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Start Your First Stop-Motion Project

By Aaron Bernstein

Hi, I’m Aaron. I enjoy traveling, sunsets, and long walks down aisle 7 at my local grocery store.

Adobe Creative Resident Aaron Bernstein finds inspiration in food. 

No, really. Not many activities are as thrilling to me as shopping for groceries: products entice from the shelves, their flashy packaging inviting me to explore new cultures, while fruits and vegetables seduce in dynamic waves of color and texture. Some people see food shopping as a constantly nagging inconvenience, but I see the grocery store as a personal oasis (I’m such a romantic, I know).

This fascination has influenced my career path: what began with subtle implementation in my photography has evolved into to a full-fledged focus on still lifes composed solely of food items. My quest to indulge this passion ultimately informed my decision to apply to the Adobe Creative Residency program, where I have started to make my dream of mixing food and art into a reality.

As part of my residency project, I’ve launched Hungry Boy, a multichannel digital outlet that challenges the way we virtually consume. I seek to inspire people’s perception of food beyond its base value, through photography and video-based projects that focus on the “why” and “how” of food and food culture. I like to consider food as form to craft compelling compositions, often personifying ingredients to bring these concepts to life through stop-motion animation.

Stop-motion can be as simple as a few looped frames or as complex as a feature-length film. Bernstein says, “My favorite stop-motion film is Chicken Run (2000), which I loved as a child and which had an everlasting effect on me.” 

Stop-motion is a technique through which artists create the appearance of motion by displaying a series of still photographs in succession. No matter how precisely these animations are created, an undeniable human element comes through in the results, which is one reason I’m drawn to the technique.

With the growing accessibility of new technology in both tools and methods, it’s becoming easier to create stop-motion projects—and there are many techniques for doing so (one very simple method is using Photoshop to combine a series of still images into a GIF). 

But before you get started, there are some fundamentals to consider, in order to ensure successful results.

CONSISTENCY is key: maintaining consistency in as many factors as possible makes the intentional differences between frames more obvious, drawing the viewer’s eye to the “motion.” If there are too many slight changes between frames, your scene will not come to life as smoothly.

Consistent, controlled LIGHTING is important. There are three main ways to light the still photographs that will make up your stop motion project. Be cautious with natural light: as the earth rotates, subtle variations in brightness, shadows, and color temperature can dramatically change your scene, even over a short period of time. Strobes—or flashes—are one option to maintain even lighting, but if you plan on shooting multiple frames in quick succession, you still might see subtle changes in the light’s strength, depending on your brand of equipment. I personally like to shoot with Flashpoint Xplor 600s, which allow a quick recycle time and are easily adaptable to any basic photography setup. However, flashes can be pricey. For beginners, the most straightforward and least expensive option is probably continuous lighting, or lights that are always on at full power. This will also give you a better sense of the final results while you animate, as you can see how the lighting impacts your scene in real-time. Continuous lights come in a wide range of prices and types—think of them as glamorized, stronger lamps. Creating a continuous setup can be as simple as buying a few strong light bulbs from your local hardware store.

Maintaining consistent FRAMING is also important: slight variances that might occur from manually holding your camera will be noticeable when stills are placed in succession. The best way to ensure a stable frame is to use a high-quality tripod. I can’t say enough good things about my Zomei tripod, which has an extremely reasonable price and allows me to shoot from almost any angle. Make sure your tripod is placed on stable ground where you will not accidentally bump into it. To ensure even more consistency between frames, I use a wireless remote control to release the camera’s shutter, in order to avoid direct physical contact with the camera that might slightly alter the frame.

Especially with stop-motion, you have to have PATIENCE—getting to your desired result can take time. The smaller your movements of objects between frames are, the smoother the animation will be. One standard for the number of frames needed to create one second of animation is 24 stills (fps, or frames per second, is the official term for this concept). If you’re trying to create a complex, more life-like result, altering your scene as lightly as possible between each frame is key. Of course, not everyone has this level of patience (myself included, if I’m being honest). Feel free to play with different frame rates if you are not as concerned with creating super smooth results. I tend to work in 12 fps, for example.

An unexpected part of creating stop-motion has been the collection of random TOOLS I’ve accumulated. My personal favorite has been Play-Doh, which has proven to be extremely effective in adhering objects to similarly colored backdrops. I have also gathered a considerable number of toothpicks and skewers in a variety of sizes—they help my food items temporarily defy the laws of physics between frames.

Give yourself permission to EXPLORE. As I navigate these new worlds of food and animation, I’m realizing more and more that some rules are made to be broken (especially if you were never taught the rules). I believe that experimentation is key, so you can find out what setup and methods work best for you. Something I’ve been particularly drawn to lately is the idea of keeping the scene consistent between frames, and instead changing the camera settings and set-up to suggest a more active viewer. By changing the perspective, focus, angle, and/or zoom between each frame, I can produce a more cinematic effect.

Stop-motion may seem time-consuming, but remember that it’s only as involved as you want it to be. Stop-motion animation is equal parts technical ability, imagination, and patience. And it’s a very forgiving technique: if you mess up or don’t like the results, you can simply start over from your latest frame, or completely scratch your setup and begin again.

If you’re not sure where to begin, I would suggest starting small with just a few objects to get a hands-on understanding of how lighting and framing can effectively translate movement. Perhaps I’m biased, but I think that food can make for great geometric, clean building blocks to explore crafting impactful movements, producing intriguing results through its colors and textures. So next time you find yourself wandering through the grocery store, spend some extra time in the produce section and consider how you can bring those items to life.

Who says you can’t play with your food?

Get started with your own video projects—check out these tutorials for Adobe Premiere Pro CC and Adobe After Effects CC