Creating characters, objects and backgrounds in 3D

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Introduction

If you are following our handbook systematically then you already have a list of characters, objects and backgrounds with all sizes that you will need to create in order to be able to film your story. If not please read the previous chapters in the Animavision part of this handbook first and follow the necessary steps that we recommend to make a stop motion animation film.

In this chapter we will explain more about the creation of all the necessary elements for 3D stop motion techniques with a focus on plasticine as the main material.

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 AnimaVision in action

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  • Get all the necessary material and tools that you will need for creating characters, objects and backgrounds from plasticine and are recommended in this chapter.
  • If you will do plasticine yourself don’t forget about the main ingredients and some cooking equipment. You can find the recipe for homemade plasticine in this chapter.
  • Start creating and have fun.
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Material, equipment and tools

In order to successfully create the characters, objects and backgrounds for the plasticine stop motion film you will mostly need plasticine, cardboard, sometimes wire and some tools like pliers. If you will make some of the plasticine yourself you will as well need basic ingredients (see the recipe listed below), a pot and a cooker.

Also a meter can be useful to measure the sizes of the elements that you will be creating and a scale to weigh the ingredients or plasticine when needed. You can successfully combine plasticine also with other materials like rope, textile, wood

Plasticine is a great material for creating stop motion animations. On the third picture you can see that for the objects and background – beside plasticine –  small pieces of wood, plastic foil and  paper were used and on the fourth picture some toool were used to help shape the figures.

Main part

Most of the preparation work that you have to do to come to the stage of creating characters, objects and backgrounds for your stop motion film is up to this point similar for 2D and 3D techniques. But from the moment of creation on, using different techniques makes a difference in more aspects. Besides the camera setup the use of the material offers you different options.

We recommend you to simulate or even make a test setting of your animation setup including the camera that you plan to use for your film before you start creating. For this please follow the advices in the chapters about the camera. That will help you create all the necessary elements even more precisely.

The sizes of the characters, objects and backgrounds can depend  also on the ability of your camera (for example how big the camera zoom is) and amount of material that you have. In the pictures above you can see a setup and objects(hands) for a narow shot that was used in the film.

Some facts about plasticine

Plasticine is a kneadable material very suitable for creating stop motion animation characters and objects. It was created more than a hundred years ago and is a very popular material for free time activities for different age groups. In the past and still nowadays a lot of children were playing outside with mud and clay and In many cultures nowadays they give plasticine already to little children to boost their motorical development and creativity. Different researches also show that working with plasticine influences the brain in the way that it creates brain cells and synapses that don’t develop with everyday activities. When working with plasticine and clay you make different hand movements that you don’t do at any other activity.  

Working with plasticine is fun not only for children but also for more grown ups.

‘’Plasticine is used as well in many professional stop motion animation film productions and there exists a special name for it; claymation.’

What differentiates plasticine from clay is the capacity to stay moldable also when exposed to air for a longer time. So for creating a stop motion, especially if it takes more days or even weeks It is important to use a plasticine that is non dry (it contains oils) and doesn’t get hard when exposed to air and light. 

If you want to use professional plasticine, please research online what is the plasticine that professional productions use. But for the beginning you can try to use the local store plasticine or even make plasticine yourselves.

Although plasticine is a great materal it requires some percaution when using it. Plasticine can be very messy especially when creating and animating characters and objects. This doesn’t appear as a big issue for the background since you don’t touch or move it  every second frame. There are several ways to keep your working surface, hands and plasticine clean. It is good to keep some baby wipes that contain oil somewhere near you so you can always clean your animation surface (that should be smooth and from material that can be cleaned up nicely  and as well your hands. Also always cover your characters and objects after you use them with some plastic foil so they don’t get dusty when you want to use them next time.

Use whipes that contain oil to keep your hands and surface clean and cover the figures with foil when not using them.

Homemade plasticine

The positive side of homemade plasticine is that it is easy to make, very affordable and suitable also for sensitive people since it doesn’t contain any poisonous ingredients. The downside is that it is a bit softer and therefore harder to use for upright figures and that at the same time changes in the consistency when exposed to air or light or difference in temperature for a longer time. However it is worth trying it and exploring what are the possibilities that it offers to you.

The basic plasticine recipe:

125 g flour

240 ml water

4 tablespoons salt

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 tablespoon oil

Edible colours

Mix all together in a pot, cook it til you get a ball, cool it on baking paper then knead it. Let it cool completely and your plasticine is ready. Before or after you can add different colors. If you or the participants are sensitive to artificial colors, it is recommended that the colors are edible. 

On the pictures above you can visually follow the process of making homemade plasticine.

Plasticine enables you as well to easily change shapes. One of the stop motion magic that we are mentioning more times is all the unnatural activity that can happen. One is for sure changing of form or transformation. And plasticine is a great material to play around in this way.

Plasticine characters

Creating characters and objects is one of the key steps in making your stop motion animation. Already when building a story, character profiles and overall style of the film, you should put a lot of thought into how your main character or characters should look like. You should define their physical appearance (body type, the color of his or her skin, eyes, clothes that she or he is wearing…) and as well their personality traits and mood that reflects in hers or his physical appearance. Now when you came to the part of making them – and on the basis of the technique that you are using –  you have to think even more in detail. 

With plasticine you can make humanoid but as well some other types of characters. Your characters can be just simple forms with added eyes and or lips that make them alive, you can create simple little monsters or simple animals but as well animals and humans or other creatures with more detailed features similar to humans. 

On the pictures above you can see examples of imaginative and humanoid figures made from plasticine.

Making a humanoid character from one piece

When creating characters from plasticine it is recommended to create them mostly from one piece (not separate pieces that you attach later together) in order to make her or him more stable. Especially when the character has legs, stand or walk around, It is important that you focus on his or her stability. That means that you put a special emphasis and weight on his or her lower part of the body. 

If you are making longer animation films and the main character gets worn out due to extensive use, you can create more of the same characters. One good way to make it always very similar is to make a prototype and to weigh the amount of plasticine you use for the body.

In the video above you can follow the process of creating a plasticine character for a stop motion film in one of the Animavision workshops.

Using armature to support your characters

Your character will be more stable if you support the body with some kind of armature. You can do the armature yourself from a wire (see a process of making simple armatures down below when we explain how to do armature for objects) or you can buy it. Bought armatures are already very complex with lots of movable joints and can be rescrewed into different forms. They are especially handy for humanoid figures or animals with lots of different and precise movement. Around armatures you can wrap the plasticine (or even sponge and textile) and in this way create your characters. 

Professional armature with movable joints can be a good basis for creating characters with good movable features.

Making objects from plasticine

Since plasticine is not always affordable when you need it in bigger amounts, like for creating bigger or massive objects, you can simplify the process with using some other material as the basis, for example cardboard or wood. In this case make a basic shape from some more affordable material and just cover it with a thin layer of plasticine.

The speaker on the picture above was first made from cardboard and covered with a thin layer of plasticine

Using self made armature for stability of objects

Armatures give your objects and as well characters a good stability. They can be self made or bought. You can do a self made armature from a wire, aluminium or some other wire. You should usually do it when you want to create a stable stand that you can then coat with plasticine or some other material.

Self made armatures can be especially handy for supporting different standing or hard objects like trees, buildings, sticks …, 

In the pictures above you can follow the process of building a homemade armature for a tree. You should put a special emphasis on the stand in order to make your objects stable.

Backgrounds in 3D animation

When creating 3D animation with plasticine, puppets or blocks, it is often required to have a background that is surrounding the scene from the bottom, the sides and sometimes also from the top in order for you to be able to get versatile camera positions. This as well depends on your storyboard and the camera angles that you plan for different shots.

In the pictures above you can see two types of background. On the picture one the background is just flat since the shot is taken only from the front position. On the picture two above you can see an example of a background that is surrounding the scene from all sides except the top what offered more shooting positions.

Backgrounds can be made from plasticine only, plasticine can be combined with other materials like cardboard, wood… Or you can make backgrounds completely from some other material like paper, cardboard, wood, plastic…. 

One good combination of the background cardboard covered with plasticine that you can also texturise and add details. The process of making it is same to the one explained above in the part about making objects. 

Plasticine is usually used for a 3D stop motion animation with the camera from the front, but it can be used as well for making 2D stop motion animation with the camera from above.

For the end

In this chapter we talked mostly about the plasticine as a material for creating 3D stop motion animation. There are more other options that you can explore.

Puppet stop motion animation is another form of 3D animation. For using puppets you have different options. You can use puppets that you can get in local stores, create puppets yourselves or order professional custom made puppets.

For some basic stop motion puppets made for children play can be used, but for more professional features, movements and films this will not be enough.

Since creating puppets is a big territory that would require a handbook on its own we will focus in this chapter mostly on plasticine. 

Video (On the street – DE): For a simple puppet stop motion you can use the puppets that you have at home, your school or youth center. With some sound added you can get a nice short impression.

Also different types of blocks can be used for creating stop motion animation films.

Common mistakes

  1. One of the common mistakes when preparing your characters, objects and background is the use of inappropriate material. For example some types of knetable material that you can buy on the market look like plasticine but dry out and crack or change color when exposed to air. Test your material first. 
  2. The second common mistake when using plasticine is not fixing different parts of characters or objects properly together so they fall off. This can be especially the case when a character or an object does a lot of movement. Try making them out of one piece or use some kind of an armature.
  3. If you don’t protect or cover your figures when not using them this can make them dusty what can be visible in narrow shots. 
  4. Also not maintaining your preparation and animation surface and your hands clean can cause a lot of mess when working with materials like plasticine.

Exercises

  1. Make your own plasticine and explore the possibilities it offers to you. Make different kinds of characters and objects out of it, mix it with colors …
  2. Look around your home, organisation or local store (or even better and cheaper – in the nature) for different kinds of tools, wires and other materials that you can use when preparing characters, objects and backgrounds for your film.
  3. You can play with plasticine (homemade or from the store) transforming it into different shapes. You can capture the whole process and maybe even make a short film out of it.
  4. Try to do a plasticine stop motion film in 2D with a camera from above.
  5. Develop and film a project involving 3D characters, objects and backgrounds.

Related topics and links

Basics of creating characters, objects and backgrounds / Camera work in 2D and 3D animation / Principles of animation

External links and resources

Methodology

When working in a group divide the tasks based on the plan of the characters, objects and backgrounds that you did in the preparation phase. Dividing the group into smaller groups can be extremely effective and quick if the tasks are divided properly. Some of the participants can create backgrounds, others can create characters and objects. others can only execute more supportive tasks like preparing the materials… In this way a variety of participants can be included and find their place in a group and in a process.

If the film is more complex, duplicate the characters, objects and if necessary also backgrounds and capture more shoots at the same time. Part of the group can work on capturing narrow shots and part of the group can work on capturing wide shots.

Terminology

Plasticine, claymation, armature