Author: Mark Sawicki, Co-Chair, Animation Department, New York Film Academy Los Angeles
One way to jump into animation quickly without great expenditure is to use stop motion technique to animate clay or objects. Clay animation is especially compelling as it lends itself perfectly to the amorphous transformations offered by drawn animation. Puppets by comparison are usually fixed in space and don’t allow for squashing and stretching unless replacement animation is used.
The first thing is to get a capture system, such as Stop Motion pro software available from Amazon.com, that will allow you to animate using any number of available cameras such as a web cam, a video camera or a digital still camera. Once that is in place you have to choose the right kind of clay that lends itself to animation.
Many students begin experimenting with classic water based ceramic clay. This material is an age-old classic substance that has served the art world well for hundreds of years. While this clay can be animated you will find that you will only have a short window of time to work with it as it rapidly starts drying out in the air and lights. As the drying process proceeds, cracks will appear and the clay will need to be moistened to keep it malleable. The clay is messy and muddy. As the clay dries it becomes dusty too. Ceramic clay does not lend itself to color as it only comes in gray or brown and is generally a poor choice for animation.
As the art of sculpture progressed through the centuries adding mineral oil to the clay instead of water solved the problem of clay drying out. This clay is called Roma Plastilina and the formula is over 100 years old. It is based on the Gudicci Italian modeling clay of the 1800’s. It comes in a number of hardness grades from very soft to a hard wax consistency that can be carved. It only comes in gray green and white and the oil tends to weep out of the clay during animation. It is marvelous clay for making prototypes. If the clay does not contain sulphur the artist can make use of the many rubber mold-making materials as well. Sulphur must be excluded from the formula as that chemical reacts with rubber mold making chemicals retarding their ability to set.
The best clay to use for clay animation is Plastilina clay manufactured by the Van Aken Company. It comes in a wide range of colors and is a formulation of wax and clay. The clay does not weep oil, as it is wax based. If one uses a double boiler different colors of clay can be melted and blended together to obtain a wide pallet to work with. This is the clay that was used by Will Vinton when his studio executed his trademarked “Claymation” process for his films. This clay is readily available from toy, hobby and art stores.
Another clay that lends itself to animation is Polymer clay such as Sculpey. Instead of ceramic mud the clay is made of plastic and is pliable for many months. It comes in many colors that can be blended together and animates well. This clay has the added feature of being able to be hardened in a home oven when baked to a temperature of 275 degrees Fahrenheit. Polymer clay is more expensive than wax clay and can become a consideration.
The use of both Plastilina and baked Polymer clay can be an ideal choice for animation as parts of the character you don’t want to distort such as teeth or eyeballs can be made of hardened Polymer clay and added to the wax clay to allow for a wide range of animation possibilities.