Cartoon capers

19th September 2003 at 01:00
Digital video doesn't have to mean disaster, as Barrie Day explains

We're all excited about digital video and how it can combine sound and text creatively. But I've been a head of English for 16 years and I know that no matter how glitzy and tempting the technology, the average teacher won't take it on unless it meets certain criteria. First, it has to be manageable with a class of 30. Then it has to hold the interest of the disaffected and disruptive. Obviously, it should also help teachers meet literacy and curriculum objectives.

I know to my cost that pointing a camera at a group of students is unlikely to meet any of the above criteria. More often than not it provokes bizarre behaviour or cringing embarrassment. But there is a way to meet the three criteria, as well as exploring the scope of digital technology and setting students' creativity buzzing. The way forward is animation.

Two years ago, I came across the Digital Movie Creator, marketed by TAG.

This little plastic camera could easily be dismissed as a gimmicky toy, but it is an extremely powerful creative tool. I was interested in using it only in a teaching context that met our three key criteria, so I embarked on an adventure in film animation.

Assuming a maximum working group of five students, I bought six of the cameras. Although they can be hand-held, I used them only in their plastic holder, directly connected to the computer. The cameras will record four minutes of real-time action, but what I was keen to explore was the software's one-stop animation feature, using toys. This allows students to have ownership - they choose the "characters" and often enjoy bringing toys from home. This is Wallace and Gromit territory: take a shot, move the figure, take another shot and so on.

One-stop animation has several benefits. It's a quiet, focused activity requiring concentration and discussion. And there's none of the embarrassment and contrived performance that occurs with pupil actors.

One-stop animation also introduces pupils to all aspects of moving images.

There has to be planning of camera angles, framing, lighting, movement, set design and construction, scripting, music, sound effects, voices and so on.

These various facets will also appeal to different personality types within a group. Animation also means students have to explore narrative, asking questions such as "What is our storyline?" or "Will we use voice-over?"

I scoured charity shops and friends' attics for toys, accumulating about 40, ranging from Daleks to Barbies. Then the fun and joy (yes, joy) can start. Pupils' faces, from 11 to 17-year-olds, light up with incredulity and delight at the sight of "The Toy Box".

Believe me, it's the ultimate teacher's friend. Hard cases melt into putty, sophisticates go gooey and, above all, imaginations take flight.

Space is needed around computers to set up toys and scenery for the shots.

Laptops can be an answer, or an ICT manager who will allow toys and props into the computer room. Use the camera in its plastic "foot" for automatic download and better classroom control. Students don't need to know it can be used with batteries.

Movie Creator software can be used without a camera and one-stop and real-time sequences can be mixed. Stored sequences and special effects can give hours of creative activity.

Animation works superbly in the primary classroom where there's the potential to integrate literacy, art, technology and ICT. Even in the secondary classroom, it lets you cover key aspects of literacy, moving-image study and ICT in a creative way.

Pupils can become so focused and motivated, so involved in moving the characters, that the teacher is almost an irrelevance. I've never seen so many learning targets achieved so painlessly and with such enthusiasm as I have in animation lessons.

Animations by pupils at Newman School can be seen on the Cumbria Lancashire Education website (from the Home page click on English, then on Learners; for guidelines select Teachers): Movie Creator (pound;89.95):

Lego do a similar camerasoftware bundle: image sequence from any digital camera can be imported to Macromedia Flash to create an animated sequence:

Barrie Day is head of English at Newman School, Carlisle, and author of Mixed Media (Oxford University Press pound;9.50)

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