Reel talent

6th May 2005 at 01:00
Creating an animated movie enabled children at a primary school in Northern Ireland to learn the skills of digital filmmakers and much more.

Patrick Kelly reports

Move over Mickey. Shove off, Shrek. The new 'toons in town are King Zap and his chums Tusks, Swing and Cling. These jolly jungle beasts, along with the wicked Mr Wolf and the Horrible Hunter are the stars of an animated film which has wowed the likes of film director Anthony Minghella. However, the producers of this cartoon classic had no backing from the Hollywood studios, nor were they sitting at the controls of multi-million dollar animation equipment. They were children from primary six and seven of Kirkistown Primary School in Cloughey, Northern Ireland. All they had at their disposal were six slightly dog-eared PCs, Photoshop and Macromedia Flash. True, they also had the advice of experienced digital filmmakers, such as Lizzie Agnew, but Lizzie is the first to point out that all they had was advice - everything that is seen on screen is the work of the children.

And what work it is. The six-minute short Zapnapped captured the imaginations of not only the parents and local community in this seaside village, but also impressed the judges at the Cinemagic Young Filmmaker competition, held in Belfast, and drew praise from Mr Minghella, who was in the city to open a digital media centre. The film also won a gold award in the province-wide Primary School Challenge, organised by Queens University, and featured in Primary Focus, a BBC Northern Ireland schools learning programme. Some English as a foreign language teachers have apparently snapped it up as a useful learning tool.

All in all, it was a successful debut for the Kirky Kids Film Fun Company, whose corporate headquarters is in the pocket-sized office of Kirkistown's headteacher Jillian Wallace.

Her office may overlook the waters of the Irish Sea, rather than the suburbs of Los Angeles, but she's a match for any Hollywood mogul when it comes to thinking big. She wanted to do something different with the school's art and design curriculum practice and contacted Deirdre Quayle, then creative and expressive adviser for the South Eastern Education and Library Board, which takes responsibility for education in the area.

Deirdre put her in touch with Lizzie Agnew and her team at Ruby Slippers Productions and, with the help of a pound;10,000 grant from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland's Artists in Education scheme, a creative partnership was born.

School and production team struck a deal about the amount of time the project would take - one morning and one afternoon session per week working with 18 10 and 11-year-olds over a six-month period. "They were absolutely brilliant at getting on to the children's level," says Jillian. "They were also very flexible about fitting things in with the other curriculum demands and we all got on at a professional level. That was important."

The early sessions were devoted to learning the basic principles of animation, from flip cards to frames. Then the team moved on to devising a story - choosing settings, creating characters and outlining plots. Next came storyboarding -visualising each scene and working out how it would fit into the final production.

Finally, the children set out making the backgrounds and characters out of the normal materials you would find in the classroom, such as paints and paper, strands of wool and scraps of fabric. "Everything was then scanned into Photoshop and it was only then that we really started to use the capacity of the computers," says Lizzie.

For example, an oak leaf was "multi-layered" to create a convincing jungle background. Colours were boosted, drawings animated, sound effects added and the resulting film edited. Finally, a voice-over was added and the children voted to get an actor to provide the narrative, working, of course, from their script.

Even when the final scenes were in the can, the learning did not end there.

The class paid visits to studios of local BBC and ITV stations and the offices and projection room of the Queens Film Theatre. "I was determined that we should cover lots of curriculum areas in the project. After all, it's a large slice of the children's time," says Jillian. "So we talked to the QFT about distribution and advertising and even about power sources for projection equipment.

Jillian also helped the children create their own company - the Kirky Kids Film Fun Company - and they worked on promotion and publicity, budgeting and marketing of the video, which was produced on the back of a loan from the school. Sales meant that the loan was paid off and the school showed a profit. "People say small schools just can't provide the same range and quality as bigger schools. Well, we have proved that view wrong," she says.

The movie is available on CD or video for pound;2.50 (see Teaching ideas for details)

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