Written by Christopher Siemasko.
Do you remember the way it felt the first time you saw your animation moving on its own? That is the experience that the Jacob Burns Film Center is bringing into elementary schools all over Westchester. Each semester, their Minds in Motion program divides a 4th grade class into groups of 8, each producing an animated film. Volunteers are assigned to each group to act as producer and cheerleader. After 12 weeks of hard work, the kids are invited to their own red carpet premiere at the Jacob Burns Theater in Pleasantville.
The program was developed by JBFC Animator-in-Residence Joe Summerhays. In addition to teaching, he runs a commercial shop with clients like HBO Family, Viacom, Jazz at Lincoln Center, AOL, Houghton Mifflin, Schlossberg Design, Tribeca Film Festival, and IBM. Joe is a charismatic teacher who introduces filmmaking with stories, jokes and magic tricks. Slyly worked into the program is a bit of math, critical thinking and public speaking. He digs right into story on the first class. “When I started out, we used to spend six weeks teaching them animation, then we would do six weeks working on story. Then we flipped it, starting out with six weeks of story and then the animation takes care of itself.”
Story is hard. Every Pixar DVD extra underlines the difficulty of getting the story right and it is no easier for kids. Interestingly, the 4th grade version of a story meeting is not that different from the feature film version. Some voices naturally dominate the discussion and steer the course of the conversation. Some really want everyone to like their idea and others have a great idea that they will sit on unless prodded. Some really want the attention of the group but don’t really know what to do once they’ve got it. The adult version is to bring up an idea in the room, but lose steam and trail off, hoping someone else will pick it up and run with it. The 10-year-old version is to loudly say, “ooh, ooh” and then once attention is theirs to say, “I got nothing”. In both professional and kid versions, when everyone is laughing and nodding their heads, you know you’re going in the right direction. On our way to my group’s final story idea, they came up with some really great ones. These were my favorite discarded stories; An octopus who wants to go to church to be forgiven for something he did, a zombie living in Atlantis whose hands keep falling off and Martin Luther King Jr. in outer space fighting crime.
Once the story is figured out, it’s a race to get it all designed and animated. This is much easier as most students are excited to draw and make characters. The method of film production is cut out paper with the help of a consumer DV camera, a $50 animation program – istopmotion and a laptop with imovie. All told, the process is incredibly inexpensive, but it produces real films. One from the 2009 program, King of the Jungle was selected to be a part of the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival.
This film, while not a festival pick, really speaks to me:
Keeping the kids on track can be tough at times, but it’s fun and full of surprises. Behind a few lazy and indifferent expressions, I discovered die-hard artists and inspired storytellers. At one point, we decided to remove a horse character from our film. We were running out of time and no one was stepping up to draw the artwork. An opposition party emerged of kids who felt the film needed the horse. The next week, when they came in, they agreed that it would be ok without the horse, but only after they had time to make peace with it. One boy treated everything as a chore until the final day when he animated a scene. We were running out of time and trying to cut corners, but he insisted on adding special touches that brought life to the scene, suddenly transforming into a passionate animator. We finished on the last day of class, working after the bell to get the last shot in. The next time I saw them, they were strutting down the red carpet. One of the girls was decked out with sequins and giant sparkly sunglasses. More than a few of the boys did a slow jog of a champion while pumping fists in the air. The red carpet paparazzi of teachers and family members watched as they went into their own big screen premiere. Based on national box office sales, fewer and fewer kids are actually going to theaters to see movies. It’s even possible that this could be the first time that some of the kids go to a movie theater.
What the JBFC is doing is special. Teaching 10 year olds to animate is pretty amazing, but the truly unique thing is that they can make any story they want. Watching the premiere, the films are all over the place. Some don’t make sense, many of them are dark and some are truly funny. They are all fresh and surprising, with honest and unexpected points of view.
Volunteers for Mind in Motion sign up for 12 two-hour sessions, once a week for the semester. Schools in New Rochelle, Yonkers, Mount Vernon, Tarrytown, and Mount Kisco participate in the program. There is also a program for 3rd graders called See Hear Feel Film that require single one day commitments from volunteers. Anyone interested in being a volunteering can find more info on the JBFC site, http://www.burnsfilmcenter.org/education/volunteering.
Christopher Siemasko works in the story dept at Blue Sky Studios in Greenwich, CT.