system. All have their own pros and cons.

I wrote an article about rig arms. You can check it out here

How to make your own armature?

When starting out, I would suggest first trying to make a wire armature. It’s a cheaper and easier option to get started with. 

There are many tutorials out there, including this one here, so I won’t go into too much detail. 

But basically you first measure the length of your wire by making a drawing of your character in actual size. 

You then create the armature by coiling the wire around itself. This increases the strength and stability of the armature. 

The arms and legs are attached by epoxy putty to the back bone of the puppet. 

When the skeleton is done, you can then start by adding padding for the puppet or figure. 

Here is a comprehensive video on how to make a wire armature.

Wire armature Vs Ball and socket armature

Wire armatures are great for creating lightweight, flexible structures. They’re perfect for making hands, hair, and adding rigidity to clothes. Thick gauges are used to make arms, legs, puppets, and to make rigid arms to hold small things.

Wire armatures are made of coiled wire, which is less stable and solid than ball and socket armatures. But if built correctly, they can be just as good as the more expensive options. So if you’re looking for something cost-effective and accessible, wire armatures are the way to go!

Ball and socket armatures, on the other hand, are more complex. 

They are made up of small joints that can be tightened and loosened to adjust the stiffness of the puppet. 

They’re great for creating dynamic poses and can be used to make more complex puppets. So, if you’re looking for something a bit more advanced, ball and socket armatures are the way to go!

Conclusion

Stop motion animation is a fun and creative way to bring characters to life! If you’re looking to create your own characters, you’ll need an armature. An armature is the skeleton of your character and is essential for creating smooth and realistic movements.

Remember, the armature is the backbone of your character, so don’t SKIMP on it! Oh, and don’t forget to have fun – after all, that’s what stop motion animation is all about!