centre for animation & interactive media

Animation Project #1
Cutout Animation (a 'straight-ahead' method)
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This is an initial 'toe-in-the-water' animation exercise. The use of the cut-out animation technique for this project greatly simplifies the number of issues you would otherwise have to consider when imbuing something with life. For example, once you have made your paper cut-out puppet, you do not have to create any more pieces of artwork as it can be used again and again to express all sorts of ideas. Also you do not need to learn any complex computer software for this project leaving you free to explore how the displacement of shape and form in time, can produce vivid and descriptive movement.

  "When setting up an animation film project and composing the impression of motion, the author appeals directly to the psycho-physiological motion perception mechanisms and world experience of the viewer. He or she will quest what can be perceived and how, the same way a composer creates for a specific music instrument by exploring its expression potentials." - Marina Estela Graça

Direct "under-the-camera" techniques such as cut-out animation, is one of the most efficient methods available to the animator for creating lots of on-screen time in the quickest possible way - although you may not believe that once you start animating! Visualising a movement in one's mind, and the resulting physical gesture used to manipulate the cut-out to realise that movement in a tangible way, provides one of the shortest paths between the animator's craft and the production of an animated sequence. Such animation becomes a kind of performance, albeit in a different timeframe from a real life one. Modern frame-by-frame recording devices that support instantaneous video playback provide a complete feedback loop which allows the animator to assess the immediate past to help her or him make informed decisions about future incremental manipulations.

  "Cutout work, where the action of animating is done directly under the camera, carries a high personal charge. It is in a sense miming, since the animator is using only his or her judgment and experience to achieve the action. The great master of cutout, Yuri Norstein, was once asked to what extent he used electronic controls on the special rostrum he had made for himself. He rejected them completely, and to explain why, he made an eloquent gesture, tapping his forehead and running his finger from there down his own arm to his hand. This direct connection between brain and hand is the spirit of cutout animation." - Margery Brown


Shadow puppets have been used by many Eastern and Western cultures to tell their stories. Above is an example of a finely cut Wayang Kulit puppet from Java, Indonesia. It is made from buffalo skin with rods made from cow horns. Oh no! Wayang has gone 3D <click here>

A Malaysian Wayang Kulit show <click here>

Puppeteer, Joko Susilo, demonstrates his superb fighting technique <click here>

MTV Wayang Rock <click here>

Although you will be working in silhouette for this project, it should be kept in mind that one of the great advantages of cut-out animation is that the puppets can carry very rich graphical treatments on their surface such as texture, decoration, etching effects and shading. (See the production still from 'The Host Monogama' - below, right). Such treatment is not a practical option in most hand-drawn animation as it becomes too expensive to replicate the texture again and again across every drawing.

Cut-out animation, of course, does have limitations. Because the cut-outs are flat, they must work across or up and down the screen in a flat plane. You simply cannot walk a cut-out puppet towards camera in relation to a fixed back ground or make it turn in three dimensions. However it is always possible to design an inventive solution for each and every storytelling scenario. For example, a character can be made to walk over a hill to disappear behind it, then reappear as a smaller cutout figure ascending a more distant hill. These limitations can actually lead to striking stylistic visual solutions.

  It is also erroneous to think that cut-outs, because of the loose association of parts, can only produce jerky movement. Take a look at work of Russian animator and master of the cutout technique, Yori Norstein. His segment for the 2003 Japanese film, 'Winter Days' (left) contain smooth lyrical sequences where even the camera appears to rome with organic freedom within the forest. Norstein arranges his cutouts under the camera on multiple layers of glass to give his 'canvas' great depth. Also see Norstein's yet unfinished feature film, 'The Overcoat'. This work has been in the making for the past twenty years and promises to be something special. In the excerpt (left) Norstein provides us with further evidence of the extraordinary power and beauty that animated cut-outs can achieve.
'Winter Days'
'The Overcoat'

By necessity, the type of animation method you will be using for this project is known as 'straight-ahead animation' which requires an intuitive approach to the choreography of the events. This technique does not allow for the editing and progressive refinement of a movement as is the case with hand-drawn or most computer animation production. Once having moved a part of your cut-out, it is difficult if not impossible to reestablish its exact position again should you make a mistake in your animation and wish to go back and correct it. You are committed to proceeding as you can only animate forward into the future, not back into the past. It is akin to a performance piece on a stage in which one just takes a deep breath and ploughs on regardless. The show must go on.

Later in the semester, you will be able to contrast this approach with forthcoming exercises using the 'pose-to-pose animation' technique. By contrast, this method enables you to plot out, time, rehearse and progressively refine your animation until your are satisfied with the result.

The straight-ahead approach can lead to some wonderful moments of spontaneity and freshness, as well as unexpected and bizarre twists in storylines that can turn on a whim. Enjoy the process. Other animation techniques which by their nature employ this 'straight-ahead' method are puppet animation, pixillation, paint or sand on glass - techniques where constant manipulation of the thing being animated occurs frame by frame.

'Prince Achmed' by Lotte Reiniger (1925)
A silhouette animation combining the traditions of the paper cut and the shadow puppet by this pioneer of German animation.

'The Little Witch' by Boris Masnik (1984)
A colourful richly textured cut-out animation with simple, sometimes punchy but superbly timed gestures and excellent use of replacement parts.

'The Host Monogoma' by Tim Uebergang, AIM graduate (2000)
The strange mating rituals on strange worlds of even stranger creatures. Screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival 2001.

'COG' by Irina Goundortseva, AIM graduate (2000)
A digitally composited 2D animation made from a collage of photographed metal parts. These elements are used as digital cut-outs subject to similar design limitations as real cut-outs and the flat use of space. COG depicts the story of a unique soul who faces the closed-mindedness of his mechanised society. First Prize in the student category at the Vancouver Special Effects Film Festival 2001.

'The A List' by Janelle Kilner, AIM graduate (2002)
Featuring delightful character designs and graphics. It was created within a computer using a digital cut-out animation technique. Selected for screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival 2003.


Lotte Reiniger <click here>
Yori Norstein <click here>
Yori Norstein - talks about his films and shows some of his working methods, including his multiplane camera, and his library of cut-out parts: Part I: <click here >, Part II: <click here>
Francine Desbiens - National Film Board of Canada <click here>


This project will be realised by animating directly under the camera. You will work in a small creative production crew of 3 people.

Each student is to design a paper cut-out character or object consisting of at least two articulated parts. Try not to be too figurative. Symbolic or stylised characters and abstracted shapes have greater potential for play as the audience has fewer comparative expectations as to how they should move. Your character should be no more than a maximum of 10-18 cm in height in order to leave sufficient surrounding space for the action. The cut-outs will be 'back-lit' to produce silhouettes. This form of abstraction and the speed and immediacy of the cut-out technique will help you better focus on the aims and objectives of this exercise. In addition to the black paper, objects such as feathers, string, wool, sticks, small utensils etc. may also be used to add decorative elements to your design. You can also consider using pieces of clay for those parts of your character that need more organic kinds of motion. Your story might require a character or part of a character to undergo some interesting exaggerations or distortions in shape. This can be achieved using replacement parts as required.

Rather than animate your characters on a blank background, consider how minimal foreground and background elements can provide a relevant setting to your story as well as a fixed reference point against which the characters can be seen to move. Architect's tracing paper can be used to give background elements a more delicate look that helps them recede into the distance.

You should aim to explore and dramatise the relationship between the characters and the existence of an inanimate object. This could be part of a set - a door, a chair or stove, or an object which can be manipulated by one or three figures - a ball, a heavy box, a birthday cake. See if you can convey character and emotion through gesture and timing. You will quickly discover that even non-figurative shapes can be vested with personalities through the way you make them move and react to their environment.

Each student in the three person crew takes turn to operate and choreograph the performance of their character and to make it interact in some way with that of your colleague's.
Each production group will have 2-3 hours to produce a short (40-60 sec) animated sequence and to discover something about how to make things move. Use the playback feature of the digital recording software often during the production to check on your progress and to modify and refine the way you animate.

You must incorporate some of the principles of animation in this project as discussed and demonstrated in class - anticipation, squash and stretch, paths of motion, slow and fast action, placing an accent on an expressive pose using stillness. Also try to convey a sense of gravity and weight using faired movement. One of the challenges is to imagine the action you wish to create, and then think about the kind of manipulation of the articulated parts of your puppet required to realise it.

The most common mistake for first-time animators is to assume that everything has to be constantly moving. This results in frenetic animation which is too busy to be read by your audience. Ideas become lost in a jumble of movement across the screen because events were staged without visual accents or pauses to make each action clear and distinct. In fact stillness is a fundamental base-element of any time-based work. It is the contrast between busier actions against stillness, and all the qualities of movement between those two extremes, that produces texture within your work. It is like a musical composition that calls upon the complete range of tonality and dynamics that an orchestra can provide.

With 3 characters and an object on screen all at once, you will also have to be very careful not to upstage the animation of others in your crew. In fact 'staging' the action is one of the important principles of animation. The attention of your audience needs to be directed around the screen so as to be to pick up important information. Think of a tennis match where our eyes follow the movement of the ball from server to receiver. We simply cannot look at two things simultaneously. Be gracious about sharing the spot light and 'hand ball' the action from your character to that of your colleagues. So while one of the three characters is busy conveying important information, the other two characters on screen should be relatively still. Your piece will be much stronger for it.

Think of entrances and exits too - remember that your world should extend beyond the frame through which it is seen and you can infer this to be the case. New visual elements arriving on the scene is a classic device used since Shakespearean times to perk up the interest of an audience. You should also consider how you will use sound and the way it might pre-empt the arrival of your character(s).

Remember that anything that is not supposed to move (background and foreground elements) should be stuck down with Bluetac or double-sided tape. Unintended accidental movement is an annoying distraction. Scenic background elements can be squashed under a sheet of glass which will provide a smooth surface to animate on.

Although this short exercise is just an initial exploration of movement, it may be helpful to get together with your partners before you commence to discuss various story scenarios, personality traits and conflicts. Plan out some of the actions you would like to tackle in advance as this kind of thinking will help to drive various visual events towards some kind of resolution. Spend on more than about 45 minutes around some jamming ideas. Because of the constraints of time and resources, please keep your idea sharp and simple.

To make this piece look like a fully-completed production, you will need to give it a title and credits. If you cannot think of one for the moment, it can be added in later once you know what your piece is all about. It title often gives context to the information that follows.

It maybe useful to put your characters into a situation in which their personalities are progressively revealed to the audience. Some ideas:

  • a confrontation, a stand off, physical engagement
  • a tentative first meeting, flirtatious advances, a compulsive infatuation
  • an attempt to cheer up a saddened fellow being
  • domineering character tests itself against a submissive one
  • an entangled dance
  • perhaps the characters play a game of possession with the third object

What do your characters do with their object? - play with it, capture it, use it to escape?

Each group should know when their story has reached its logical conclusion. Time to roll the credits!
No post-production will be allowed on the image.

To gain an understanding of the frame by frame animation process. To discover through play and experimentation, how you can use small packets of time to make things move in different ways. To use and put into practice some of the basic principles of animation. To attempt some characterisation and story-telling. To become familiar with the advantages and disadvantages of the 'straight-ahead' and 'direct under the camera' animation techniques. To gain experience in working in a small creative team.

Your project sequence is to be captured from a video camera into a computer using the digital animation software called Frame Thief. This software saves a series of images at Digital Video (DV) resolution (720 x 576 pixels) onto the hard drive of the computer. At the same time it makes a low-resolution QuickTime movie of your sequence so that you can gain feedback on the work and monitor its progress. You can play and rewind your movie whenever you like. First, you will need to set up a project within this software so that all its associated images are saved into the same location. At a later date, a high resolution digital movie can be made from the sequence of still images. Ask David for assistance in creating a project folder.


Tuesday 15 March. Each group should spend no more than about 2-3 hours animating under the camera. Again, no post-production will be allowed on the image. However, later in the semester, you will learn how to add a soundtrack to your cut-out piece. We will arrange a time to review this project and to celebrate what each group has managed to achieve.

A guide to the requirements for titles and credits can be found here:

"I don't think
I'm cut out
for this project"
...says dino

Although seen by the audience in silhouette, shadow puppets are usually richly painted. This Javanese puppet has fine linework and skin of gold paint. Just as these shadow puppets can carry rich decorative treatments, so can your cutouts. See David's web page about a Balinese shadow play <click here>

'Prince Achmed' by Lotte Reiniger (1925)
A silent-film silhouette animation combining the traditions of the paper cut and the shadow puppet by this pioneer of German animation.
'The Heron and the Crane' by Yuri Norstein (1974) (Click on the image above to see this film on YouTube).
'Hedgehog in the Fog' by Yuri Norstein (1975). Click on the image above to see this film on YouTube.
'Tale of Tales' (Skazka Skazok) by Yuri Norstein (1978) (29 minutes). Named the "Best Animated Film of All Time" by the Los Angeles (USA) Olympic Arts Festival, the film weaves threads of realism and nostalgia with consummate artistry. At its core are a popular Russian lullaby, Pablo Picasso's minotaur, and images of the lost glories of Alexander Pushkin and the golden age of Russian literature. (Click on the image above to see this film on YouTube)
'Bendito' by Zumbakamera (2010). A digital silhouette animation (Click on the image above to see this film on YouTube)
'The Host Monogama' (2000) by Tim Uebergang. The lavish texture, colour and shading effects evident on this character which is one of cutout's major strengths compared to other animation techniques that require far simpler visual design solutions to be viable to produce.
'COG' by Irina Goundortseva used digital cutouts. Various items of rusty junk from the real world were photographed to create a library of parts for her robots and her factory environment.
'The A List' by Janelle Kilner (AIM 2002) using the same digital cutout technique as 'COG'. Various pieces of artwork were hand-prepared in Photoshop using rich airbrushing and shading effects. A kind of articulated digital puppet was made for each character in AfterEffects where Janelle did all her animating. (Click image to see a short excerpt)
Your cutouts can be prepared from stiff black card. Consider the use of both positive and negative shapes. By cutting back into your parts, you can provide addition decorative elements like the wayang kulit puppets at the top of this page.
The articulated parts can be attached together using a needle, cotton thread and sticky tape.

Experimental Animation Techniques by Margery Brown (pdf file)

'Silhouette Animation' - Answers.com

Notes on Lotte Reiniger's film, "The Adventures of Prince Achmed" (pdf file)

The computer cutout method of 'South Park' - Animation World Magazine, Issue 3.1, September 1998

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