You've been framed

3rd June 2005 at 01:00
Andy Dixon brings animation expertise to key stage 3

After 18 years in television's animation industry, I started a PGCE in art and design at Canterbury Christ Church last September. My first placement was at Hillview School for Girls, in Tonbridge. Their animation club was eager to make a film, as were the staff, who saw cross-curricular benefits, especially in art, music and ICT.

Our film was inspired by a healthy eating campaign to promote fruit instead of crisps as the choice snack between meals in the school.

Coincidentally, Year 8 pupils had also been working on self-portraits made in relief with fruit and foliage borders, in the style of Della Robbia.

In addition to an extensive music recording facility, the school had new videoaudio-editing kit; there was no specialist animation software, but the media department had plenty of video cameras. As a school with performing arts status, Hillview also has a large theatre studio complete with lighting rig and helpful drama technician, which we were able to use for filming.

As a great fan of singersongwriter Peter Gabriel, I felt it was time to show a new generation of girls one of the best music videos of all time: Sledgehammer (1986). They were mesmerised as I explained how each section was shot onto tape, without computers, years before they were born. We then discussed what we would be able to produce in a similar manner.

The 30 club members agreed that if we could choose a girl to be in the middle of a landscape of revolving fruit, it would provide a great centrepiece for the campaign, as well as getting the new club project under way. Over the following weeks the club built and decorated a low table with a hole cut in it for a pupil's head to fit through. We held an audition and each club member was photographed to decide who would "star" in the piece, looking for a talent for pulling faces.

The filming had to fit into a lunch hour, so I set to work planning what and how we would animate in the time. A second of screen time is normally made up of 25 frames of filmvideo, and as we were only likely to shoot about a second in the 40 minutes available, it was essential that the material "looped" sufficiently.

The rest of the club were responsible for supplying the fruit to animate frame by frame around the pupil, as her eyes looked around. On the morning of the shoot, we set up the table and the drama technician lit the set before fixing a camera in the rig above. The table's legs were too long, so the girl had to lie on an assortment of cushions to bring her head up to the required level. The suspended camera was triggered by remote control by the technician; between shooting each frame, the girls moved around the table with their pieces of fruit.

The single-second burst of jpeg frames was then saved onto disc so that I could adjust the sequence at home using the Macromedia Flash animation package. Suppliers of professional software offer educational licences for cheap rates. Most schools already have the hardware, and in an age where all things ICT are being pushed to the forefront, animation is the ideal tool to introduce pupils to the creative side of computers. Flash or Paint Shop Pro both allow the importing and manipulation of digital photographs.

When the club met the following week, I showed them two versions of the material, one "warts and all" and another I'd edited with added graphical effects. They loved both because of the great expressions on the pupil's face, and spent the rest of the meeting discussing the prospect of painting her face blue, gelling her hair into spikes and pushing a banana through her ear...

Getting started

Apart from digital camera, secure tripod and Flash software (about pound;200 from Amazon), the only resource you need, for the simplest of animations, is some objects to move around, some pupils to move them and a lot of patience. Start small. Confine action to a "loop" (which finishes where it starts). Having a pupil as a centre figure not only adds a human element, but also a sense of scale. Although Flash looks quite complicated, use it as a replaying mechanism to start, then add levels of drawing when you are more confident.

* For a "click-by-click" worksheet explaining this start-up technique Email:

Andy Dixon starts his NQT year at Fort Pitt Grammar School, Chatham, in September where (in addition to art) he will be teaching animation at KS3

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