Stop-frame animation spurs creativity. Chris Drage explores two expert options, one a startling debut, the other a favourite aiming for homes

Zu3d screenNewcomer 'Zu3d': 'intuitive and surprisingly powerful'Without the splendour of stop-motion animation there wouldn’t have been any life in The Corpse Bride and no grand days out for Wallace & Gromit.

More than mere mechanics, this funky old art form is the miracle ingredient that can be used to challenge children to build, invent and explore and, as film director Tim Burton, who is a master of stop-motion says, “To give life to something that doesn’t have it is cool.”

Animation means, literally, to breathe life into something inanimate, transforming it from a still form to a moving one. Children of all ages love cartoons, and spend many hours watching them and educators have long understood the power of a well-produced animation to get a message across. Even the Government is not averse to using cartoons in its national campaigns.

Stop-motion animation challenges pupils to make full use of this powerful medium of communication by allowing them to explore and present their ideas. It is this process that has created well-known characters including Morph, Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep.

Two new animation kits – Animate It!-Morph Edition from Aardman and the ZU3D Animation Kit from Zulogic Ltd – approach stop-motion animation from different directions and each has its merits. It's important to bear in mind that this version of Animate IT was produced for the home market (although some schools have already taken to it) and an education version will be released any day now (Kudlian previewed some elements of this at BETT 2013. Despite being a relative newcomer, ZU3D has already made an impact by getting on the shortlist for the BETT 2013 Awards in the Primary Digital Content category (ultimately won by Collins Big Cat Apps).

A simple process that can enhance animations and inspire young minds

Aardman Animations, creators of Morph and Wallace & Gromit, teamed up with Kudlian Software to create the Animate It! Morph Edition, simple to use, stop-motion animation software. Its aim is to help youngsters to create their own Morph movies using Kudlian’s animation software for both Mac and PC. It Includes Flexi-mould, coloured clay and stick-in eyes to create Morph and Chas figurines and a green Chroma-Key sheet to enable you to drop your own images into the background or use those included with the software. There are also more than 25 episodes of classic Morph animations on the DVD for inspiration. Unfortunately, it does not include a webcam so cannot be considered a complete starter kit.  

Suitable for key stage 2 and above, the software is very straightforward to use and is a valuable introduction to capturing single frames and compiling them into a video sequence. Backgrounds and effects can also be downloaded to use in conjunction with the software to enhance animations and inspire young minds. You can freely download a trial version, or to get more features, can buy a downloadable version of Animate It! Express, or go for the full version of 

Before you begin capturing any video frames for animating you need to have a storyline, a ‘studio’ (there’s a tutorial included to show how to make one based on a cardboard box), a webcam, suitable lighting (small lamp on a flexible stand) and a computer. The best option here is to use a laptop or netbook to make the whole procedure more portable. Lastly, children need to make their own character(s).

This where I hit a major snag with the review kit. The clay that came with it was really just too hard to use because it had compacted within the set. When took it out it was unworkable and took ages to soften and was only vaguely malleable after three minutes (on 50 per cent) in the microwave. Even then, it became brittle and crumbled when I tried to press it into the mould leaving it ugly, weak and with irreparable areas. I tried using the plasticine which is provided in the Zu3D kit (see below) but that only stuck to the mould. Therefore, my attempts at modelling a Morph figure were dashed.

To be fair to Aardman Animations, once they were aware of this problem they switched to new modelling clay from Cheatwell Ltd for all the Animate It! kits. Fortunately, in my case, Peter Lord of Aardman had included a short video tutorial on the DVD on how to fashion a Morph figurine from just modelling clay or plasticine alone and that is probably the best route to take.

Techniques of professional animators put ‘into the hands of children’

With an agreed storyline and having everything assembled and connected, it’s time to start capturing frames. It’s at this point that you begin to realise how simple the whole process is, which is not surprising when you look at the impressive pedigree of the Animate It! software, already very popular in schools. It is essentially a version of Kudlian Software’s renowned I Can Animate. This is very simple to use but it also has advanced features to explore, like: duplicate, reverse and delete frames, quick movie preview, Chroma Key still images for background, create clips to make filming easier, offering a ‘Drawing Layer’, export in a range of formats for easy editing and on-screen tutorials.

These tutorials, from an experienced Aardman animator, tend to be more ‘edutainment’ in their presentation than purely instructional or educational, and the same is true of those on the Aardman, www.animate-it.com website. I have to say that I would rather less ‘inspirational’ Morph cartoons and more down-to-earth instructional videos showing children, in detail, how to get the most out of the software and to challenge them to try out the many features (hopefully what we will be getting in the school version).

This is where Zu3D Studio 3 scores highly (see below). However, these observations are not to criticise the software (remember, this package is for the home market), which brings some techniques that the professional animators use directly into the hands of children. For example, one of the problems with stop-motion animation is that of controlling the speed (frame rate) that regulates the movement. The Animate It! software provides a professional means of doing this, using what professionals refer to as, ‘Limited Animation’ (or, in ‘Kudlian-speak’: adding a ‘Limiting Factor’). What this means is that by simply duplicating selected frames of the animation you can effectively slow bits of it down.

This feature provides an excellent means of controlling detailed movements at precise points without affecting the whole movie. Similarly, the triple layering of each frame provides an effective means of combining drawing, animation and background layers. Another most valuable feature for aspiring animators is ‘onion skinning’. This technique allows the live video from the webcam to be combined with the last frame captured so that you can judge the degree of movement for the next frame.  

This is very handy when things get inadvertently knocked or accidentally moved! However, the Animate It! manual also refers to a number of advanced effects. For example ‘special effects using Chroma Key’ which are plainly on the original I Can Animate software, but are apparently not available in Animate It!  

‘This animation software has added some real excitement to cross-curricular projects’

The www.animate-it.com website provides hints and tips from the professionals at Aardman, regular video tutorials, competitions, resources and assets to download and the latest behind-the-scenes news from the Aardman studios and the wider animation world. My overall impression is that this is a product for home consumers and generally not for schools. The whole edutainment, whizz-bang feel to it testifies to that.  

However, schools are using the software effectively. Rebecca Cole, a teacher from Glenaire Primary School in West Yorkshire, says they like using animation because the children love getting creative. “Using this animation software has added some real excitement to cross-curricular projects. Plus, with its intuitive design and powerful optional tools, we have been able to use the software across school in all age groups to great effect. You just plug it in and the children (whether from Years 1 or 6) seem to know almost instinctively what to click on next.

“There’s basically one button to press; the children then rearrange the object they are animating and press the button again so that, frame by frame, they create an animated film. There are sophisticated tools to enhance projects, such as the Chroma Key screen, which allows the children to drop in other backgrounds during the editing process to add a realistic setting. I particularly like the amount of collaboration required to make a film."

That is about the nub of it. In an attempt to make the highly technical world of Oscar-winning animation accessible to everyone, Aardman Animations has aimed this kit at aspiring animators at home to help them take their first steps. However, I would suggest schools wait for the forthcoming Animate IT! Kit, complete with webcam etc, and produced specifically for education.

The cross-curricular range of applications for this software is limited only by the imaginations of users. Lily (our dog, see above) exploring my keyboard was an out-of-the-box, no-prior-experience attempt at an animation, and is a raw example of how easy it is to enter the fascinating world of stop-frame animation.

'ZU3D' – a product developed for educationists with children in mind, 'a delight'

Zulogic Ltd has taken a completely different approach to the same topic, providing a fully-fledged starter kit with its feet firmly based in the curriculum. From the moment you open the box you feel that here is a product developed for educationists to use with children.

The Zu3D Ultimate Animation Kit is comprised of:  Zu3D Studio 3 stop-motion software, a rugged Kinobo HD webcam, plasticine in various colours, green-screen material and a pre-designed "set" – all that you need to create some interesting stop-motion animations. The webcam has built-in LED lights, which makes it even more functional in less-than-ideal classroom conditions. I found myself using this very accommodating webcam with Animate IT! as well.  

Like I Can Animate, Zu3D Studio 3 is a delight to use. It gives you the option of choosing between simple and advanced tools so it can be adapted more closely to the needs of children of differing abilities. Rarely do you find software which successfully combines an intuitive interface with truly advanced features and it is also a delight to use. What I particularly like about Studio 3 is its comprehensive approach. It offers every inch of the process usually with the tools themselves or templates for the less experienced, and it encompasses every aspect from adding titles and credits, to organising and editing sound clips (areas which are more implicit than explicit with Animate It!).  

Such intuitive tools, coupled with the comprehensive video features included, including the unlimited video and audio tracks possible, make this one of the best stop-motion animation programs available. The more advanced features of the program include automatic Chroma-Keying, painting tools and a 'magic rubber' and 'rig-removal' tool. Children can capture frames, import their own images, and also erase objects from captured frames. Chroma-Keying can be applied to the live video, giving budding animators an instant idea of what the project will look like and whether or not the lighting or position of the green material needs adjusting.  

I like the special ‘Painting’ mode which enables each frame to be painted over and, although the tools are restricted to basic brush, pencil, shapes and fill tools, this still allows the program to double as a hand-drawn animation program. Again, other features offered are "onion skinning", the ability to add a ‘limiting factor’ to speed up and slow down the animation and the ability to upload to the Zu3D online gallery.

Out-of-the-box animation can make experts out of novices

Overall, Zu3D Studio 3 is an intuitive and surprisingly powerful piece of software. If you are in any doubt just visit www.zu3d.com/gallery and simply marvel at the animations that children have created and posted on the site. They speak volumes. I particularly like the eco-friendly www.zu3d.com/gallery/what-a-waste and the key stage 1 child’s "Great Fire" animation.   

At a very young age, children can enhance their learning of stories and songs, as with the enchanting "Wheels on the bus" video. (above). The online tutorials too are a model of clarity and explanation. Complete novices will be at home in no time as well as those who wish to explore the more advanced esoteric aspects of the software. Everything is very well explained.   

At a very young age, children can enhance their learning of stories and songs, as with the enchanting "Wheels on the bus" video. (above). The online tutorials too are a model of clarity and explanation. Complete novices will be at home in no time as well as those who wish to explore the more advanced esoteric aspects of the software. Everything is very well explained.   

The software can be tailored to cover all age ranges and abilities and represents an excellent choice for schools that might want to start with a single user licence and then expand to more licences to encompass other age groups at a later date. To illustrate aspects of the learning curve, the ‘raw’ animation of ‘Lily The Dog’ is, again, a quick, out-of-the-box animation. Here the importance of ensuring that all aspects of your background and floor surface are still and immovable is learnt.   

The Primary National Strategy invites us to “Create a visual adaptation of a simple text using toys, modelling clay, play figures and stop-frame animation techniques”, but what else can be achieved through animation? For ideas on that I suggest you visit the Zulogic website where they explain how stop-motion animation can be used to enhance and explore, evaluate and explain, in all main primary subjects. In itself the creation of a two minute animation can encompass a large area of the curriculum:

  • Making backgrounds, characters and props;
  • Planning and storyboarding;
  • Making choices and problem solving;
  • Composing and recording sounds effects and music;
  • Review, evaluate and improve.

The Zu3D Studio 3 stop-motion animation software has been developed to give children (and adults) of all ages the freedom to create amazing animated films (with titles, credits, sound and music) quickly and easily, in school and at home. It's not only the simplicity of the software interface that makes the Zu3D Ultimate Animation Kit perfect for primary schools, but the way it helps teachers to get the best from whatever they've got around. The software works with all webcams and it's optimised for use in poor lighting conditions not unlike those you find in a typical classroom.

Animation doesn't just teach the traditional primary skills but can help with important areas such as listening, teamwork, leadership, problem solving and independent learning. The best advice for any teacher vaguely interested in using animation in their teaching is "Have a go!"  Software like I Can Animate or Zu3D Studio 3 make it so easy to try yourself and here is a website for ideas and inspiration: www.animate2educate.co.uk. Make your classroom more animated!

'Animate It!' ratings (out of 5)
Fitness for purpose   4
Ease of use               4
Features                    4
Quality                       4
Value for money        4

Animate It! Morph Edition KIt
Stop-frame animation software package produced by Kudlian with Aardman Animation for home market (education version imminent, Animate It! Morph edition single user £29.99, site licence £390,  Animate IT! software download £19.95
I Can Animate, from Kudlia, £24.49 from App Store
I Can Animate app for iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad,£1.99 from iTunes store
Kudlian software, The Grange, 37 Alcester Road, Studley, Warwickshire B80 7LL  
Tel:   01926 842 544 Fax
Fax:  01926 843 537 Web
www.kudlian.net
www.animate-it.com

Zu3D ratings (out of 5)
Fitness for purpose   5
Ease of use               5
Features                    5
Quality                       4
Value for money        5

Zu3D Ultimate Animation Kit    

Zu3D Animation Kit, single user £50
Zu3D Studio single licence £32.5O, five-user licence £155, ten-user licence £270, primary site licence is a one-off cost of £425, secondary site licence £575.

ZuLogic Ltd, PO Box 546, Tonbridge, TN12 0WP
Tel:  0845 5194671
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
www.zulogic.co.uk

Chris DrageChris Drage, a former teacher, is a consultant and journalist covering learning with ICT. You can contact him by email - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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