iStopMotion Brings Animation Magic to the iPad

| In-Depth Review

In stop motion animation, the magic happens in between the movie’s frames: It’s what you can not see — namely the animator’s hands — that makes seemingly inanimate objects spring to life.

A silly coffee cup captured with iStopMotion

(iPad 2 rear camera, 120 frames at 12 fps)

With iStopMotion, Boinx Software promises to turn your iPad 2 or new iPad into a stop motion studio with all the tools you need to capture, edit, and publish your own animation clips.

And action … one frame at a time!

This is your workspace in iStopMotion: A live camera preview takes center stage, a timeline of captured movie frames is located at the bottom of the screen, and a handful of menus are neatly tucked away in the corners.

In-progress animation of a coffee cup in iStopMotion's main screen

iStopMotion’s main screen

If you need a quick reminder where to find which function, tooltips with meaningful explanations are just a tap away.


Tapping the question mark summons tooltips, explaining what’s what on the screen

Making a camera selection is the first step in creating a movie clip in iStopMotion. The app supports both of the iPad’s built-in cameras, and there’s also a third option: Taking images remotely through the camera of another iOS device. (I’ll take a closer look at the latter in a bit.)

Selecting either of the iPad’s two built-in cameras or a remote camera

When you change the camera selection, you get an opportunity to adjust the exposure and — if supported by the camera — the focal point. Both the camera selection menu and respective camera settings button are always available, so you can freely mix-and-match front and back camera views, and re-adjust them as your animation project progresses.

Once you’ve set up your iPad and made the camera selection and adjustments, you’re ready to record:

  1. Tap the Capture button
  2. Adjust your scene
  3. Repeat ad lib from step 1

Depending on how you mount your iPad, touching the screen may slightly shift the device. To help prevent this, iStopMotion also recognizes the “center button” on an iPhone headset as an alternative Capture button.

Every time you tap the Capture button (or press the “center button” on the headset), iStopMotion takes a photo, which becomes an image “frame” in the movie clip. These frames are collected in a timeline at the bottom of the screen. You can scroll through the frames by swiping along the timeline; swipe with two fingers instead of one, and you’ll jump directly to the beginning or end of the clip.

To check your progress and verify that your animation looks the way you’re expecting it to, tapping the Play button on the left plays the clip in a loop.

The Clip settings menu offers an option to slow this preview down to half speed, so you can take a closer look at the details in the scene. A more important setting is the frame rate, which is measured in “frames per second,” and which applies to both the preview and the finished clip.

Playback settings are configured in the Clip menu

Try experimenting with this option and the way you animate your scenes, so that the finished product looks smooth and evenly paced. Although you can change this setting at any time (even while the clip is playing!), it always applies to the entire movie, so make sure that you’re happy with the pace and image flow for the entire clip.

While composing your scene, iStopMotion lends you a helping hand if you wish: There’s a 3×3 grid for applying the rule of thirds, as well as a “ghost image”.

The ghost image is a semi-transparent overlay over the live camera view, and it shows the frame that is currently selected in the timeline, which, usually, is the image you shot most recently. This is a huge help in controlling the changes in your scene between that most recent frame and the one you’re about to shoot next.

For even better control, the app lets you choose what to display on the screen: just the shadow image, just the camera view, or both.

A ghost image of the previous frame helps you adjust the objects in your scene

Squeezing a day into a minute

Time-lapse photography is stop motion animation’s automated sibling: Instead of you triggering every single photo capture manually, the software automatically takes images at specified time intervals.

Although you could abuse this capture mode for a quick game of “speed-animation”, the more common use for time-lapse photography is compressing minutes or hours of an event into a much shorter movie. Think: moving clouds in the sky, progress on a construction site, the transition from low to high tide, etc.

In time-lapse mode, the delay between images captures can range from one second to about one hour

In addition to all the options from iStopMotion’s regular stop motion mode, time-lapse mode comes with one additional option. That, of course, is the time the app waits between shooting individual images. A bit of simple math is helpful for configuring this delay.

It is fairly easy to decide how long the clip should be, and how much of an event you would like to fit into the clip. For example, you could decide to squeeze two hours of a sunset into a two-minute clip. Similarly, you can pick your clip’s playback frame-rate (the “frames per second” in the Clip settings) arbitrarily. Based on these values, then, how should you set the delay between individual shots?

Here’s the formula: time_between_frames = duration_of_event / (frame_rate × clip_length)

Applied to the example of a two-hour event and a two-minute clip with a frame rate of 30 fps, you get: time_between_frames = 120 min / (30 fps × 2 min) = 2 seconds / frame. Set the time-lapse delay to 2 seconds, tap the Capture button, wait for two hours, and you end up with a 2-minute clip.

Some 40 minutes’ worth of moving clouds squeezed into a 17-second clip

(iPad 2 front camera, 512 frames at 30 fps, taken at 5-second intervals)

Capturing images from afar

If you checked out the videos above, you’ll agree that the image quality of the iPad 2’s cameras is pretty mediocre. Apple has equipped the new iPad with much better cameras, and the iPhone 4S has even better cameras yet. The Boinx developers have come up with a very nifty way to utilize this fact: They’ve built a free companion app to iStopMotion, called iStopMotion Remote Camera, which allows you to use an iPhone’s (3GS, 4, or 4S) or other iPad’s (2 or “new”) camera instead of the ones found inside the device that iStopMotion is running on.

Both apps communicate via Wi-Fi, and hooking them up couldn’t be easier: Launch each app on its respective device; on the iPad, select the name of the remote device in iStopMotion’s Sources menu; confirm the connection on the remote device; and you’re all set.

iStopMotion Remote Camera running on an iPhone and waiting to be connected

(By the way, just in case you’re wondering who “Simone” is: I name all of my computers and gadgets after Jazz keyboarders, and my iPhone is named after legendary Jazz pianist and singer, Nina Simone. Her sidekick iPad 2 happens to be “[Oscar] Peterson.”)

A live preview from the remote camera will appear on the iPad. Capture buttons for shooting an image are available in both apps. You can even set the remote device’s camera’s focus and exposure on either the iPad or directly in iStopMotion Remote Camera on the remote device. Frames that you capture are automatically transferred to the iPad.

Simply tapping on the screen adjusts focus and exposure based on where you tapped, and this also works for remote cameras

Frames that you capture are automatically transferred to the iPad.

For my testing, I used an iPad 2 and an iPhone 3GS communicating over an 802.11n wireless LAN. The transfer of the images from the iPhone to the iPad was easily fast and reliable enough to not get in the way of my focusing (no pun intended) on the movie clip I was shooting.

Incidentally, though, the only real bug I found appeared while using this setup: Although I had captured a few frames without moving anything, the ghost image and the live view do not align properly.

The only serious bug I found: The scaling of the ghost image is botched when using the iStopMotion Remote Camera app.

Fine-tuning what you captured

Recording in iStopMotion for iPad is efficient and convenient. Editing, however, is where the app falls a bit short.

The tools menu contains three editing commands: Delete Frame, Delete All Frames, and Duplicate Frame. These commands always apply only to the currently selected frame, since the app does not allow selecting more than one frame at a time.

iStopMotion’s editing features are a bit sparse

Also, you cannot insert a new frame between existing ones: Regardless of which frame is currently selected in the timeline, newly snapped frames are always appended at the end of the clip. And you cannot reorder a clip’s frames, either.

This may not sound like a big deal, but once you get ambitious with the clips you create, you’ll realize how iStopMotion’s limited toolset impacts the editing process. In fact, I learned this hard way myself: When (I thought) I was done filming the coffee cup animation, I noticed that my hand was visible in some of the frames. Fixing this should have been as easy as selecting all of the botched images as a set, deleting them in one go, and inserting a couple of new frames in their place.

Instead, I had to delete — one by one — the faulty frames as well as all the perfectly good ones that came after them, and start over from there.

What’s more, since the editing commands are contained — or should I say, hidden? — in a popover menu, you have to open that menu first before you get to the desired button. Hence, every editing operation requires two taps instead of one. Chances are that you will be using these editing functions a lot when fine-tuning a clip. That’s why I wish they’d be placed right on the main screen, or at least have a corresponding gesture for summoning them.

Speaking of gestures, I only found one more besides swiping along the timeline: Dragging a frame upwards out of the timeline deletes it. It’s a bit more direct than the menu approach, but still not as convenient as deleting a range of images at once.

Hopefully, the good folks at Boinx will address these shortcomings in a future update, maybe even by implementing a dedicated editing screen. Come to think of it, having a range-selection feature in place would also make possible some fun effects, like reversing the order of the frames in the selection, etc.

Your very own (movie clip) gallery

When you exit from the recording screen, the app takes you to its Gallery. If you’ve ever used a project-based iPad application like GarageBand or Keynote, this screen will look familiar to you.

iStopMotion’s starting point, the Gallery, with the general settings menu

The Gallery is where you manage your iStopMotion projects: create new clips, or share or delete existing ones. The overall appearance of this screen with its large previews is pretty spiffy, and just browsing through existing projects is good fun in its own right.

If you have a lot of projects, though, finding a specific one becomes a bit of a challenge, because you can only view one project at a time. Here’s hoping that a scrolling-grid layout for the Gallery with much smaller thumbnails is one of the planned future additions for this app.

Bringing your movies to theaters everywhere

For getting your clips out of the app and sharing them with others, iStopMotion gives you a range of options: Add them to your iPad’s Photo Roll, so that they are synchronized back to the iTunes library on your computer; email them directly from the device; share them via YouTube; or upload them to your Dropbox account.

Sharing options for your iStopMotion clips include direct uploads to YouTube or Dropbox

There are five quality settings for the exported movie, which makes it easy to optimize them in terms of storage space and transfer bandwidth. Available image resolutions for the exported movie range from “Small” 426 x 240 pixels to full HD 1920 x 1080 pixels (on new iPads).

Pick from five sizes for exported movie clips

If you feel that visuals alone are not enough, iStopMotion lets you embellish a clip by adding an audio track from your iTunes library.

The Share dialog serves another important purpose as well: It is the only place in the app where you can view a clip with its music track playing. When watching the preview loop in the recording screen, the clip remains silent.

As for the image and audio quality of the exported movies, I’m very happy with what I’ve seen so far, both from my own testing — even though I’m still stuck with an iPad 2 with its not-so-awesome cameras — and also from what I’ve seen others produce with iStopMotion.

The critic’s thumb goes … up!

You won’t have to use iStopMotion for long to realize that it belongs in that prestigious category of software applications that are focused on doing just one thing, but doing that one thing extremely well.

As soon as you’ve learned where to find which function in iStopMotion, its user interface becomes kind of transparent. It gets out of your way, so that you can fully focus on creating cool stuff.

And that user interface is very sleek, very tidy, and simply beautiful. Thanks to its limited set of controls, it is very accessible and very efficient to use. And, man, is it fun!

The only area where the app needs a bit more work is editing. Basic functions like deleting or duplicating single frames do exist, but, in their current implementation, are rather tedious to use. I’m hoping that a dedicated editing screen will be the key new feature in the next major release of the application.

To make this long review short: iStopMotion turns your iPad into a highly portable, and highly capable, studio for creating stop motion animations and time-lapse movies, wherever you happen to be.

Product: iStopMotion for iPad

Company: Boinx Software

List Price: US$9.99

Pros:

Very easy to use and lots of fun; solid quality of captured movies; meaningful options for sharing finished clips.

Cons:

Editing features are a bit sparse; remote camera ghost image doesn’t align correctly.

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