Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Rigging a Pencil tester

Well I'm sure you've seen the gigantic pencil testers with the complicated cogs and cranks, hooked up to a lunch box with 3-4 large lights around. It's like another piece of furniture! I've seen my school use camcorders hooked up to lunch boxes instead of these other old looking cameras and put pieces of wood together for the stand. It still was huge and unless you have carpentry skills, I wouldn't condone this. Alas, there are a couple solutions to this. About a few ways I can think of doing it.

Computer is required

Programs that you can use:
Monkey Jam - A PC only but very simple and effective pencil tester program
Premiere - Using the stop motion feature.
Photoshop - Using the animation feature or in conjunction with:
After Effects - A composting tool.

Equiptment that you could use:
Kent Cam Stand superPro (I recommend the one with lights)
MiniDV Cam (Make sure it has the ability to hook into a computer)
WebCam (With legs that grip onto things)
Scanner ( I like Epsons and I'll tell you why in a bit)
Animation disc or pegbars.

Camstand/MiniDV combination

If you want the feel of the studio pencil tester, The Camstand/MiniDV combination is the way to go. I would show pictures of mine, but someone stole the CamStand from my dorm room. Not cool because the one I was using was $100. So if you have one, don't advertise it!

I had gotten my MiniDV from and it took me a couple weeks to get the one I could use because the first one I had to return because it didn't have a plug that I could hook my computer to. So make sure it has an iLink port. Also check if your computer takes a standard Firewire cable or iLink. It's important because you are going to have to go to like radio shack or best buy to get a male to male cable that either has ilink to ilink or ilink to firewire. I ended up with JVC digital video camera with 30x zoom at around $240-260 ( yea I know, I was getting impacient with shopping for lower prices). It came in handy in that trip to Rome!

Now I haven't tried it yet, but I believe, from what I hear, that if you have a miniDV camera like this that you could print to film through Premiere or Final Cut Pro with it. If anyone knows if this is true let me know. I'm probably going to try it out this summer.

Your computer should be able to see the camera with out installation. If It does, you ought to get in contact with customer service or something lol...

The reason why I feel this is one of the best choices is the control you have over the picture. Also if it's too dark and you have the lights that come with the superpro, you have your 45Degree angles to help the contrast further. A lot less frustrating.

The cam stand is about 20 lbs of steel, so you don't have to worry about the camera falling over... but PLEASE DON'T LEAVE CAMERA UNATTENDED! When ever you aren't using it, dismount it. You don't need someone, or yourself or gravity knocking it over for ANY reason!

As for where you would put the paper, you have a couple options. Animation disk or Pegbar. And then you have a couple more options: Light box or none. If you are using a computer and not a lunchbox, the lightbox is not necessary. Mostly because each program has some kind of multiply tool. Unless you are using Premiere, then it is for layered animation.

It's important to have several pegbars. One for your camera, one for your scanner, one for your lightbox and others floating around. The less you have to move them, the better. If you are using a pegbar instead of an animation disk, I suggest breaking up a cardboard box and using one side of the box to tape the pegbar to it. When placing pegbar under the camera, put a field guide in it's pegs and use the LCD screen of the camera to see where you are putting it.

I was using my animation disc in the beginning of the year. because of the foot of the stand, I often stacked DVD covers under the disc. Be careful to not lay animation disc on it's glass but on the rim of the disk. Last thing you need is the glass to pop out.

If it makes you feel better, add some kind of weight and/or duck tape the foot of the stand.


The webcam is the cheapest way to go with pencil testing. The only problem is is lack of control of the picture. It's not good at small details and will blur out constantly. The kind of camera you want is the type that can grab things. I have the Logitec QuickCam that holds onto laptop screens. Although I think there are others with more pliable legs. This is because you need the camera to face down. Which means you need to find something that it can hang off of. Unless you can achieve a 90degree angle, your animation will look a bit warped. Duck tape is your friend.


The other option is the scanner. MonkeyJam is great for scanner people because it has it's own scanner interface and programs the scanner to a low DPI. So you will notice that it's a bit faster to scan in MonkeyJam then Photoshop. Regardless, it's REALLY slow to pencil test this way. The only up is probably the best quality.

If you have a mac and can't use MonkeyJam, you could use Photoshop.

Scan at 72 DPI as it's just a test, not the actual thing. I've used HP and Epson. The problem you can run into with scanners are scanners that don't remember where they last selected unless you save the setting. The Hp 3-1 is notorious for this. I ended up stealing my dad's Epson Perfection 1250 which is really old but still works very well and fast. (He didn't mind, he figured out that his fax machine could scan lol) Turns out SVA uses a similar model to my own Epson. Candy Kugal of Buzzco has a large heavy duty scanner in which I don't remember the name but it did a similar function as my Epson.

It's important and MUCH faster when each time you open the scanner interface that it automatically shows where it last scanned. My Epson however when I scan, the scanner interface doesn't disappear. Which means less clicks or buttons to reboot the scanner interface and to just keep feeding the computer. The only downside is having to compile each of the separate files after ward using copy/paste to the base picture. More on this subject later.


Anyway. What you could do in Photoshop is use the animation feature to create an animation of your test. I played a little with it and I find that it's a MUCH simpler version of the After Effects time line. Just like in After Effects, you can make animations either by stacking blocks or by using the Opacity tool. Unless you specify that this is a video document, the default frame rate will be 30. You can change this by the drop down menu on the far right of the animation panel and selecting Document settings. You can also toggle Hold interpolation on key frames. The only down side is that the short cut keys of AE don't work and you have to change Opacity in the layers panel, Position in main window, and style in the style window instead of a drop down for value. I'm spoiled by AE I like less clicking

If you are more comfortable in After Effects, you can always forward the PSD into After Effects and work there. It's probably much better there anyway as the frame rate is more accurate there then in Photoshop.

My animation test had 4 pictures in it (created a loop) on 2s at 30 fps. Photoshop after rendering could still only do 10.38 frames per second. That's OK if you just want to see if the animation reads but not if you want to see it in real time.


Premiere is an odd program to me. What's nice about it anyway is that if you are using a lunchbox and you have the computer hooked up to the lunchbox, you can pencil test on the lunch box and then have Premiere record as if a VCR. Premiere also has a feature called Stop Motion. This is best for if you are using either a MiniDV or a WebCam. Pressing the space bar has the computer capture one shot of the animation and allows you to replace pictures before taking the next shot. I like it because you can view instantly and render it into a quicktime file. Only problem is with it is that it literally acts like a lunchbox that you will need a light box under you animation and include all layers or paper.


Is the best, quick and easy pencil tester in my opinion. As I mentioned with the scanner, it's beautiful with both camera options. You can make layers of each layer of animation and monkeyJam automatically multiplies them on top of one another. It also displays Xsheet numbers (limit 260 frames) . Changing how long a picture is held is also easy as it's mosty just dragging down the pictures. Monkey Jam also saves each of the pictures you create with it, giving it the name of the layer and the number picture or sequence number it has. You can specify the format too. The other thing you can do is to tell Monkey Jam where you want it to save each pictures. MonkeyJam saves it's xsheets so you can reupload your tests and easily re-edit it. Most exporting of movies are window format I believe but does allow for whatever compression you have installed on your computer. I can go on on how easy it is to use Monkey Jam. Plus it's Free.

Learn to flip

If you can't afford any of these, learn to flip your drawings! That's what I did since someone stole my pencil tester. They stole it just before I started animating! If you can help it, don't rely too much on a machine to let you know your animation is working! Trust your instincts. Refer to Richard Williams: Animator's Survival Kit on that jazz.

Anyway. I'm looking for other animators that would like to add on their two cents on how they prepare for an animation. Each projects has their own quirks afterall. If anyone would like to add their own articles, please contact me :)

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