Stardust in their eyes

25th October 1996 at 01:00
Matthew, aged eight, and Joe, aged seven, were making an animated cartoon. In their storyboard, Squeeky, the alien, had just arrived in his rocket-ship at the museum. He had emerged from his spacecraft and was going to take a photo of the museum.

In the education room, the boys had prepared a "set" of the museum's facade and above this, mounted on a calibrated tracking device was an animation camera. The controls were on a nearby table.

The boys had made a two-dimensional model of Squeeky. They wanted a "flash" effect, so Matthew surrounded Squeeky's head with small triangles of silver acetate. The process was shown in colour on a monitor screen. When the stardust was arranged to their satisfaction, Joe pressed a button to activate the camera. One more frame was shot and stored. They started on the next.

Animation is a slow business and the boys worked for two hours on a short sequence. Squeeky took his picture, got into his rocket-ship and zoomed off homeward, leaving a trail of stars behind him.

The filming was supervised by Sue Huggins, who runs this holiday drop-in scheme with Phil Strong. When a problem arose she offered questions rather than answers: "How would you do that? Do you want him in close-up? What size model would you need?" And whenever a child offered an answer she encouraged them to try it out.

Occasionally, Matthew and Joe were left on their own, entrusted with complex technical equipment. They were absorbed in their task and moved the (gradually shrinking) spaceship across the set, rearranging its exotic exhaust and photographing the sequence as they went. At the end of the afternoon they had a 15-second episode in the can.

In the education room, girls and boys made masks; others wrote storyboards; one had been given a video-camera and was filming others at work, and interviewing them. They were working on the topic of planetary exploration. It is not often you see a roomful of youngsters engaged in such a variety of activities, as busy, as happy and as calm as this. The atmosphere was one of intense creativity. At these workshops people pop in and out. Age is not restricted; and parents are welcome.

The museum has these sessions seven days a week, throughout all school holidays. The general schemes are meticulously planned, but the practice is infinitely adaptable, according to the ideas and initiatives of the children taking part.

Each holiday has a different theme. This time it was communication. Like the best project-based teaching, the theme is a springboard for the exploration of ideas and the development of varied skills: from folding, drawing and cutting-out to video-photography and animation.

The climax to the summer workshops was a two-hour, part-live, part-filmed performance-cum-jamboree. The Animated Adventures of Squeeky had its world premiere. There were also filmed interviews of children by children; filmed drama; and footage of work in progress. There was even a comedy spot.

There was live drama, some with audience participation. The audience, mainly of children, was large. It was a fitting end to a summer of such enterprising creativity.

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