Digital Hub

Shooting dramatic and entertaining movies does not always require actors. With some inexpensive software and a FireWire camcorder or Web cam, you can use the world around you to create beautiful and unique movies. Imagine capturing time-lapse footage of a brewing storm, or bringing household objects to life via stop-motion photography.

These projects are easy to do, but they require some patience. When animating with stop-motion photography, you shoot just one frame at a time, slightly moving your subject between each frame. Time-lapse movies are simpler to capture: point your camera at an interesting scene, and then go to the mall while your software snaps frames at a set interval. When you're finished, toys will spring to life, flowers will bloom, and you'll have a one-of-a-kind movie.

I recently looked at six top-notch, low-cost programs that help you easily create stop-motion and time-lapse movies. The software you choose should depend on how much you want to spend and the type of project you're doing. I'll tell you how to set up your equipment, how to avoid some common pitfalls, and what to do with your movies once you've captured them. To see sample movies I created, go to http://www.macilife.com/digitalhub.

The Setup

To create a time-lapse or stop-motion movie, you'll need a video camera, a sturdy tripod, and some basic software. (All the programs I looked at cost less than $50 -- a couple of them are even free.)

You'll get the best video quality from a MiniDV camcorder. If you don't have a camcorder, an inexpensive USB or FireWire Web cam will do. To set up your equipment, mount the camera on a tripod and plug the camera's power adapter into a wall outlet -- batteries won't last for extended animation sessions. A tripod or other stable mount is a must for this type of film project. If the camera moves in between any of the frames you're capturing, the scene's action will have a jarring jump. Finally, connect a FireWire cable from the camcorder to your Mac's FireWire port.

Many DV camcorders shut themselves off after a few minutes if you aren't recording to tape. You can usually bypass this feature by taking the tape out of the camera. If your camera still insists on slumbering, try leaving its tape door open.

Stop-Motion Strategies

Some stop-motion animators create entire sets and characters out of clay. If you aren't particularly talented with Play-Doh -- or if you don't have hours to spend creating characters from scratch -- use objects you find around the house. For example, put some toys in motion to create a Matchbox Car 500 race or the Battle of the Beanie Babies. You can even point the camera at the backyard and have the kids take a small step between each frame. In the final movie, they'll appear to move without walking. (The Monkees, those madcap musicians from the sixties, regularly used and abused this effect in their TV show.)

Set up your animation stage somewhere that will have consistent lighting over several hours. If you're relying on light from nearby windows, try to shoot on a cloudy day. Dramatic variations from one frame to the next will ruin the illusion of seamless motion.

Move objects just a fraction of an inch between each frame. Some stop-motion programs, such as Boinx Software's iStopMotion DV, provide an onion-skinning feature that faintly superimposes the last few frames you captured. Onion skinning provides an at-a-glance look at how things have changed in recent frames, and it guides you in making the next adjustment.

As a bonus, iStopMotion DV (as well as its free counterpart, iStopMotion Lite) offers a useful speech-recognition feature that lets you tell your Mac to capture a new frame from across the room, so you don't have to get up from the animation stage, walk over to your Mac, and manually click on the Capture button for each frame.

Time-Lapse Videos

Anything that moves or changes shape slowly in the real world is a candidate for time-lapse photography -- for example, a glass filled with ice, a dying flame, or drifting shadows. However, to avoid damaging your camera when shooting sunsets or sunrises, don't point the camera directly at the sun.

You'll need to decide how often you want your camera to capture a frame of the ongoing action. To calculate your frame interval, first determine the duration of the real event, and then decide how long you want your final clip to be. Finally, settle on a desired frame rate (20 frames per second is a good starting point).

For example, say a rosebud takes four hours to blossom and you want the time-lapse clip to play for 9 seconds. Multiply the desired video length (9 seconds) by the number of frames per second (20). In this scenario, you'll need 180 frames. Then divide the duration of the real event (240 minutes) by the number of frames you need. This reveals that you'll need to shoot a frame every 1.3 minutes, or roughly every 80 seconds. For something quicker, such as moving clouds, you'd want to shoot frames more frequently -- perhaps every 15 seconds.

Postproduction

When you're done with your project, you'll export a QuickTime file of your finished movie. You can play this movie on its own, or incorporate it into a larger film project by importing it into iMovie and then adding it to the iMovie timeline. For example, you may want to use a stop-motion clip of kids scooting around your backyard as the opener to a movie of your child's birthday party.

Although you can clip the end of your time-lapse or stop-motion movies within iMovie, you won't be able to adjust individual frames. To do that, you'll need to return to the original software.

Run It Backward To put a different spin on a time-lapse clip, reverse it: see a blooming rose close itself or a glass of water turn into a glass of ice. After adding the clip to iMovie's timeline, select it and choose Reverse Clip Direction from the Advanced menu.

Add Dialogue and Sound Effects If you've created a stop-motion movie of some toy cars, why not add some traffic sounds? You'll find a huge array of free sound effects at http://www.findsounds.com. You can use a microphone and iMovie's Audio pane to add dialogue. However, if your movie is dialogue-intensive, consider recording the dialogue first and then timing the animation to it. Stop-Motion Studio by Loud offers audio-syncing features that can simplify this process.

Working as a Team in iMovie 3

If you want to collaborate with others on a video project, you can parcel out different segments of an iMovie 3 project for individual editing. But what do you do when it's time to merge the completed segments back into a single project for transfer to iDVD?

You could export each movie segment as a QuickTime file and then import them into the master project. But you'll lose the flexibility that lets you edit the individual clips -- to fine-tune transitions, for example. There is a better -- though somewhat unconventional -- alternative: merge the video projects using a text editor. Since an iMovie project file is simply a text file with commands for manipulating video clips, it's ripe for textual tweakery.

To divide your editing work, first import all your footage into a single iMovie project. Split the footage into clips for each editing group. Create a new iMovie project for each group; then use the Finder to move the clips belonging to each group into the appropriate project's media folder.

Once all the editors have finished editing their portions of the footage, create a new master project in iMovie that will serve as the container for the reassembled segments. You'll need to perform a quick editing operation -- such as importing a photo or adding a sound effect to the timeline -- to create a project file that will work for the following steps. When you've done this, quit iMovie. Then bring the media files for each movie segment into your master project. In the Finder, open the first segment's project folder and select all the files in its Media folder -- including any additional files that iMovie generated for effects, transitions, audio, and so on. Drag these files into the Media folder for your master project. Repeat this process for each movie segment.

Next, launch a text editor, such as Apple's TextEdit, and open the project file for the first segment of your movie. (Do not open the .mov file.) Locate the line AudioTrackMute: 0 0 0. Everything that follows describes the clips and edits in the timeline and on the shelf. Select and copy all the text below this line. Then open the project file for your master project and paste the copied text below the same line of text.

Repeat this process for each segment of your movie, appending each new section of text to the bottom of the master project file. Save the file when you're done.

When you open the master project in iMovie, all of the edited segments should appear in the timeline. You can now make any final edits to the master movie, such as adding transitions between the segments. -- jeff carlson

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