Nat Hab Expedition Leader Mike Hillman and his girlfriend Jessica Morgan are beating the stay-at-home blues by producing creative mini-films like this Stop Motion Safari shot right in their backyard in Tuscon, Arizona. Enjoy the video below, then read on for a behind-the-scenes interview with Mike and Jessica about how they made the film using nothing but a Nat Hab catalog and a 3-inch toy truck!

What is stop motion and what is the process?

Mike & Jessica: Stop motion was a common type of animation filmmaking in the 60s, 70s & 80s, but is still used today when directors want to move away from the sometimes fake look of computer animation. The Nightmare before Christmas, Wallace and Gromit, and Fantastic Mr. Fox are popular examples. Even the original Star Wars trilogy had examples of stop motion animation alongside real action.

It’s a type of filmmaking where you take numerous pictures of an inanimate object, moving it between frames, eventually putting those frames together to create a movie. For example, our 43 second video ‘Stop Motion Safari’ took 326 images to animate our little safari vehicle. To make the process faster, we set a timer to take a photo every 5 seconds which allowed us enough time to move the vehicle inch by inch.

Is any special equipment needed?

M & J: Professional stop motion videos are done with a high quality cameras, tripods, and studio lighting, but aren’t necessary for fun projects like this. Believe it or not, this video was done with an iPhone, a specially designed stop motion app, and lots of patience! We even crafted a makeshift tripod by attaching a car dashboard phone mount to a cutting board.

Where did you shoot this video?

M & J: We are currently at home in northern Tucson and thankfully the backyard is the beautiful Sonoran desert; a close approximation to some African landscapes (at least at a miniature scale). Shooting outside does present some challenges. We had to keep our shadows out of frame and shoot quickly to ensure similar lighting as the sun moved across the sky, not to mention the wind blowing over our cut-out animals!

How big was the car in real life?

M & J: Our toy car, an Isuzu Rodeo, is just 3 inches long. We used the real life size of a Rodeo to create the scale for all the animals we included in the video. So for example, an 18 foot male giraffe becomes just 3.5 inches.

Fun fact: all of the images we used to make our cut-out animals were found on the Nat Hab catalog or website!

How did you get the car to break through the page of the Nat Hab catalog?

M & J: This was a fun shot to do. By first shooting over Jessica’s shoulder as she opened up the catalog, I incrementally approached the catalog. Then we ripped a hole in the catalog. Lining the shot back up as best I could, I took more images as Jessica pushed the car through from the other side.

Can you tell us a bit about your photography backgrounds?

Mike: I’ve been an expedition leader on photography trips for Nat Hab for 2 years now and have been making photos all my life. I typically focus on still images of wildlife and landscapes, though interestingly enough, I earned my filmmaking merit badge as a boy scout with a stop motion film using Legos in my home. This little project has been a fun way to share my enthusiasm for nature with our guests.

Jessica: I spent years working at Saguaro National Park here in Tucson and contributing to Arizona Highways magazine. Back in 2016, my family and I took the opportunity to visit Churchill and see polar bears with Natural Habitat Adventures. I currently work in Yellowstone National Park as a photo guide. I love combining my love of documenting and interpreting our natural world as a tool to spread the importance of conservation through purpose-driven photography.

Thank you both for taking the time to enlighten us on the world of stop motion!