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What They Do

Special Effects Artists and Animators Career Video

Insider Info

Clay animators design clay characters. Then they use stop-motion animation to produce a film or scene. Stop-motion involves manipulating the movement of a character one picture at a time.

"You move the character in increments. If you want him to touch his head, you move his hand up a little, take a picture, up a little, take a picture, until finally his hand touches his head. When you project the film, it looks like he's moving smoothly," says Michael Frierson. He is a professor of broadcasting and an expert on the clay animation industry.

"Animation is the inverse of live action filmmaking, in that the goal is to shoot it one to one," says Frierson.

"In other words, because it's so labor-intensive, you'll use every frame you generate. All the work is at the pre-production stage, where you design the characters, write the script and make a storyboard. Once you start to animate, it's a matter of following that carefully planned out script."

A storyboard is a series of images that describes the shots and the action that will take place. "At the editing stage, you don't have 10 takes to look through to decide which one you want -- you've hopefully got only one take," says Frierson.

"The post-production or the editing part of it is easy. The pre-production is much more intensive than live action because everything has to be planned out in advance."

Because clay animators move their characters in increments and then take a picture after each tiny move, thousands of frames are required to make even a simple film. In fact, 24 frames are required for a single second of film -- just imagine how many images you'd have to take to make a 10-minute film!

Give up? You'd need 14,400 pictures!

Animators make their characters out of Plasticine, a non-hardening clay. "Clay has a lot of advantages," says Frierson.

"It's very tactile, kids love to work with it and it shows a lot of surface detail naturally. There are certain things that are hard to do with clay. It's heavy, tends to sag and gets sticky. For example, you can't fly a character."

Using other materials, such as foam latex, is becoming more popular.

Foam has been used in other well-known stop-animation productions like the Lipton Brisk Ice Tea commercial featuring Sylvester Stallone's Rocky character.

Clay animation requires fine motor skills and patience. Animators work long hours for many months to produce a piece. "It's very slow and requires a certain kind of focus," says Frierson.

"Sometimes it'll take you 20 minutes to set the next frame, you'll go 'click click,' and then you have to work another hour to get it arranged to where you're ready to shoot the next frame."

Many industries require people who can work with clay. Although computers are playing more of a role in the design process, clay models are still a very important and vital part of auto design.

Clay artists can provide auto manufacturers with a detailed 3D model to aid in engineering and design modification. A full-scale clay model of the vehicle can show designers a true picture of the final product so that they can locate any problems.

At a Glance

Bring clay characters to life

  • More artists are substituting foam for clay
  • You need lots of patience
  • A post-secondary animation, arts or design program is recommended


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