Take a ride on a London bus this month and you could catch sight of an enchanting film called Underwater Love. Showing on the new on-board television screens, the film was made by Year 6 pupils from two schools in the South London borough of Lewisham. Their work is opening new avenues for creativity in schools, and could help more young people forge careers in one of the most exciting areas of the technology industry.
Inspired by Disney's underwater adventure Finding Nemo, Underwater Love was produced entirely on computer using 3D modelling and animation techniques - and the children used some of the most sophisticated software in the business. The Maya package has been employed to create 3D special effects in box-office blockbusters, ranging from Spider-Man to Lord of the Rings, and won an Oscar in its own right for scientific and technical achievement.
The achievements of the 10-year-olds surprised even those who had offered the pupils the chance to do the project. "I was completely blown away," says Rob Jones, who led the workshops to create the film.
Rob is digital arts facilitator at Lewisham City Learning Centre (CLC), which provides high-tech learning facilities for schools in the borough.
The project was one in a series he ran to explore how 3D modelling and animation could be taught to school students, and how early they could get to grips with it. Last summer term, 12 pupils from St Michael's CE and Christ Church CE primary schools were offered the chance to attend after-school workshops at CLC, for two hours every Tuesday. Underwater Love was made in the first five sessions.
Rob began by screening 3D animation clips from famous movies, giving the children a taste of the exciting world they were entering. He had chosen Finding Nemo as a sure-fire source of inspiration, and the first challenge was for each pupil to create a fish that looked like Dory, Disney's forgetful blue tang. The students began by drawing the fish on paper, as seen from several different angles, before transferring the drawings into the Maya program to be modelled in three dimensions.
The strategy for introducing the software and the concept of visualising objects in three dimensions - a major hurdle for many maths student - was to keep the theory to a minimum. Rob says: "The objective was not to get bogged down in detail, but to help them quickly get creative and have fun.
I introduced a very limited set of Maya tools, and got the students straight into the software without too much talk. Just as you would give them a piece of clay to mould in their hands, I gave them some simple 3D shapes, such as cubes, in the software, and students were able to "mould" them on screen by pulling them into different shapes in 3D space."
Once they had mastered their Dorys, the pupils went on to craft their own unique fish, letting their imaginations run riot. Rob says: "There was a spiky fish, a dish fish, a snapper - one girl decided she wanted to make a submarine."
He showed them how to texture their creations, adding colour and variety, and how to bring them to life through animation. After five weeks, each pupil had completed an animated underwater scene.
Rob pulled the scenes together, dropping in the submarine to glide through each one as the continuity link. To add a final flourish to the four-minute epic, he and his students asked secondary pupils schooled in animation to add shipwrecked treasure, to be uncovered in the final moments. A two-minute version of the film is being screened on buses.
The remaining five workshops were devoted to creating an animated football extravaganza to coincide with Euro 2004. And during the summer holidays 40 secondary pupils came in for two week-long workshops, producing Happy Planet, a tongue-in-cheek tale of a couple's interplanetary quest for their dream home.
Rob says that working towards the making of a film is a powerful way of making the technology accessible. "Students get the sense of working as part of a team, they share ideas and see the results of everyone's work come together. They also tackle real-life problems, which you don't encounter if you take a prescriptive, tutorial-based approach. When you are inventing things as part of a collaborative production you never know what kind of problems will arise. In the world of professional animation, problem-solving is a vital skill, because each project is different."
The 3D animation industry is booming, and not all the emphasis is on films and games. The technology is making its way into an increasing number of fields, from car design to medicine. Rob, who was formerly head of information and communication technology at Sydenham School in London, says: "More and more jobs will require this skill-set, and all children should have a taste of 3D. Schools teach the use of spreadsheets for data modelling, and this is just another kind of modelling. And, as with spreadsheets, you don't have to introduce all the features of the software at once."
He believes that 3D offers great potential for application across the curriculum. "GCSE art students come to the CLC to model a landscape in 3D, experimenting with different textures and lighting before they paint the scene. Design and technology students use it as a prototyping tool, and I can envisage its use in maths and science. You could also use 3D models as curriculum resources - pupils could explore a medieval town, for example, studying the artefacts they find along the way."
Aware of the growing vocational opportunities offered by the technology, and encouraged by the work of the young animators, Lewisham CLC has developed an online Business and Technology Education Council (BTEC) course in 3D animation, games and design. It is being piloted by local students, and will equip them with animation skills that are currently taught at university level. Rob, who is developing the content of the course, says:
"Can pre-university students get to grips with this? Their films suggest the answer is yes."
* Lewisham CLC
The pilot course
Lewisham's Business and Technology Education Council (BTEC) is being developed with the help of e-learning company Londonlearning. Approval will be sought from awarding body Edexcel, and the course is being independently validated by Professor John Vince of the National Centre for Computer Animation (NCCA) at Bournemouth University.
The BTEC is being piloted by a group of Lewisham pupils aged 13 to 17, who come to the CLC on Wednesday evenings, and the three schools in the local sixth-form consortium are interested in offering the course to students.
Zali Collymore-Hussein, Lewisham CLC manager, says: "The way I see the course fitting in immediately is as a Year 12 offering. At key stage 4, the timetable structure is too fragmented, and this kind of activity requires half a day at a time, rather than an hour here and there. But there is growing emphasis on vocational courses, and some schools are beginning to e-structure their timetable. For example, one has earmarked a whole day every week as a vocational day."
Lewisham students use Maya Complete, a professional version of the software which Rob Jones says provides all the facilities pupils are likely to need, and which will run on most up-to-date machines in schools. Also available is Maya Personal Learning Edition, which offers free educational access to some of Maya's features. Details of educational suppliers from Alias.