In the beginning ... thereby hangs a tale

8th February 2008 at 00:00
As the scorpion scuttles across the surface towards Joe Shaw's face, the former teacher remains relaxed. He has been in this situation many times and knows what he is doing - and if he does get fatally stung, it'll be the first time by a plastic scorpion used for computer animations.

Stop motion is a medium familiar to schoolchildren through Wallace and Gromit. What isn't obvious from the antics of the cunning canine and his dopy owner is that each feature-length Hollywood film was five years in the making, prompting creator Nick Park to comment on the pleasures of working for television - where a half-hour film can get made in just under a year.

The table-top adventures of Mr Shaw and the scorpion illustrate where all the time goes. "You should set up the shot and point the webcam at it to get the image on the computer," the curriculum development officer explains to teachers at an after-hour's session in Cowie Primary, in Stirling. "Then start the webcam software and choose the number of shots you want for each second of film. Let's go for 12 - the bigger the number, the smoother the motion ... ".

And, of course, the longer it will take to design and make the scenes, get the lighting right, compose and frame the shots, and edit the separate sequences into a complete film.

At 12 shots a second, a five-minute film will require 3,600 separate images. While creativity is given its head, large-scale film-making ambitions clearly need to be reined in. This is why Stirling lends six laptops and webcams to a school for a full term, along with professional development and in-class guidance from Mr Shaw or his colleague Margaret Cassidy.

There is a lot to learn, although it is simple to get started and the technology seems straightforward, the teachers agree. Following an earlier meeting with Mr Shaw, Donna Bullivant has spent three hour-long lessons preparing a class for the animation project - before the computer equipment was delivered today. "I've responsibility this year for writing across the classes, so I'm going to use stop motion to motivate creative writing in P6," she says. "We've been brainstorming ideas and storyboarding them, and have come up with a modern-day fairy story with an environmental theme, called Puss in Trainers."

That pre-computer stage is critical to the success of a project, says Mr Shaw. "If you get the planning right, the animation goes more smoothly. There is a danger, though, that you spend too much time building the sets, because the kids enjoy it, and not enough writing and making the film."

A good approach, says Mr Shaw, is for the class to create a top-level storyboard with four others coming from it, each with a different theme or thread for one group of pupils to work on. The teacher should create groups according to his or her knowledge of individual pupils, and perhaps assign roles such as cameraman, writer and editor - although these can evolve and overlap as the project progresses.

Separate sequences are filmed using the webcam software, but the final film - with musical soundtrack, voiceovers, visual effects and anything else that appeals to children's creativity - is put together using a Windows program called Movie Maker.

The climax of the training session is a short film from Newton Primary of the biblical creation story, with sun, stars, planets, Adam and Eve, and every living creature that moveth.

Ms Bullivant can't wait to get the class started on the computers, she says: "At an afternoon a week, I expect it'll take us the whole term. I've noticed a difference already with the kids, who usually switch off when we do writing. They are enthusiastic now, because they're making a film."

A selection of Stirling schools' ICT projects, including animations, teacher comments on lessons learnt, future plans and learning benefits, can be found at:, the Learning and Teaching Scotland website.

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