What is pixilation in stop motion?

by Joost | Last Updated: October 22, 2021
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If you’re a fan of stop motion animation, you might’ve come across movies where people are the actors – you might see their hands, feet, face, or entire body, depending on the technique.

This is called pixilation, and you’re probably wondering, well, what is pixilation exactly?

What is pixilation in stop motion?

Pixilation is a type of stop motion animation that uses human actors as living puppets instead of dolls and figurines. The live actors pose for each photographic frame and then change each pose slightly.

Unlike a live-action movie, a stop motion pixilation is shot with a photo camera, and all the thousands of photos are played back to create the illusion of motion on the screen.

Making a pixilation animation is hard because the actors have to imitate the movements of puppets, so their poses can only change in very small increments for each frame.

Holding and changing the poses is challenging, even for the most experienced actors.

Playmobil petting zoo stop motion
Playmobil petting zoo stop motion

But, the main pixilation technique involves taking frame-by-frame subject photos and then playing them back rapidly to imitate the illusion of movement.

Difference between stop motion and pixilation

Most pixilation techniques are similar to traditional stop motion techniques, but the visual style is different because it’s more realistic.

In some cases, though, pixilation is a surreal visual experience, stretching the limits and boundaries of human action.

The most important thing to know is that pixilation is a form of stop motion animation, and there are lots of similarities between pixilation films using real people and stop motion using puppets and objects.

The main difference is the subjects: humans vs. objects & puppets.

Pixilation also uses stop motion puppets and objects alongside the humans, so it’s a kind of hybrid animation.

When you create traditional stop motion films, you can use armatures or clay (claymation) to build the dolls, and you photograph them moving in small increments.

If you’re filming pixilation videos, you photograph humans doing tiny incremental movements.

Now, you can film their whole body or just parts. Hands are usually the most common, and many pixilation short films feature hand “acting.”

The resulting movie is fascinating because it becomes a surreal experience to watch. The bodies or body parts perform actions or moves that seem outside of regular laws of physics, just like animated characters.

However, since the body is recognizable, the animation is very realistic since we can recognize the environment and human motions.

What is an example of pixilation?

There are so many great examples of pixilation; I just have to share some of them with you – I can’t stick to just one!

The short pixilation film with the most awards of all time is Luminaris (2011) by Juan Pablo Zaramella.

It’s a wonderful story about a man in Spain with an idea to reverse the natural order of things.

Since the world is controlled by light and time, he creates a giant lightbulb like a hot air balloon to take him and his love interest outside the controlled time and space of the regular workday.

Kids also love to take part in pixilation. Here’s a short video of child actors in a pixilation by the famous Cartoon Museum.

Another interesting example of pixilation is an advertisement for a shoe by the popular animator PES called Human Skateboard.

In this work, one young man plays the role of the skateboard, and the other is the rider. It’s a cool concept, and it’s a fun take on outdoor sports.

It doesn’t quite make sense, but that’s what makes it stand out, and people surely remember the ad.

Finally, I also want to mention another film by PES called Western Spaghetti which is actually the first cooking stop motion video.

Music videos

You’ll notice that many pixilation videos are, in fact, music videos.

A prime example of a pixilation music video is Sledgehammer by Peter Gabriel (1986).

Here’s the video, and it’s worth a watch because director Stephen R. Johnson used a combination of pixilation techniques, claymation, and classic stop motion animation from Aardman Animations to make it.

For a more recent pixilation music video, check out the song End Love by OK Go from 2010. It almost looks like it’s filmed with a video camera, but it is actually a pixilation animation.

You can watch the video here:

Pixelation vs. pixilation

Many people mistakenly assume that pixilation and pixelation are the same things, but these are two completely different things.

Pixelation is something that happens to images displayed on the computer screen.

Here’s the definition:

Computer graphics, pixelation (or pixellation in British English) is caused by displaying a bitmap or a section of a bitmap at such a large size that individual pixels, small single-colored square display elements that comprise the bitmap, are visible. Such an image is said to be pixelated (pixellated in the UK).

Wikipedia

Pixilation is a form of stop animation using live actors.

Who invented pixilation?

James Stuart Blackton was the inventor of the pixilation animation technique in the early 1900s. But, this kind of animation wasn’t called pixilation until the fifties.

Blackton (1875 – 1941) was a silent film producer and pioneer of drawn as well as stop motion animation and worked in Hollywood.

His first film for the public was The Haunted Hotel in 1907. He photographed and animated the short film in which a breakfast prepares itself.

The film was produced in the USA by Vitagraph Company of America.

Watch the video here – it’s a silent pixilation but pay close attention to how the people move. You’ll notice they are changing pose slightly for each frame.

As you can see, there are human actors in this silent movie, and you can observe the frame sequence unfold. At the time, the film was quite scary to people who weren’t used to objects moving unnaturally.

It was only in the 1950s that pixilation animated films really took off.

Canadian animator Norman McLaren made the pixilation animation technique famous with his short Oscar-winning film Neighbours in 1952.

This film is still considered one of the most popular pixilation films of all time. Therefore, McLaren is widely credited with making pixilation films, although he is not the true inventor.

Did you know that the term ‘pixilation’ was coined in the 1950s by Grant Munro, McLaren’s colleague?

Thus, the first person to create a pixilation film wasn’t the person who named this new animation style.

History of pixilation 

This form of stop motion animation is quite old and dates back to 1906 but it was popularized a few years later, in the 1910s.

As I mentioned above, J. Stuart Blackton’s pixilation films were the launching pad that animators needed.

A few years later, in 1911, French animator Émile Courtet created the film Jobard does not want to see women working.

There are many early examples of pixilation videos out there. However, this stop motion technique took decades to really take off in the 1950s.

As I mentioned above, Norman McLaren’s Neighbours is a prime example of a pixilation animation. It features a sequence of pictures of live actors.

The movie is a parable about two neighbors involved in a bitter feud. The film explores many anti-war themes in an exaggerated manner.

Pixilation is mostly popular among independent animators and independent animation studios.

Throughout the years, pixilation has also been used to make music videos.

Pixilation today

These days, pixilation still isn’t a popular type of stop motion. That’s because shooting such a film takes a lot of time and resources.

The process is complex, and so other types of animation are still the more popular option for skilled animators.

However, one well-known animator named PES (Adam Pesapane) is still making short films. His short experimental movie named Fresh Guacamole was even nominated for an Oscar.

He uses real people to act out all the frames. But, you only see the actors’ hands and not the faces. This film combines the techniques of pixilation with classic stop motion using objects.

Check it out here on YouTube:

How do you do stop motion pixilation?

I’m sure you’re now interested in getting started, so you’re likely wondering how do you make a pixilation?

To create pixilation, you use the same techniques and equipment as you would with stop motion.

It is shot frame by frame with a camera or smartphone, then edited with special computer video editing software or apps, and the frames are played back fast to create that illusion of movement.

The animator needs at least one more person to do the acting, or several if it’s a more complex film, but these people must be equipped with plenty of patience.

The actors have to hold the pose while the animator is shooting the photographs. After each set of photos, the person moves in a slight increment and then the animator takes more photos.

Frames-per-second is an important factor you must think about when shooting.

If you use a program like Stop Motion Pro, you can capture images at a rate of 12, so it means you need to take 12 pictures to create one second of the pixilation sequence.

As a result, the actor must make 12 movements for that one second of video.

So, the basic method is this: hold the pose, take pictures, move slightly, take more pictures and continue until all the necessary shots have been taken.

Next comes the editing, and you can get very creative here. You don’t need to invest in expensive services, just get a good compositing software (i.e. Adobe After Effects), and you can then add voices, special effects, sounds, and music.

How to use pixilation to get started in stop motion

You can think of pixilation as the gateway to more sophisticated stop motion animations.

Once you learn the process of using human actors instead of an object or puppet as characters for your film, you can pretty much tackle any style of stop motion.

The advantage of pixilation is that you make cool short films without having to rely solely on inanimate objects, which can be hard to shape and put into the perfect pose for a picture.

Once you’ve shot all the pictures for the movie, it’s best to use a stop motion animation app or program because it will do all the hard work of compiling the film and playback.

That part of the animation is a bit tricky so any help with the process can make pixilation a lot more fun. Of course, there are many tutorials online, too, you can follow.

If you’re a complete beginner, you can begin by shooting on your smartphone. The newest iPhone models, for example, have amazing high-performance cameras suitable for stop motion and you can download a free editing program to the phone.

So, there’s nothing holding you back from making a cool music video with a dance pixilation!

Pixilation film ideas

There are no limits to your creativity when it comes to pixilation filmmaking.

You can take photos and then use a stop motion app to create any film. Here are some ideas for those looking for inspiration for a pixilation movie:

Parkour animated film

For this movie, you can have your actors performing cool parkour stunts. You’ll need to take photos of them repeatedly posing between each move.

The end result is quite interesting because it shows a range of bodily motions.

Moving photos

For this idea, you can have actors pose and recreate the scenes in photographs.

Children playing

If you want the kids to have some fun, you can gather their favorite toys and have them play while you take photographs, then compile the images into a creative pixilation.

Origami

A fun and creative way to create engaging content is to photograph people creating origami paper art. You can focus your frames on their hands as they make the paper objects like cubes, animals, flowers, etc.

Check out this example with a paper cube:

Hand animation

This is a classic but one that is always fun to do. People’s hands are the subject of your movie so have them move their hands and even “talk” to each other.

You can also have other actors doing other things while the hands are doing their own motions.

Makeup

Don’t shy away from using bold or eccentric makeup on your actors. The set decor, costumes, and makeup very much influence the film aesthetic.

What is unique about pixilation animation?

The unique thing is that you are animating an object, but you also “animate” living people.

Your actor is moving in very small increments unlike in live-action movies where there’s a lot of action happening in each scene.

Also, there’s an indeterminate time period between each of your frames.

That’s the main advantage of the pixilation technique: you have plenty of time and the ability to rearrange and manipulate objects, puppets, figurines, and your actors.

Your subject and frame are shot as images, so the actor has to stay still and pose.

Some pixilation movies stand out because of their unique design elements or the makeup actors are wearing.

You are probably familiar with the Joker in DC Comics films. That vibrant makeup and slightly terrifying aesthetic make the character memorable and iconic.

Animators and directors can do the same with pixilation animations.

Just look at Jan Kounen’s 1989 film called Gisele Kerozene in which the characters are wearing fake bird-like noses and rotten teeth to look scary and disturbing.

Conclusion

Pixilation is a unique animated film technique and all you need is a camera, a human actor, a bunch of props, editing software and you’re ready to go.

Making these movies can be a lot of fun, and how much time you spend depends on how long your film needs to be, but the good news is that you can make high-quality videos with only a smartphone these days.

So, if you’re looking to switch from object stop motion to pixilation all you need to do is capture human motion and frame your shots so that they tell a story people will be interested in.