Key techniques for stop motion character development

by Joost | Last Updated: June 30, 2021
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What’s a great stop motion puppet that you’ve seen? Why is it memorable? What makes the stop motion puppet fit in with the animation style?

If you want to make your own stop motion animation, character development is one of the most important features.

That’s what I’m going to focus on today!

Key techniques for stop motion character development

In this guide, I’m sharing the best techniques to make stop motion characters. Also, I discuss the differences between using toys, clay puppets, and other inanimate objects and how to make your own unique models.

How do you make a stop motion character?

Over the years, the stop motion animation industry has evolved greatly. There are traditional ways to make characters and also new innovative methods that help you create something unique.

The truth is that you can tell each object in the animation is handmade and so there is a hint of imperfection which makes stop motion different from other kinds of films.

Playmobil petting zoo stop motion
Playmobil petting zoo stop motion

The first sign of a good stop motion production is a character with distinguishing physical features.

Making a character requires lots of prep work, many materials, and even props and improvisation. Visit your local hardware and craft store before you start.

Just be prepared, stop motion animation is different from classic film.

Main stop motion character types

Here are the main types of characters:

Claymation

This refers to plasticine puppets without internal armature. These models are the most flexible and simple to mold.

The downside is that they can lose their shape faster and your movement options are rather limited. That’s because you can’t use plasticine to express as many intricate emotions and moves.

One of the most beloved claymation films is Chicken Run (2000) and more recently Coraline (2009) is considered to be one of the best stop motion films.

If you’re looking for inspiration, check out the famous animations of Peter Lord who created two iconic clay figures: Wallace and Gromit. His film is one of the most successful examples of stop motion.

For tips on how to make a simple clay puppet, watch this instructive Youtube video:

Armature models

Armatures are stop motion puppets that are made of a wire skeleton. The plastic and foam-covered armature is bent and manipulated into the shape you want.

Then, the puppets are covered in foam or felt and clothing just like toys. These are some of the most popular “actors” in stop motion animation.

Take a look at this YouTube tutorial to see how an armature model is created:

Clockwork mechanical puppets

Allen keys are used to control the puppets’ heads.

Thus, the animator can use a clockwork mechanism to alter each element, including movements and facial expressions by turning a key.

With these puppets, you can create very precise movements.

This type of stop motion animation is quite uncommon but major film studios use this when making lavish production.

Replacement animation

This refers to 3D-printed faces for characters. The studio no longer has to create each puppet individually but instead just uses sculpted faces to change facial expressions and create movement.

This allows for highly detailed features. 3D printing now allows for fancy stop motion productions that are so realistic you can hardly compare them to claymation.

This new technology changes the way that animations are created but comes with great results.

What are the characters made of in stop motion?

Newbies always have one burning question, “what can I make characters out of?”

Characters are made of metal, clay, wood, plastic, and other chemical compounds.

Almost anything you can think of. If you want to take a shortcut, you can always use some toys that you have on hand to create your animated production.

You’ll be using your characters to shoot series of photos and frames so make sure you have a backup too.

How do you make stop motion toys?

Unless you’re a toy-making wizz, it’s best to use toys you can buy.

But the word toy here refers to all elements of the animation, including the puppets, set, and secondary objects.

Stop motion toys can be easy to make and in many cases, kids can start making toys at age 6. However, professional films require complex products and equipment.

Most figures are made with craft store materials or plastics. You need a few small hand tools and supplies.

Supplies and tools

There are more tools you can use of course, but it depends on what part of the puppet you work on and what kind of method you use.

Don’t feel limited to basic craft tools, you can always experiment when making figurines for stop motion films.

Best material to make your own stop motion characters

The characters have to be moveable and easy to bend into the desired shapes and positions. Thus, you need to use flexible materials.

The sky is the limit when it comes to innovation but usually, there are a few popular materials that everybody uses. I am listing them in this section.

Some animators prefer to make their characters out of colorful modeling clay. This implies molding and shaping your own characters.

They need to have a sturdy bottom, so use your fingers to flatten the plasticine so the model stays upright.

The reason why stop motion is still popular is that stop motion puppets have a realistic texture whereas CGI animated films are more artificial.

If you want to make more complex elements, you can use the following materials:

Wire for the armature (skeleton)

To make a basic character, you can use wire to make the character’s body and shape.

20 gauge aluminum wire is flexible and easy to work with so you can make the skeleton.

Avoid steel armature wire because it doesn’t bend easily.

Foam for the muscles

Next, cover the wire in a thin foam that you can find at craft stores. The foam is a kind of muscle for your wire skeleton.

Imagine you’re making a king kong figurine, the black-colored foam is perfect as the base for a fur-covered ape.

Modeling clay

Finally, cover the doll or object in modeling clay that doesn’t harden and dry out so your model remains flexible.

Try to use tools or your fingers to shape the body parts.

Claymation has a long history and kids (and adults) still love clay figurines!

Fabric for clothing and accessories

To make clothing, you can use regular fabric from the store or use old clothing to make new clothes for your models.

I recommend using solid colors for beginners because patterns may appear too large in the animation.

Alternatively, you can buy doll clothes for your characters.

Paper

You can always use paper to make your characters for stop motion photography. Although you might need some serious origami skills, paper models are fun to work with.

You can make any model, including humans, animals, and even a building for your film world.

The thing is that you have to use good quality paper that doesn’t rip easily.

Polyurethane

This is a flexible plastic material that is used for puppet casting. What I like about this plastic is that you can cut it and mold it into whatever you need.

You can use steel or aluminum wire and balls to create details and unique parts.

Foam latex

Foam latex is a material made of a combination of chemicals.

This material is used to fill the puppet molds and create figurines. After it dries, the foam is pulled out and you have a puppet.

The good thing is that this material lets you create many puppets using a single mold.

Then you can paint your models and carve features into the puppet heads.

How to choose the right figurines to be able to do stop motion animation

Is there such a thing as the right figurine? Probably not, but you should make sure your elements are easy to manipulate.

A stiff puppet is no good!

What’s the first sign that your figure is not suitable for the stop motion world?

Usually, if the character loses its shape or becomes stiff, it’s not good for stop motion animation.

All animators know that stop motion animation requires constant innovation and creativity as you want the figurines to be unique.

String puppets (marionettes) are fairly easy to work with, but editing the string out is a true nightmare for beginners.

But, for starters, you can practice moving your dolls around with strings.

Here are some guidelines to follow:

Puppet size

A small puppet is harder to maneuver and it is harder to film close-up scenes of the face and specific facial expressions.

A large puppet, on the other hand, can be too big for your background and in part, hard to keep in frame and to scale.

So, before you begin the filming process of stop motion animation, try to see how the puppet stands and moves around.

Check how it looks on camera and tinker with armatures to make everything stable.

Every puppet must hold its position for a few minutes so you have enough time to shoot the frames properly.

How to create a stop motion character that can bring the audience in

As an example, let’s take a look at the characters of Fantastic Mr. Fox. It’s a 2009 Wes Anderson stop motion film.

The film is about the life of a family of foxes and one of the reasons behind its success is the memorable animal characters.

The puppets closely resemble real foxes with fur and everything!

This type of puppet animation with realistic-looking animals, fun decor, and cute clothing are appealing to children and adults alike.

The characters in the film are complex and the designs are complex and of course, you’d expect that from a Hollywood stop motion animation.

Expressive facial movements

Every part of the animation represents vivid scenes because all the foxes have very expressive facial features.

Thus, the audience can feel and empathize with what is happening onscreen.

Emotions are important because they draw your viewers in. When you zoom in to the face, the body parts need to move well.

Thus, plasticine eyes may be too hard to move, so I recommend using beads as eyes. Insert beads and pins in the back of the head then turn the eyes like that.

As I mentioned in the previous section, series with bold and vivid characters that can express the themes of the story do very well.

Those series are memorable because people connect with the story world.

Choosing the right character for your shooting stage

Professional animators will recommend that you keep the set simple. Character animation is harder if there are many things happening in the frame.

Go for a minimal set and let the characters be the stars of the action. Less is more is true in this case!

Don’t shoot outdoors. You need dark light conditions like in outer space and good powerful lamps.

Colorful characters look great on-screen and bring out the details of each move.

Focus on the close-ups, because this way, you can focus on perfecting movements.

Keep in mind that armatures have a direct effect on how you maneuver the puppets.

Character size and backdrop

Keep in mind that your backdrop must be big so use a sheet of paper. Curve it like a half-pipe so that you can shoot from different angles and still have the backdrop in the shot.

Stop motion demands that you create a balance between the object in the foreground and the background but the foreground should be the focus.

The character should be smaller than the background. Also, each puppet should be lightweight yet stable on its feet. flist

If you lack inspiration, you can check the Animation Chefs Pinterest page for more puppet animation ideas and cool things you can do.

Animation Chefs pinterest board for stop motion character inspiration

(check it out here)

Tips for shooting your characters for video & film

You’re here because you want some techniques and tips for shooting something amazing with your puppets.

If you’re wondering what some things are that you can improve, keep reading. After all, taking thousands of photos is not quick and easy work.

Here are basic ways to improve your stop motion animation technique:

There are many filming techniques and there’s something that works for everyone but it’s all about making smooth transitions between frames.

The more subtle and smooth each transition is, the more realistic the movement will appear on camera.

Make your own character vs using toys

Creatives and professionals working for movie studios will make original characters.

But, using toys for stop motion model animation is another way to shoot an animated feature film.

Is there an advantage to making your own objects? Sure, they are YOUR creation and the physical uniqueness of each is more rewarding than a store-bought toy.

However, if you need to shoot in a timely matter, it is easier to buy.

Example: Aardman Animations

If you look at an Aardman Animations clay animation film you’ll realize that it has distinct models that are universally recognizable.

The reason is that the pieces of their sets and animations are made in a specific style. Characters look goofy yet cute at the same time and the buildings are representative of Great Britain’s architecture.

The more distinct the story world, the more interesting the film is for audiences.

Now, if you use toys, you’re characters might not be totally unique.

If, for example, you have a superman-like action figure, people immediately associate the animation with the comic book universe.

Best toys for stop motion characters

There are many toys and products you can use to build a puppet and the set for your video.

All of them can be used as-is or you can always alter them and combine them with other things to make fun protagonists and villains.

But first, think about your target audience. Who is going to watch your animation? Is it targeted towards adults or kids?

Use the figurines that are most appropriate for your audience and story. The stop motion puppet has to match the “role” in the video.

Tinkertoys

This is a toy set for kids made out of wooden pieces. There are wheels, sticks, and other wooden shapes and components.

It’s one of the best materials for building sets for your animation. You can also make humanoid and animals out of these components.

Since each part is made of wood, flexibility is not a strong point of these toys, but they are sturdy.

But, part of the appeal is that you can use the toys as the base for constructing your people, pets, monsters, etc.

Lego

Lego bricks are a fun way to build your set and characters for all your films.

Lego is made of many pieces of plastic. Each plastic part has a certain color and you can create a beautiful movie universe.

The Lego sets offer set ideas and ways to assemble the pieces so you can stop brainstorming and get to building.

Here is a list of some great LEGO sets to buy:

Best lego set for buildings and sets stop motion characters - LEGO Minecraft The Fortress

(view more images)

Action figures

You can find all kinds of action figures for your production.

Make sure to look for flexible action figures so you can alter the position of the feet, hands, head to create the appearance of movement.

There are many types of figures including humans, animals, monsters, mythical creates, and objects.

Here are some action figures on Amazon:

Superhero Action Figures, 10 Pack Adventures Ultimate Set, PVC Toy Dolls for stop motion characters

(view more images)

Small dolls

Small children’s dolls are great for your stop-frame animation. The dolls don’t have armatures but they are still easy to mold and create action scenes.

You can use anything from plush stuffed toys to Barbie dolls, and other kinds of plastic dolls.

Metal armature model

While it’s not quite a toy in the true sense of the word, you can play around with this DIY armature kit from Amazon.

It is a large metallic skeleton with flexible joints, arms, and feet. The joints have a single pivot so the movements mimic real human moves.

With this handy model, you can stop worrying about building the armature out of wire.

Diy Studio Stop Motion Armature Kits | Metal Puppet Figure for Character Design Creation

(view more images)

Model animation studio

If you’re looking for a shortcut when working in stop motion animation, you can buy pre-made sets from Amazon.

These include a background, a few decor elements, and some plastic action figures for your scenes.

Sure, you pay for the sets and the shipping but it’s cheaper than making everything from scratch.

Check out the Stikbot Zanimation Studio with Pet and you can make a cute animation for kids with all the parts.

Stikbot Zanimation Studio with Pet - Includes 2 Stikbots, 1 Horse Stikbot, 1 Phone Stand and 1 Reversible Backdrop for stop motion

(view more images)

Dollhouses

Complete dollhouses, like Barbie Dreamhouse Dollhouse has a complete miniature home with furniture, decor, and plastic Barbie dolls.

You can then zoom in and take close-up photos of each little compartment in the house.

Takeaway

Stop motion animation is a very creative type of filmmaking. The first sign of good animation is notable and remarkable figures and puppets.

To make your own stop motion puppets, start off with basic clay, then move on to armature, and once your budget increases you can move on to plastic and 3D printing to make studio-worthy stop-frame films.

Part of the appeal of these films is the uniqueness of each puppet. Start off with a blank “page” and then work in small increments to make your story come alive.

Every section of the animation should use the armatures well to ensure smooth transitions.

Touch device users can always benefit from the latest technology, including smartphones that help you film with swipe gestures.

So, why not start making your story world today so you can begin to turn it into animation?