Digital cameras are ideal for creating simple animations. In fact you could call it child's play. This short article describes how my 9-year-old daughter used PSRemote and the inexpensive Canon PowerShot A70 to create her first ever animation, "The Crazy Tea Party"
Once I had explained the basic concepts to her she was full of ideas and couldn't wait to get started. We decided to keep things simple for the first attempt and I setup everything and she did the rest. She prepared her studio and set and selected her cast of small wooden dolls. I setup a laptop running PSRemote v1.1 and connected it via a USB cable to a Canon PowerShot A70 camera mounted on a tripod. The camera was set to low resolution (640x480 pixels) with a manual exposure of around 1/2 sec at f/8 (for maximum depth of field). I checked everything was working for the first few frames and then left her to get on with it. Four hours and a change of camera batteries later and it was ready for assembling into a movie using Microsoft's free Windows Movie Maker Software. My daughter was so pleased with the result that we copied it to CD, printed a nice CD label and she gave it to her grandmother as a special birthday present. The picture above shows her working on her second, more ambitious, animation (this time using a Canon PowerShot G5 with A/C power adapter).
Lighting was available light from a south facing window with the camera was set to manual exposure to try to get consistent exposures. In retrospect this was a mistake because the lighting varied throughout the day. It would have been better to have used simple artificial lighting to give more consistent results. This doesn’t need to be expensive studio lights and can be ordinary tungsten table lamps - just set the camera’s white balance set to ‘Tungsten’ to avoid color casts.
One of the annoying limitations of Canon PowerShot cameras is you can’t select manual focus when they are tethered to a PC. This can be a major problem with animations because auto focus has an awkward tendency to focus on the background if the main subject is off center. Fortunately recent Canon cameras allow you to lock the auto focus and so it is possible to pre-focus and take a sequence of frames without the focus changing from frame to frame. The easiest way to do this is set the camera to use the center focus point and lock the focus at the beginning of the sequence. It also helps to select a small aperture (e.g. f/8) to maximize the depth of field. If the main subject is off center a small object can be placed center frame, the same distance from the camera as the main subject, and used as a focus target to lock the focus. Once the focus is locked the focus target can be removed and the shots for the sequence taken.
A really nice feature of most recent Canon PowerShot cameras is the ability to display a live viewfinder image on the PC display. This is a great help when shooting animations because it gives instant feedback for positioning the models. PSRemote also has a useful feature called ‘onion skinning’. This is where the current live viewfinder images are superimposed on the last image taken. This makes it much easier to see how the next frame relates to the previous one and makes it possible to remove a model, adjust it and then place it back exactly where it was before.
Not many 9-year-olds have the patience to spend four hours moving little dolls tiny amounts without having some idea how it will all look in the end. Several times during the shoot my daughter wanted to see the animation so far and we found the easiest way to do this was to use BreezeBrowser’s slideshow feature. BreezeBrowser was run in a separate window to view the images in thumbnail mode. To view the animation we simply clicked on the BreezeBrowser window and pressed F5 (to reload the directory) followed by Ctrl+A (to select all images), Ctrl+S (to start the slideshow) and Ctrl+F (to run it as fast as possible).
My daughter’s first animation used a fixed camera position and zoom setting to keep things simple. However, with a bit of planning it is possible to zoom the lens or pan the camera during a sequence, for example tracking a car in a race (my 8-year-old son loves making animations of Lego cars racing each other, but that’s another story). The trick is to avoid sudden changes and to keep the zooming as smooth as possible. If you need to zoom the lens try to do it in small steps over a series of frames and avoid zooming a single step on it’s own as this doesn’t look right. When panning try to keep the subject in the same part of the frame as you follow it through the scene. PSRemote’s grid overlay display can be very useful here because it makes it much easier to keep the point of interest in the same position in each frame.
There are lots of different applications you can buy to edit your video ‘footage’ but we decided to keep things simple and used Microsoft’s free Windows Movie Maker software. I won’t go into too much detail as it’s very easy to follow the instructions to create simple movies complete with opening titles and closing credits.
Run Windows Movie Maker and select “Options...” from the “Tools” menu. Click on the “Advanced” tab and set the picture duration to 0.125 seconds. This will play the animation at 8 frames per second which looks reasonably smooth (this is the shortest duration Movie Maker allows and so if you want a higher frame rate you’ll need a different app). Then go to “Capture Video” in the “Movie Tasks” window and select “Import pictures”. Use the file dialog to select all the JPEG images (type Ctrl+A to select all) and press the “Import” button. Click on one of the imported pictures, type Ctrl+A to select all and then drag them to the video time line (your computer may be busy for several seconds while it processes the images). Use “Edit Movie” in the “Movie Tasks” window to add some titles and “Finish Movie” to save it to disk.