Crafty cartoon capers

6th June 2003 at 01:00
At Netherhall School in Cambridge Dorothy Walker discovers a Year 7 class animated about learning techniques for creating their own animations

When the duck on the screen begins to bark, Alastair Wells' students can hardly contain their excitement. It has taken Wells barely a couple of minutes to create the cartoon character, and now the whole class is animated, with everyone keen to try out the technique for themselves.

Wells is head of ICT at the Netherhall School, Cambridge, and today he is introducing the topic of animation to his Year 7 class. It is through animation that his students take their first steps into the world of multimedia, going on to learn authoring skills that will play a vital part in their future careers. And the high-impact demonstration with the duck clearly illustrates Wells' award-winning ability to inspire his audience.

In this year's ICT in Practice Awards, which recognise the exemplary use of ICT, Wells was joint winner in the secondary teaching category. The judges' verdict: "His command of ICT is dazzling - and what he does with it is just superb."

Wells covers animation in two one-hour lessons, starting off with a 15-minute introduction to the concept of creating an animation. At this point the lesson is paper-based, and Wells hands each student a sheet which will be used as the template for creating a storyboard. It shows four empty frames of movie film, and Wells demonstrates how to sketch in the basic building blocks of the storyline.

He says: "One of the fun examples I use shows a badger looking to the right, then another badger looking left, followed by the two badgers smiling in front of a big heart, then both of them with a little badger.

"The students laugh, and get the idea that there is a whole story in these four pictures. Their challenge then is to make a four-frame storyboard of their own. There is a lot of dialogue that could go in, but they shouldn't need it - a good animation will speak for itself."

Once the storyboards are complete, Wells goes to his computer to show the class just how easy it is to bring their ideas to life. "I create a live animation in front of their eyes. It takes less than two minutes to create a four-frame sequence featuring a stick-man who is waving his arm up and down."

Wells is using The Complete Animator software, which includes ready-made images or "stamps". He selects a duck, which he places in the stick-man's hand. In the last frame, when the hand is closest to the ground, Wells squashes the duck out of shape.

"We run the animation, and the man is bouncing the duck like a basketball, which the class thinks is wonderful," he says. I then add a sound, so that the duck barks as it is bounced. At this point the children are so captivated that they all want to try it for themselves."

The students set to work recreating the stick-man sequence. They work individually at computers, with the help of an eight-page handbook which explains the process step by step.

Wells says: "The approach supports differentiated learning and teaching.

Pupils can work at their own pace as independent learners, and I am free to go round and help those who have got lost - maybe they aren't reading the instructions, or they are tense because their friends already have the bouncing figure and they haven't."

A range of manuals is always on hand, so that pupils can come in and review or work through a variety of exercises after school.

Once the ducks are in motion the class is introduced to additional drawing and colouring tools, and Wells demonstrates how to add a scene-setting background that can instantly transport the stick-man to locations such as the Mojave desert or the Moon. The students now have all the tools they need to complete the first lesson, turning their own storyboards into animations.

A follow-up lesson begins by looking at techniques for controlling animation, with Wells showing how to add pauses, alter the speed of movement, make sophisticated transitions between frames and create a manually controlled sequence operated by on-screen buttons.

He says: "Suddenly we are turning what seemed to be just an animation into a full multimedia authoring program. By adding text and background effects, we can develop any kind of presentation. I often use the animation software for my own lectures and presentations."

During the rest of the lesson, Wells leads a discussion about the impact of multimedia and its relevance to the students' work. Topics include film and television, with the students analysing how some of the special effects in films such as Titanic might have been achieved.

"We talk about some of the things they have seen, and suddenly they say: 'Ah, that's how they do it!' They have learned not to believe everything they read - on the internet, for example - and now they are learning to be much more critical of what they see."

The animation lesson is typical of Wells' approach to teaching ICT. He says: "I teach the topic first, rather than emphasising the tools we use, otherwise it just becomes the world of Powerpoint, or whatever. Then I say: 'Now that we have this skill, what can we use it for?'" At Netherhall, the answer is rather a lot. In the late 1990s, the school had a team of 50 students working as multimedia authors, creating material which was broadcast to Cambridge homes as part of a trial of interactive television in the city. When the team disbanded, the students sought out other projects, which today range from developing web-based resources for departmental heads to swapping storyboards with international penpals.

There is even an after-school club devoted to creating clay models which will star in animated stories.

Wells says: "They are developing lifelong skills, but we also want to make it a fun learning curve for them."


Netherhall students regularly swap storyboards online with their counterparts at Korunovacni School in Prague, a tradition which began when Alastair Wells gave a talk at Prague University. Invited to visit the school, he was impressed by the students' work: "They were doing some wonderful graphic design with ICT. I had brought along some tea as a present. The headteacher didn't speak English, so during the course of the morning I drew six pictures explaining how to make a cup of tea.

"The head thought this was wonderful, and responded with his own storyboard of British traditions. That's how we got the idea of exchanging storyboards, which we call EPics. They are language-free, so the children are communicating through the imagery of the storylines."

Netherhall students have animated some of the storyboards, and all can be seen on the art department's Czech IT Out! page on the Netherhall School website at


Software The Complete Animator, from pound;99

This easy-to-use animation package is designed to produce fast and effective results, even in the hands of a novice. It includes painting tools and sound effects, and incorporates key tricks of the trade used by professional animators. Animations can be used in presentations and employed on websites. The software runs on IBM-compatible PCs and Acorn computers.

Iota SoftwareTel: 01223.566789


One option is to take photos with a digital camera and put them together as an animation, and Alastair Wells was delighted with his recent discovery of the Aiptek Pocket DV camera. He says: "It is amazing - a pound;75 digital video camera which does half an hour of sound recording, holds three minutes of video and sound, and 200 still photos."

Aiptek Pocket DV digital camera is available from TTS, pound;74.90 Tel:01623 447800

Some Netherhall students enjoy modelling clay figures, before positioning and photographing them as the basis for Wallace-and-Gromit-style animations. "This kind of activity is time-consuming, and in the past we have done it as an after-school club. Now we are about to integrate the activity into the art scheme of work."

The Becta ICTin Practice Awards are organised by the British Educational and Communication Agency and are supported by The Tes, Pearson and BT. Do you have an ICT star you would like to nominate for a pound;2,500 award (and pound;2,500 for your school)? The TES has sponsored a new award specially for teachers new to the profession. Further details are available by email (

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