GUIDE – Approaches to Composing Visuals in Motion

No matter what style or approach you want to use to tell your story, you’ll be following the same basic process that was first invented in the 1890’s: assembling a series of images on a timeline and setting them to “play” on screen at a fast enough rate to generate the impression of movement. In other words, like the early pioneers of film, you’ll be creating visuals in motion.

The basic components needed to create visuals in motion haven’t really changed: you need a tool to capture the images with (an image recorder), a platform for editing and assembling those images (a timeline), and a way to display the images at a rate of at least 12 frames per second (a projector).

Until not that long ago, these components came as separate pieces of equipment, but now we have access to all of them through the cameras and software on our smartphones and laptops. The lines may now seem a bit blurry between the three stages of recording, editing, and projecting, but the better you understand the distinctions, the better you’ll understand the tools now available for composing visuals in motion.

The tools you use depend on the approach you want to take to putting your characters, scenery, and other visuals in motion. Here are the three main approaches available today:

  • capturing physical world objects in motion on their own
  • animating physical world objects to create motion
  • capturing or animating objects in digital environments

Below I’ve outlined the main tools currently available for each of these approaches, using a consistent format to help you compare their features. For more info on or help with any of these approaches, see the resources on or do some of the Google searches suggested on the TIPS page in the Resources menu.

NOTE: I’m planning to restructure the section below, using the three approaches above as the main categories, with the tools you can use for each approach under the category heading. At that time I’ll add a few tools currently not on the list, like time lapse photography. I’ll also add links to more resources on each tool or approach.

Live Video

  • PURPOSE: to capture movement in the physical world
  • GOOD FOR: shots that convey scenery or settings; shots that feature characters and objects that can move under their own power
  • RECORDING TOOL: any camera with video recording ability (mobile device, webcam, camcorder, etc.); some cameras apply special effects (like cartooning or slow motion) while recording
  • TIMELINE TOOL: any video editing app
  • PROJECTOR: most video cameras provide built-in playback as well as export options
  • FRAME RATE: video cameras automatically record and play at a rate of 30 frames per second

Stop Motion Animation

  • PURPOSE: to create the illusion of “live” movement in inanimate objects in the physical world
  • GOOD FOR: shots that feature 3D characters or props that can’t move or change shape under their own power (such as Legos, clay figures, paper cutouts, and so on)
  • RECORDING TOOL: a still camera to capture each frame after you manually move characters or objects in small increments to simulate movement
  • TIMELINE TOOL: any video editing app can assemble images for rapid playback, but an app dedicated to animation makes the process considerably easier (many options available for all platforms — search Google)
  • PROJECTOR: most video editing and animation apps provide built-in playback as well as export options
  • FRAME RATE: played at between 10-15 frames per second, depending on the timeline tool used

Ken Burns Effect

  • PURPOSE: to create the illusion of movement by panning or zooming on a single image (a technique named after the documentary maker who made it famous)
  • GOOD FOR: shots of objects or characters that would be difficult to capture in video format
  • RECORDING TOOL: you can apply the effect to any image you import into the timeline tool, regardless of how the image was captured or created
  • TIMELINE TOOL: any video editing app that offers the effect (including iMovie and MovieMaker); you set the length of time (in seconds) you want the image to appear on screen and that controls the speed of the pan or zoom
  • PROJECTOR: if the video editing app can create the effect, it can also play it back and export it in video format
  • FRAME RATE: when you apply this effect to an image within a video project, it’ll play at the same frame rate as the rest of the video

Screen Recording

  • PURPOSE: to capture movement that appears on your computer screen (from the web, from within your own applications, or from a mobile device projected onto your computer)
  • GOOD FOR: shots of your activities on the web (such as a Google search, navigating a web site, making an update to a social media site, using a map tool) or in a desktop or mobile app (rearranging photos in a digital album, typing into a journal app, moving through a slide presentation)
  • RECORDING TOOL: screencasting apps function as “cameras” for the purpose of recording movement on your screen
  • TIMELINE TOOL: some screencasting apps include their own timeline tool, but you can import footage captured via screencast into any video editing app
  • PROJECTOR: either within the screencasting app (if it has a timeline) or in the video editing app you use to assemble shots into scenes
  • FRAME RATE: typically captured at around 15fps, but some apps offer the option to change the rate on recording or on export

Digital Animation

  • PURPOSE: to create the illusion of “live” movement by objects created and manipulated in a digital (rather than physical) environment
  • GOOD FOR: shots that feature digital characters or props that need to move and/or change through digital manipulation
  • RECORDING TOOL: you can animate digital images regardless of how you originally captured or created them
  • TIMELINE TOOL – FRAME BY FRAME: apps for frame by frame animation allow you to make small adjustments to any aspect of the images on each frame (as in the case of animated movies)
  • TIMELINE TOOL – KEYFRAME: apps for keyframe animation allow you to make images move, grow, shrink, or rotate over a set time frame, but the image itself remains untouched (i.e., no changes in facial expression or body language)
  • PROJECTOR: within the digital animation app or the video editing app you use to assemble all your shots
  • FRAME RATE: varies depending on the tools you use