Animate your class

27th April 2007 at 01:00
How a bit of plasticine can overcome some of your pupils' worst fears.

Stephen Manning reports

It's a sunny morning but the blinds are closed and a group of young children is watching a film depicting a man being stabbed to death, his organs extracted and shown to the camera with glee. Sounds wrong on so many levels. But it isn't.

Oscar Stringer, who works as an animator, is showing a group of Year 6 pupils at St Mary's Catholic Junior School, Walthamstow, east London, a short comic film made by a couple of teachers on the subject of mummification. The unfortunate plasticine model is being relieved of his innards before being wrapped in bandages.

By the day's end, the children will have created their own short animations lasting 30 to 45 seconds.

"Animation is an excellent way in for those who are scared of creativity and also scared of technology," says Oscar. "After all, children know computers are used to produce many of the things they enjoy in films."

Oscar was previously an actor and director, taking curriculum-linked plays into schools. As animation technology became cheaper and easier to use, he became interested in its classroom potential. "Animators are just actors in their fingertips," he says. Now he is going into schools regularly to conduct one-day sessions.

Today, the class splits into five groups, each with a foam board depicting backgrounds such as Egypt or a moon and a castle, and make models based on their themes. Blobs start to resemble aliens or spaceships, and a few interesting animals emerge: a convincing giraffe, a reasonable elephant and other quadrupeds of less immediate classification.

The group with the castle backdrop has made a big spider, a king, a knight and a princess. They discuss whether this could be some kind of love story between the spider and the princess, with impressive visual suggestions, such as animating the spider's legs into a heart shape. But eventually the spider attacks the princess, the king tries to kill the spider, the knight kills the king and, in a Shakespearean denouement, the spider ends up wearing the crown.

Meanwhile, the Egypt story features a mummy caught in a thunderstorm, with lightning created by opening and closing blinds.

The filming takes up to 90 minutes. Each group has a webcam and a laptop and they quickly grasp moving the models a tiny bit at a time. The results look funny very quickly and there's a lot of laughter.

"This will improve their technology skills - now, when they see Wallace Gromit, they'll know how it's done," says Claire Dangerfield, their teacher Oscar uses I Can Animate, for Mac. Normal film is shot at 20 to 24 frames per second but a lot of digital film is 12 fps, which is easier to do.

Aardman Animations, which creates Wallace Gromit, take two shots of every movement, apart from the occasional very fast action. Get free sounds from www.findsounds.com Oscar's website is www.animationforeducation.co.uk

THE ROSCARS

Rotherham's ICT curriculum support team launched the Roscars in 2004 to celebrate schools' digital film-making. Last year, more than 100 short films were submitted. To see winners, visit www.rgfl.org, click on ICT Curriculum Support Team. York, Stafford, Sheffield and Peterborough all now have their own events.

HOW'S IT DONE?

"Keep ideas simple," says Oscar Stringer, animator. "But that doesn't mean boring or unimaginative.

"Give the models big features, as they are easier to bring to life. Look at the Aardman Animations characters; Wallace has a big mouth, Gromit big ears. Eyebrows are good for expression and make the eyes easily detachable - take them off for one frame for blinking.

"Storyboarding is perhaps the most crucial stage. I get pupils to list bulletpoints of action and write how long each will last. Sometimes, animation seems too fast. Get them to think visually, rather than with words."

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