Monday, April 17, 2006

How to Tell the Difference Between Stop Motion and Computer Animation

Want to be the cool kid on the block? You know, the one who can actually tell the difference between a Quay and a Pixar flick? Because it's not easy for everyone, you know (especially if you've somehow managed to come in late, had someone else buy the ticket, and covered your eyes whenever you saw a sign that might clue you in as to the title of the flick you're about to see), and in this vein I've come up with a few quick tips for the layman or laylady (lay) to bandy about the movie theater and, in general, annoy everyone else there.

By the way, this is in no way a good method to watch a film in order to enjoy its delightful story and sentiment. It's just a good way to be a smart ass, essentially. Nerds love this stuff.

1. Look for fingerprints. This takes some concentration, and it will only apply with traditional claymation (or clay animation - yes, it is the way it sounds), which is a form of stop motion. Studios like Aardman, makers of the Wallace and Gromit phenomenon, have become frighteningly good at hiding their fingerprints, but from time to time the familiar shadowed whorls will appear on the soft flesh of the characters you're watching. When this occurs, make sure you say "A-HA!" in a loud voice, while pointing. Of course you probably won't get anymore popcorn from your seatmate after that, so stock up in advance.

2. Look for unusual objects. O.K., this tip is a little more vague, but it will work beautifully if you're at a film festival and Svankmejer or Quay are on the bill. If you see things that look like screws, doll heads, slabs of pot roast, or other odds and ends, the chances are that you're watching stop motion. This, however, is not a sure indicator. It needs to be combined with a few other hints in order to be pulled off successfully. After all, maybe some computer animator wanted to bring to life a virtual pot roast - although this seems unlikely, you can't be too certain. Pot roasts are delicious, after all.

3. Look for motion blur. Motion blur can only be really successfully observed at home, where you have the ability to pause the film and examine individual frames. If you have this capability at the theater, I'll have to advise you not to use it unless you want to end up stuffed in the bottom of a trash can somewhere (ah, high school). Motion blur is simply this: the blur that occurs when objects in motion are moving and photographed at the same time. You can track motion blur best when looking at a particularly active scene frame by frame. Lots of computer animation tends to replicate motion blur (it's relatively simple to do), while stop motion, since it is not made in a computer, will not blur unless the animator went all crazy or fell or something during a take. The exceptions are films like the ever-so-tricky Corpse Bride, where all the frames were doctored in a computer afterwards directly in order to confound lists and generalizations such as the one you're reading right now. That's O.K. We don't (sniff) mind much...

4. Look at the lighting. So this is an extremely subtle way to determine a film's animated style, and is not recommended for beginners. Because objects in stop motion are all done at a much smaller scale than we are (dolls for these films are about a foot - 14 inches high or so), the props are also a lot smaller. Look for props in particular that are made of glass, such as jars, glasses, or mirrors. In computer animation, these props will have appropriate light scatter (due to such amazingness as programs like mental ray), and so will appear to be as big as their "real" counterparts are. In stop motion, they will look quaint and tiny, like the props inside a doll house. Also, because stop motion is dependent on "real" lights being in the scene, whereas in computer animation you can stick virtual lights everywhere, stop motion lighting may be a bit more limited, and will change subtly over the course of the day if they're shooting outside - although this is not always the case. If you had no idea as to what any of this meant, forget about it and move on to number five.

5. Look at the credits. A great last resort, looking at the credits is the best way to tell if the animation was stop motion or computer. Did they have someone to manufacture props? Did they have someone who was in charge of rigging? Rigging is distinctly a computer animation term, and physical props of course belong to the realm of stop motion. If they use the words "3D" somewhere you'll either have to return a pair of nifty glasses to the usher on your way out, or it was computer animated, or both. Look too for the names of computer programs, but be warned, a lot of stop motion will use computers for effects, so don't put too much credence into that.

Great! Now you're ready to be really and truly insufferable! Don't worry if you make mistakes, lots of animated films will combine methods anyway (although it's rare if a truly computer animated film will use a smidgeon of stop motion...possibly unheard of at this point). The best way to learn the differences between the two is to watch a lot of animation. After a while, after about three seconds of watching any film you will definitively know what is stop motion or computer based on observing motion alone. Isn't that frightening? I'm definitely a little scared.

So go out there, and show off your stuff. Just not in public. I'm pretty sure that's illegal.

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