Cut out-animasjon

Directors Aiju Salminen and Saara Konttinen finished the short animation Saalis (A Catch) in the fall of 2007. Aiju wrote the script and made the pieces, they developed the characters together and Saara did the actual animation.

Saara studied audiovisual media production in Helsinki Polytechnic Stadia. Her student film Lomakuvia (Holiday Snaps, 2003) got second prize at The Blue Herring Film Festival’s student category and an honourable mention at The Beginning Film Festival in St. Petersburg. Since her graduation three years ago, Saara has taught animation to kids and adults in cultural centres and schools. She also organizes the animation festival Animatricks.

Aiju graduated from the animation department at Turku University’s Arts Academy two years ago. Her animations Treevil (2003), Karaoke (2004) and Elvis kääntyy haudassaan (Elvis Turns Over in His Grave, 2005) have received a lot of prizes at international film festivals. You can find the first two from the Pixoff’s DVD-collection and the last one at “Young Cinema from Europe” Nisi Masa´s DVD-collection. Now Saara and Aiju will give advice on making a cut-out animation.

Focus on pre-production
At first Saara and Aiju want to point out how important pre-production is when making an animation. That is because shooting an animation is very meticulous and takes a lot of time. They remind us that it is best to start with a very short story and make it as thorough as you can. It is also good to start with a story that doesn’t include dialogue. This forces you to focus on telling the story through the characters and their moves.

When the script is ready, it is important to make a very precise storyboard of it. You should draw all the scenes picture-by-picture and with the right camera angles and shot sizes. This is something you will need to return to when you start filming to keep your mind focused on what you are doing.

When the storyboard is ready you need to break it down. Breaking down means that you list all the pieces you need to make the characters and the backgrounds.

Plan the visual look

The next step is to plan the visual look of the animation. What will the characters look like? How do they move? And what do the backgrounds look like?

If the background is quite simple it doesn’t take too much attention away from the characters. In the living room of A Catch there is only one armchair, a TV and two windows. That is enough to tell the audience where the scene takes place.

“Compared to traditional animation, cut-out animation has the advantage that you can draw little details on the characters. In traditional animation you have to draw all of the details again to each frame of the film,” Aiju says.

The way a character moves is an important way to bring out its persona. “In live action films the face expressions of an actor show the character’s feelings and thoughts, but in animation the face expressions don’t tell as much and the characters show their emotions more by postures and movements. In animation the director is kind of like the actor as well,” Aiju reminds.

You can practise the movements by looking at yourself in front of a mirror. “We made some walking shows for each other when we were talking about the ways the characters could move. We even tried out different styles to walk. It would have looked really stupid to an outsider,” Aiju laughs.

Making the pieces
All of the moving details must be done as separate pieces. At this point, you will need the list you made when you broke down the storyboard. All the pieces should be drawn on one side of a cardboard so you can put some tape or Blu-Tack on the other side. With the help of a light table, you can draw the same pieces from different sides and ensure that the pieces will stay in the same scale. A stiff cardboard is very good material for the pieces and the backgrounds. It doesn’t fold and crumble easily.

“We coated the pieces with matt plastic. It can be a bit difficult with the lights reflecting from it, but it keeps the pieces clean of fingerprints and other dirt,” Aiju says. “I have even washed the characters faces with washing-up liquid and a dishcloth,” Saara continues.

What to shoot with?
Saara shot the animation with a Canon EOS10D digital SLR camera. The camera was connected to her laptop with a firewire cable. The pictures were taken through a laptop, because you can’t touch the camera when you are making an animation. If the camera moves even just a little it will look like an earthquake in the film. You have to either use the remote control or the computer to take the pictures.

In A Catch Saara and Aiju used Canon’s own program to take and save the pictures. With the program they were able to save the pictures in good quality and had a chance to look at the movement. They were, however, unable to watch it with real tempo. Only when the whole scene was shot and captured to the editing program could you find out what the movement exactly looked like. One second of video contains 25 picture frames. The roughness of the animation depends on how many frames there are used in one second. In A Catch each picture was shot to be two frames long, so there were about 13 pictures in a second, although some of the shots were made faster in the edit.

Have you composed music for films?
I composed some music for a French short film called "Lights" a year ago. I like making film music. It's challenging and exciting.

And action

”In an animation you very rarely do something that is not in the storyboard. You have already planned what you are shooting and there is no place for improvising anymore,” Saara says. “In traditional drawn animation you can throw the whole page away and draw a new one, but in cut-out animation the whole take needs to be shot again.”

Saara advises that it is best to start shooting from the widest shot and shoot the close-ups last. In the wide shot you can see the whole background and set every detail of it to its right place. Then you’ll see how the characters are located in relation to the background. “In A Catch we had four different backgrounds: the living room, the pier view, the view of the sea with the hook hanging and the kitchen. I started with shooting the scenes in the living room. There were scenes that happened there in the beginning and the end of the film. I shot them both at first, because then I didn’t need to tear the background away and glue it back again,” Saara explains.

Editing the animation

When everything was shot, it was captured to an editing program. “The most important thing in the editing of an animation is to check the rhythm. If the rhythm has gone a little wrong at some points when you have been animating, you can cut off some frames in the editing room,” Saara says. The sound is very important for animation. You should start editing the sound by making a list of all the sounds you will need. “Animation is freer for the sound designer as well, because it’s not realistic. It’s a completely constructed world and then none of the everyday life rules needs to be followed,” Eeva Partanen, sound designer of A Catch explains and continues: “I started with thinking about the sound of footsteps. I thought how the footsteps of these three characters could be different so that it would reflect the personae of the characters.”

Saara’s and Aiju’s advice

Saara and Aiju encourage everyone interested in making animations to start with cut-out animation. ”You can start with very simple materials and equipment. There is no need to hesitate.” “The most difficult thing in making an animation is to make choices. You can decide everything by yourself. It is all your responsibility. When you are making a live action film you have actors who act, and if it rains it rains. You have to at least on some level follow the rules of real life, but in animation you can decide everything by yourself. It can be quite tough sometimes,” Aiju says. 
“But on the other hand you don’t have to think about what is possible and what isn’t. Of course everything is possible in movies, but you need a lot of money if you want to make a live action movie that takes place for example in space. In animation everybody can do whatever they want.”

Just follow this advice, mix in some creativity, maybe a bit of craziness and you will get a magnificent animation.

Skrevet av Hanna Karppinen