Any parent who has taken a Nerf dart to the neck knows that the world of toys, especially if you’re shopping for boys, can be downright hazardous. Thoughtful consideration (for the kids and the parents) is key. There are the usual suspects, but they all have downsides: No parent wants more Fortnite in their life, so V-bucks are out. Legos get lost, or worse, stepped on. And handing over a gift card just doesn’t feel very festive to an 8-year-old.
Throughout their lives, my 5-year-old and 8-year-old boys have received dozens — or more likely, hundreds — of toys. They went from being obsessed with Fisher Price Bright Beats before growing up and moving on to lightsabers; today, it’s all about Nerf guns, Fortnite trading cards, and anything with a screen. But recently, my sister-in-law (a mother of two tween boys and an attender of more birthday parties than should be allowed under the Parental Geneva Convention) gifted them a new plaything: a funny-looking set of plastic figurines and cardboard pieces called a Zanimation Studio. At first, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Was it a toy or an electronic device? Was it easy enough to use without me? Would they grow bored with it after opening the box? Would it require batteries (for them) or noise-canceling headphones (for me)?
The Zanimation Studio, I learned, comes from the world of Stikbot toys; its included figurines are Stikbots, or Lego-looking things the size of an adult finger that are adjustable (legs and arms move, head swivels), with “hands” and “feet” that are suction cups. The studio includes three Stikbots (two humans and a dog), a cardboard green screen, two smaller cardboard prop boxes (slightly larger than a deck of cards), and a mini tripod for a smartphone. Using the low-tech contents along with a smartphone and corresponding user-friendly app, the studio lets burgeoning filmmakers channel their inner Walt Disney and create stop-motion animation shorts (which, according to Disney, is actually how Walt got his start).
Unlike a lot of toys, this doesn’t require batteries, a plug, or much assembly; simply slot the cardboard tabs together to create the “screen” and secure your smartphone to the tripod. My 8-year-old and I put the green screen together in about 30 seconds, but it took a few minutes to set up the camera, partly because my hefty battery-pack case toppled the tripod. (The key to using the green screen is making sure it fills the entire frame; any outside light or objects will distort.) In the app, kids will find options including “create movie,” “capture photo,” and “tutorials;” if the latter aren’t enough, a tween YouTuber made a helpful how-to video. Once everything is set-up/installed, the gist is basically: Take a photo of the bots, move them slightly, repeat. When you’re done, the “create movie” option strings the photos together into an animated clip that you can further edit with post-production features like adjusting the frames per second (to speed the clip up or slow it down), adding a digital backdrop to the green screen, and dubbing in audio like a score or voice-overs. From there, kids can save the video, or share it on social platforms like YouTube or TikTok.
Once we set it up, the studio inspired unprompted teamwork among my boys. One was Director of Photography, responsible for the camerawork and background, while the other moved the Stikbots (we’ll call him the Props Master). Together, they riffed on ideas like having a Stikbot jump on the moon — although they did argue about the pull of gravity — and enjoyed the toy for different reasons: my 5-year-old liked the tactical aspect of its moving parts; my 8-year-old liked the technical design and promise of being able to share their creations on social media (Stikbots are marketed as good for ages 4 and up). It took practice and patience to maneuver the pieces into a coherent story, so don’t be surprised if kids spend an afternoon making the same two-second clip over and over again. Expect a lot of concentration, and maybe a little frustration. Ultimately, though, the toy helped my boys develop patience not just for the process, but for each other’s human errors (like an errant thumb in the photo).
Finishing an actual movie took time and commitment; they definitely needed snack breaks, but the payoff was enough to keep them engaged until the final frame. Plus, once you get a feel for the studio, the larger Stikbot world has tons of accessory packs, different sets (like a farm or outer space), more bots, and an ark’s worth of other animals, including dinosaurs. Our magnum opus, Dog Walk, won’t be winning a Best Animated Short or getting a million views, but after all the “storyboarding” and mishaps and discarded versions, it was a triumph for my boys to show it off. And, really, anything that can get them away from Fortnite for as long as this toy does is the greatest gift of all.
More Stikbot stuff
With eight hairstyles and one hat to choose from, this bot seems ready for its leading role in any type of movie.
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