Animation is a great way to communicate more complicated scientific concepts. It's less ambiguous than illustration when showing how processes occur, and is better at displaying 3d structures.
Styles of animation
There are several different styles of animation, I'm going to concentrate on CGI (computer generated images), stop motion, and drawn animation. All of these share the common theme of putting together individual images and showing them in rapid succession to give the illusion of movement.
CGI animation is created by building scenes in three dimensions, moving the objects around in these scenes and filming it from a particular angle. Most Hollywood animated films like Shrek fall into this category. It's quite analogous to live action filming in this respect. It takes a while to learn how to create and manipulate the 3D objects that you'll be filming, and the software is pretty expensive (the industry standard Maya is a few grand, although free alternatives like Blender exist). The advantage of CGI animation is that changing elements or camera angles once the scene is set up is very easy.
Hand drawn animation is different. This involves drawing individual images and displaying them in rapid succession. Most older animated films were created this way, and it is still very popular in Japan. There's less software experience required, however drawing out multiple frames can be time-consuming, and if you decide to go for a different camera angle or focus, you'll have to draw them all again.
The easy and quick method
The easiest way to make a simple animation is via stop-motion animation. This is where you have a physical 3d scene and take sequential photos between which you make subtle changes to the scene. Showing the images in rapid succession gives the appearance of movement. The objects in your scene could be plasticine models of different enzymes, pieces of paper with drawings in that you move about, or a drawing that you slowly complete over the course of filming.
To make a stop-motion animation is fairly simple. You can use a video camera which has a particular setting, or you can download a specialist app onto a smartphone. We're going to be looking at iMotion here, which is free to download on iphones and ipads.
iMotion works by getting you to take photos for your animation. It sticks these together and plays them back to you sequentially at your chosen speed. It's very simple to use, my 9 year old sister was able to make her own animations with it all by herself after 15 minutes of practice.
How to use the app
Load up the app. This is your home screen.
You can make a new movie using the button at the top, or you can look or resume at previous movies on the lower section of the screen. Let's make a new movie, we're presented with the screen below.
Aside from the big start button at the top, we have a few options for our animation. Firstly we can give it a name if we think we'll struggle to find it later. If you're doing multiple scenes for the same animation it's useful to note this down in the title so that you know which order to string them together in later on. The next options are how you want the camera to know when to take pictures. The most commonly used one is manual, you press a big button on the screen whenever you want to take a picture. The other options are remoted (if you have a remote that can talk to your phone), time lapse, which takes photos after a set time interval, and microphone. I have no idea what the latter does, please let me know if you find out.
This is the image capture screen. Pretty straightforward. You click the button in the middle to take the image. There are also some handy tools that you can use to improve your animation capture. Click tools to bring up the screen about them.
The first tool is the onion skin tool. This overlays your previous image onto the screen at 50% transparency.
It's handy because you can see whether or not you've moved your objects too much compared to the previous scene. It also helps you realign the scene if you have to move the camera itself. Ideally you want to reduce the amount of unnecessary movement as much as possible to maintain the illusion.
Another option is to use the flash on your smartphone to light the scene. Click the button to turn the light on or off. Good lighting is essential if you want to make high quality animations. Make sure it's consistent between images though.
Finally you can stick a grid on the screen to ensure that your images are centred and to help line up different elements between takes.
As mentioned earlier, it's important to ensure that lighting and other variables are consistent between images to get good results. You can use the two buttons at the top of the screen to lock the automatic focus and lighting adjustment capacities of the camera to ensure that your images are consistent.
So let's get into the business of animating your scene. Think about how you're going to place your objects within the scene to best communicate what you're trying to show. It may be helpful to sketch up a storyboard. Storyboards are the essential images that make up an animation or film, you could get almost all the information by reading the storyboard instead, it just wouldn't look as impressive. Ideally you don't want to have to change the camera angle too frequently as this involves rearranging your scene.
Other important logistical details are whether or not your models will be able to stand upright without your assistance (making stop motion films with most dolls is difficult for this reason).
Ideally you want to fix your camera in position. You can do this for smartphones using a specialist tripod, book-ends, or liberal amounts of blutack.
Once your scene is vaguely in position, check the lighting on your phone. Ideally you want a bright light source coming from behind the camera to avoid any dark shadows. Place a desk lamp or two in different positions to eliminate shadows. In general the more light you have bouncing off your scene the better, your camera can always adjust it's sensor if you have too much light, it can't do the same if there's too little.
Make sure none of your lamps are shining directly at the sensor or it will disrupt the brightness sensor. If your lamps are too bright and are giving you glare off the object you're filming, cover them in baking paper or masking tape to diffuse the light.
Now you've sorted out what the most important frames in the animation are (these are called keyframes) you need to fill in the images between each of these. Start with one of them and incrementally move the objects in your animation around to get from one scene to the other, taking a photo with each movement. Make sure that no other distracting background elements are present between photos (shadows, hands, random people in the background). If they are, get rid of them and take the photo again.
Whenever you change the position of the camera or objects in a big way, say for a new scene, start a new video. This makes it easier to stitch things together later on. There won't be any audio when you take these images, so don't worry about background noise.
You can review your scenes by clicking on them in the home screen. This brings up a player for you to play back the image stills at varying frame rates.
So you're happy with your scene and now you want to export it to string them together in another software package. Select what frame rate you want to export at and click the export button. iMotion will now make an MOV file by playing the frames at that speed. You'll see a screen like this:
You can either pay the $1.99 to upgrade the software to email export (which is a lot easier) or you can export to your phone's photo folder or the itunes sharing folder. If you don't mind editing your film on your phone then exporting to your phone's folder is fine, if you want to fire up some higher quality video editing software, we recommend using the export to itunes sharing folder option.
'Where on earth is my sharing folder?' I hear you ask. You'll need to plug your ipod/ipad into your computer and load up iTunes to get the file off your phone. Click on the 'apps' tab at the top and scroll down until you see the screen below (or something analogous) with a list of apps which have file-sharing capabilities.
You'll see your video here. Drag and drop it into a folder to save it. If you export the same video at different frame rates then they'll just overwrite eachother as they have the same name.