Role models

14th May 2004 at 01:00
Teachers and pupils at Cookstown Primary School in Northern Ireland worked across the curriculum to produce their award-winning animation, Earl Saves The World. Jack Kenny explains how

It all started with a spider swinging to and fro in front of a drawing of a man's face with holes cut out to show movable eyes. The A1-size picture was taped to a cupboard and the digital video camera was set up in front of it on a tripod. The tables were pushed back to the edge of the room and children sat around in a wide semi-circle so they could see everything clearly. As the eyes and the swinging spider changed position, children took it in turn to record sections by stopping and starting the camera. And then they had it - animation. This was the first task.

Weeks later, the class of 10 and 11-year-olds at Cookstown Primary School, County Tyrone, had produced a video that won prizes for its imagination and its invention.

Joanne Murray and Paula Burnside knew little about the technology when they were awarded a camera and a computer to create animations. Joanne Murray attended a course with the British Film Institute and brought the skills back to her colleague. "We had to figure out how to use the eMac and the camera," she said. "We fiddled with video clips and transitions until we felt happy enough to take it into the classroom. We weren't expert at this point - just a few steps ahead of the children and that is all we needed to be in order to bring the children along with us."

They needed to experiment, so they each set up mini-tasks. Joanne Murray continued: "The next move was into plasticine. We said to the children: 'There is your plasticine; make a character and work out some movement.'

They came up with a cat and a dog approximately 10cm long. The cat was put on a skateboard because we had not worked out how to do leg movements. The children were problem solving."

When it was time to add the audio, the computer was treated like any other computer in the room - with free access at appropriate times. By this stage, the children were experimenting with transitions and sound effects and working well together to make decisions. One of the most important aspects of the movie clips was that the children really were involved in problem solving: for example, how to make the dog wink at the end. They finally opted for little beads covered with plasticine. Another important aspect was their attempt to vary types of shots. "They made a fair attempt at using different shots but the movie's most beneficial purpose has been to help us as a class to review the whole animation process and to learn how to improve techniques and to create smoother movements in future," said Joanne Murray.

At one point the class saw Chicken Run and they were asked what made it a good story. They replied that it was good characters, good settings and good plot. Enthusiasm turned up a gear at this point. For a storyline, the children brainstormed their ideas and put every thing on individual mind maps. Joanne Murray and Paula Burnside had to find a way of getting them down to one idea without annoying them all. The children talked about their ideas and these were reviewed. They then picked out the best and most manageable ideas. Eventually these all went on to one mind map.

The storyline revolved around Earl, a scientist who realises that the polar ice is melting because of global warming. Earl's friend Sam the Snowman is melting. Earl attempts, aided by penguins, to save Sam and the world. "The whole idea we knew had to be relevant to the curriculum," said Joanna Murray. "We wanted to develop the children's story-writing skills as well as their ICT. It had to start in literacy. We looked at all the scripts they had written. They had different strengths. We took the best from each.

Once we had a single script we photocopied it and split it up into various tasks. We would tell one group: 'You can do the section where Earl meets Sam', and they would draw the storyboard. We ended up with 60 pages of storyboard. At this point they had seen little about storyboarding: we used some BFI resources and showed El Caminante. We asked them to study ads on TV to time the shots and observe the type of shots. We also looked at a DVD of Shrek and one of the extras showed the making of the film and all the storyboards. The children were amazed; they could see that people actually did what we had been asking them to do. There was real excitement then."

Timetabling was tight. For about three days, the children would work from 9.30am until lunchtime. Joanna Murray said: "It was important that it was not a long drawn-out process. They would lose a wee bit of the spark."

Next came the creation of the models. The class realised that they would need models at different scales and backgrounds. About 80 children were involved in this. Some worked on the backgrounds, some on the penguins and some on props, while others were still working on the storyboards. The longest thing was waiting for the paint to dry. The model-making lasted two and a half weeks.

Fortunately, there was an area of the building that is not used much and we set it up for the filming. The set was just two tables with the main backdrop around the back. "If you had a whole class in there one child would be on the lights, one on the camera, two moving the models, one looking after the computer and the recording, one giving instructions," said Joanna Murray. "There was another small group getting on with the editing. For the others, we brought work over and they got on with it.

There was none of 'Miss, I haven't had my go'. They knew they would have a part and they were content to wait. There was a peer tutor there at all times to suggest, to give advice and to make sure there were no problems. I didn't have to be there at all times because I knew that the children knew enough to be getting on with it."

The sound was added last, and they were a little unsure how they were going to do it. The children knew the script. Joanne Murray and Paula Burnside chose children who were good at accents because they didn't want all the characters to sound the same - that accounts for Earl's American accent.

They sat around the eMac and recorded it with the built-in microphone. The sound of the helicopter was made by flapping some newspaper in front of a hair-drier. The music was the children's idea. Initially they wanted to use James Bond music but it required copyright permission. "They began to think about the qualities of various instruments. What would sound icy or twinkly? They composed the music and rehearsed. One would conduct and bring them in. It was lovely," said Joanna Murray.

The completed work was presented in assembly. The plasticine models were on the stage and the animation was on the screen. "If you could have seen the youngest children who hadn't been involved," said Joanna Murray.

They looked at the models sitting on the stage and they looked at the screen and could see the same characters living and talking. Then they would look at the plasticine and back again at the screen. Some of the very young ones said: 'I hope we get to do that.'

Isn't that what it is all about: the children seeing others watching their work and getting pleasure from it? Self-esteem, confidence and real delight in the end product."

Two pupils, Philip and Scott, summed it up. "I learnt that animation was backbreaking work but looks fantastic in the end," said Philip. While Scott added: "I learnt that animation is all about using technology to have fun with learning."

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