The most common question I get asked by people who’ve seen this site has to be “How do you do that?” To date, no-one has asked “How do you get to be so cool?” That’s OK, I can wait.
To answer the other question, there’s a lot of stuff involved in making these films but, once you know the basics, it’s pretty easy to just sit down and get on with it. I’ve broken it down into sections below. It’s a work in progress, so don’t expect a comprehensive set of instructions or anything.
Don’t expect it to be especially funny either. I’m just answering the questions.
You don’t need a fancy camera to make these films. In fact, given the size of LEGO minifigs, you’re better off with something smaller so you can get in close.
The ideal solution for the amateur animator is a webcam. They’re relatively cheap and they feed a live signal directly into your computer, making it easy to capture frames using the various capture programs available.
If you’re looking to get a webcam for stop motion animation, aim for one with a CCD chip. Cheaper webcams usually come equipped with a CMOS chip, which tends not to cope as well with the low light and gives a grainier picture.
I used a Logitech QuickCam Pro 4000 for everything up to and including Pneuma. It’s reasonably cheap, it has a manual focus ring with a really tight focal length, it has a CCD chip and it works well in low(ish) light conditions. The 4000 isn’t in production anymore but there are better alternatives available now anyway.
My webcam finally stopped working, so from Pneuma through to Reservoir Squads, I used a Panasonic mini-DV camcorder. There are advantages and disadvantages to changing. On the plus side, I can change focus quite smoothly now and, if I’m careful, zoom in and out. On the minus side, the camera is a lot bigger, so it’s harder to get in close or do tracking shots with the camera sitting right next to the set.
Just lately, I’ve gone back to a webcam again. The Logitech QuickCam Pro 9000 lets you shoot at HD resolutions and has a software-controlled manual focus, so you don’t have to touch the camera when you change focus. The only drawback for me is that the lens is a little too wide-angle for me – I have to make the backgrounds of my shots bigger now.
You really need to light things up bright to get a high quality picture. If the light is too low, the picture becomes grainy.
You also need a constant light source. Avoid direct sunlight at all costs. It’s nice and bright but the sun doesn’t stay in one place in the sky. As you animate, the sun moves and the shadows it casts move. You may not notice it while you’re filming but when you play your shot back you’ll see a lot of crazy twirling shadows.
My preferred option is to use halogen desk lamps. They’re easy to position and you can get them pretty cheap. You need to be careful not to get them too close to your plastic bricks though because they can give off a fair amount of heat.
You can also enhance the lighting of your set by using reflectors. Bouncing the light from a desklamp off a piece of white card will give you more diffuse lighting and fewer harsh shadows.
I use a Windows PC, so that’s what I’m going to describe. Others have had success using Macs and Linux but you’d have to ask them how they did it.
I started out using Anasazi Stop Motion Animator (SMA). It’s free, it’s small and it does almost everything you need. Some people have had problems with incompatible cameras or other USB devices interfering, but I never had a problem.
I’m now using Stop Motion Pro, mainly because it includes a frame averaging feature that does a good job of clearing up the grain that you get when you’re filming indoors in low light.
You can approach this hobby in a number of ways. When I started out, I just took a handful of minifigs, had a rough idea of what they were going to do, and started animating. You can see the results of this approach on the vaults page. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I still like the zombie one.
An alternative is to follow the practices of professional animators and rigorously plan, script, storyboard and time every last frame.
I generally go for something in between.
Work out timing, stick to 15fps where possible, try to watch how people move in real life, ease in and out of actions. Other people can describe this in a lot better detail than me.
Work out how things will be edited beforehand so you only shoot what you need. There are some basic tricks like always show the face of the person who’s talking (given that reaction shots are a bit wasted on minifigs), don’t cross the imaginary line in a conversation, etc.
Getting it on the web
In order to make your film available on the internet, you have to upload it to a server. That may seem like an obvious thing to say but you’d be surprised how many people don’t realise.
If you have your own webspace, you can upload it there, but be aware that the bandwidth limits on free webspace mean that your film won’t be available for long.
Fortunately, there are some free options for uploading films:
- The daddy of online video hosts. It has a massive user base and built in options for rating and comments.
- It lacks the wide audience of YouTube but there’s a community there. For a while, video quality was significantly better. YouTube has pretty much caught up now.
- A handy place where you can upload all manner of LEGO-related media files. There have been times in the past, however, when video files have been temporarily suspended.
- The Internet Archive
- This site is intended to act as a library of digital media. It’s not really meant to be a dumping ground for LEGO films but there are a lot there. You can upload any kind of film but you must own the full copyright to everything in it. That means no using music by your favourite band unless you have permission.
If you disagree with anything I’ve said here or have more information to add, especially regarding animation software for non-Windows platforms, please get in touch.
If you’ve read this whole page, congratulations. You now know as much as I do. Now go and animate something.