Playing With News: Why AJ+ Tried Stop-Motion

Steph Ivy Whiteside
Aug 7, 2015 · 5 min read

How do you create a video when the story you want to tell has no images?

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Photo by Neil Collier

That’s the challenge we faced as soon as we started thinking about the idea of creating a video on the topic of water wars. As a team, we agreed that conflicts over water were an important subject to cover, but we realized quickly that the visuals needed to tell the story were non-existent (ancient Mesopotamia had no cameras) or extremely dull (Politicians talking about things!).

It’s a line that we sometimes find ourselves running up again at AJ+. On the one hand, we are journalists with a commitment to talking about stories that matter. On the other, we’re a video-focused, social media based news organization that understands the need for making those stories visually compelling.

That’s why we pulled out the Legos.

The Idea

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Photo by Kate Elston

We do a lot of traditional animation for stories like this, but we were concerned about the time it would take and wanted to try something new. So when someone floated the idea for using Lego, we jumped on it.

For this story, we had a team of five people — three producers, one animator, and an editor — a script, and a lot of determination. Stop-motion Lego sounded straightforward enough, but we very quickly discovered we’d wandered deep into the woods.

All total our piece — roughly two minutes — took about two weeks to create. Once we had the script nailed down, we sat and worked on storyboards for each scene, recorded the voice over, and gathered our Lego pieces.

The Setup

We spent about two days testing things out, since this was our first foray into this format. We refined our storyboards, practiced building some of our structures, and experimented with equipment.

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Photo by Steph Whiteside

We had a few options for filming, including a DSLR, a Go-Pro, and an iPhone. Ultimately, we found an iPhone 6 was the best suited for our purposes. The GoPro footage was too wide for what we wanted, and had a distorted look to it. The DSLR lenses we have in office are all for wider shoots, so we also found them less than ideal.

When we pulled out an iPhone, it worked surprisingly well. We used a case to attach the iPhone to a tripod, but didn’t use any additional lenses. One of the biggest assets the iPhone offered was the ability to lock the focal length to get consistency through what turned out to be a very long process.

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Photo by Neil Collier

We also experimented with the number of photos per second. We knew we weren’t going to have smooth animation, like you’ve see in Nightmare Before Christmas, but we didn’t want to be jumping all over the place. We tried a number of different combinations before settling on 8 photos per second to give a slightly DIY feel to the piece without being overly choppy.

The rest of the set up also went through revisions. It took a few different spare desks (and one experiment using reams of printer paper to prop one up higher) to get our set in place, and we tested several different backdrops. Spare posters gave our printed background a steady background that didn’t show the brick wall. We also tested our props, bought more Legos, and experimented with the right touch to make the threads represent water move just enough.

Filming

By the end of the week we started filming. Just over 1 minute of the piece was stop motion, which took us two solid days to film.

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Photo by Kate Elston

As you might imagine, filming was both fun and exhausting. We quickly developed a rhythm. Kate became our producer in charge of Premiere. Before every section, she’d time out the voice track and do the math to figure out how many photos we had for each scene and how long each element would take to appear.

Neil and I would move the pieces on the set while animator Marisa took our photos and logged each one so we stayed on track. As Neil and I divided the labor, we got much smoother at knowing who had to move which pieces and when.

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Photo by Kate Elston

After the photos were taken, we’d upload them to Kate’s computer and she would put them in the timeline so we could make sure everything looked okay before we started deconstructing. Amazingly, we didn’t have to go back and re-do any of our scenes!

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Photo by Neil Collier

Post-Production

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Photo by Neil Collier

The final week of production was post. We turned our project over to Marisa who added our graphics and transitions between the stop-motion scenes with her amazing animation skills.

Finally, editor Courtney gave our piece the finishing touches to make it smooth. She also added music and the sound effects that made some of the best elements really pop.

Stop-motion Lego may not be a traditional format for news stories, but we think it wound up being a great way to tell a story that might otherwise have been cut.

Watch the final product below and tell us what you think:

Firsthand Stories

A platform for firsthand narrative accounts.

Steph Ivy Whiteside

Written by

News. Knitting. Cats. Shenanigans. Works @AJplus. Cleverly disguised as a responsible adult.

Firsthand Stories

A platform for firsthand narrative accounts. Here’s where you can find the story behind the story for our AJ+ content and more.

Steph Ivy Whiteside

Written by

News. Knitting. Cats. Shenanigans. Works @AJplus. Cleverly disguised as a responsible adult.

Firsthand Stories

A platform for firsthand narrative accounts. Here’s where you can find the story behind the story for our AJ+ content and more.

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