Studio Visit: Thomas Nicol

Studio Visit: Thomas Nicol

News-Gazette arts and entertainment reporter Melissa Merli visits with artist Thomas Nicol, 26, Champaign (originally published in the June 9, 2013, News-Gazette).

Q: Do you use that green screen all the time for stop motion animation, or do you have bigger ones, too?

A: Oh, yeah. I have a muslin sheet that’s 15x9 feet for live action, not animation. This is just in place because I didn’t want to build a whole theater of little seats.

Q: What is this project with the two rabbits?

A: This is for what hopefully will be a Web series called “Critter Critics.” It’s going to  be movie reviews given by these rabbits, kind of like Siskel-and-Ebert meets Wallace-and-Gromit.

Q: Can you explain stop motion?

A: You know how regular film and video cameras can take 24 pictures every second? When you play that back, it looks like motion. What stop motion does is you take those 24 pictures separately so you can make adjustments between frames.

Q: What kind of camera do you use?

A: A Canon T3i, and I use a piece of software called Dragonframe that takes an image feed from the camera so I can see what I have. With film, you have to take all of your animation to see what you’ve already shot. A frame grabber lets you see exactly what’s going on and when it’s going on rather than having to wait to develop film.

Q: How long have you been doing stop motion?

A: I started when the Lego Steven Spielberg MovieMaker Set came out about 13 years ago. It was the coolest thing ever.

Q: I heard that you are one of the only people in this area doing stop motion.

A: Yeah. There’s a guy here, Johnny Robinson, who taught it for a long time, but he’s doing other things now. There’s a good online community of animators, but around town, it’s pretty much me.

Q: I watched online “Fluffystein!,” the live action-stop motion movie you made for Pens to Lens. What made you pick that screenplay?

A: Well, it was a story that really appealed to me. I like the Tim Burton feel it has. I felt it had a great potential for stop motion. It was a great screenplay with a lot of humorous dialogue. I was impressed that sixth-grade girls had written it.

Q: Did you go to the Pens to Lens gala on May 29? What was it like?

A: Yes. It was very exciting. The kids (who wrote the screenplays for the shorts shown) were absolutely thrilled. I helped plan Pens to Lens, so obviously I’m a fan.

Q: Where do you work by day?

A: PowerWorld. It’s in the University of Illinois Research Park. It does software for visualizing and simulating electric power systems.

Q: Do you do other kinds of animation besides stop motion?

A: I do some digital animation and live action. I’d like to do more stop motion than I’ve done so far. I have a few stop motion movies, but most of the time stop motion is there as part of a live-action piece.

Q: Have you posted your animation online?

A: Yes, at

Q: Ideally, what would you like to do?

A: I would like to keep doing what I’m doing. Not doing stop motion and other animation professionally means I have a lot more time to work on projects I want to do rather than the projects a boss signs me up for. The Internet has been great for self-distribution, so it’s something that people can do on their own now.

Q: When will you have “Critter Critics” online?

A: I hope to put it up by the end of the year. It will take a long time to get those five-minute episodes ready to go. On a good day, I can get a few seconds done in one hour. That’s actually pretty fast.

Q: What are your favorite stop motion pieces?

A: Too many to list. Last year there were three feature releases: “ParaNorman,” “Frankenweenie” and “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” by the same people who did “Wallace & Gromit.” Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare before Christmas” is an absolute classic, and, of course, anything by Ray Harryhausen, and Phil Tippett, who did the special effects for “Star Wars.” It’s a long list.

Topics (1):Film

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