Abstract Animation – Lambeth Academy

School A, a S. London Academy 19 November 2012

Observed 2 x 1hr. animation sessions run by John Harmer and Shelley Wain. At various points in the past I’ve worked with all these people and institutions so arranging my observations was unusually speedy ref. admin, CRB checks and the level of acceptance. I sent an email last week and was into the school this morning. I’ll be attending for the next 2 Mondays + screening at Picture house Tues 4th Dec. Also confirmed next Wed. with Marion (special needs co-ordinator and passionate advocate of practical craft and media work) to watch younger “Nurture Group” doing animation project with John, 8.30 – 15.00 session.

ICT teacher offers this opportunity to ICT GCSE students as part of their practical module. Three sessions of 3 different types of animation, followed by screening at local cinema.

Students: Year 10: Group A & B: 3 girls and 12 boys in each. 30 total. 1 hour session each.


Things picked up about last week’s session (I wasn’t there…)

Animation with clay – TRANSFORMATIONS

Objective: To introduce students to the Stop-motion technical set up. To introduce an animation technique using clay. To gain an insight into how professional animators work with clay in the broadcasting industry.

Outcomes: Students become familiar with the stop motion technical set up and software.Students are able to create a short piece of animation, which involves a transformation from one character/object to another.

Recap of last week where they used ‘clay’/plasticene to model shapes turning into other shapes and they watched professional examples – adverts – on Youtube:

CIAO ITALY by Studio Misseri-

They had about 10-15 mins of actual clay manipulation.

This session: Abstract Animation – ‘Pattern and line’

John and Shelley set up in library. Informal atmosphere. 5 tables equipped with camcorders on tripods a vertical axis looking down on the tables. Duct tape everywhere for stability and H&S. 5 x Macbooks with I Can Animate running. 3 students per table. Plenty of colourful craft material: tissue paper, pens, newspapers etc on separate table.

Quiet after the large hubbub of arrival. Watched both groups’ work from last week on IWB. All seemed pleased with their efforts. Special attention given to the karate kick sequence.

John: it’s important not to be too prescriptive so they can PLAY with the clay.

Objective: To introduce students to abstract animation. To study the films of abstract animation ‘pioneers’

Outcomes: Students are aware of what constitutes an abstract animation. They are able to employ some of the methods of early masters to create a short animation.

Animators ask for definitions of what ABSTRACT means – proves tricky. Student suggestions: ”out of the box” / “not a set picture” / “not in the real world”.

John & Shelley: no story, no narrative, creation of mood through visuals with texture, patterns, dots, lines, wavy, zig zag lines, sounds, colours, movement, pace. No specific language patterns or pictorial/representational quality. It’s often a personal RESPONSE to something, an idea.

Screened Tower Bawher for the students – Russian animation directed by Theodore Ushev:

Contemporary film that uses images from 100 years ago. Highly controlled approach with specific imagery evoking new, modern, frenetic, industrialised, mechanised nature of society, propaganda references. Clean graphic shapes: constructivism, on which architecture of NY, Chicago, London cities were based. Tatlin’s Tower, the unbuilt iconic building, represented this era and set of ideas, was set to dwarf the Eiffel Tower. Film set to august music, militaristic. 1st time these kinds of shapes used in art. Cinemas populated by peasants watching this kind of abstract movie …. to modernise the country.

Entirely different approach of Len Lye’s ABSTRACT film 1935 The Colour Box. This is the style the students will emulate. 1930’s images taken from GPO image banks and his new technique of using film celluloid/gel strips, ‘defacing’ them with paint and scraping (like potato printing) and then passing that through a projector which projects light through the white/translucent bits. This produces a totally random set of images that is unplanned, relinquishing ofcontrol. The films were used as adverts for the GPO to suggest rapid service.

Calypso music – up-beat, jolly, dancing, happy, exotic, of the moment, modern.

Sh. explained principles of the zoetrope – where images are run in the round with small adjustments to each picture to fake movement. Film processes = 25 images per second.

‘Working together as a group’ was explicitly mentioned as a required part of the process. Laleen – teacher – I grab her for a moment to establish some facts. She’s ICT teacher. She’s interested in the social outcomes – “seen a difference already in the cohesion within the class, where previously there’d been name-calling and factions…”, now, less evidence of this.

Difficulty to “get the students out of the class to do practical work” – Opp. to get the students in.

Students were told to pass the “gigantic film strips” i.e. large strips of paper under the camera at regular intervals to emulate the motion of a projector but some started to put the paper at different angles and to move the paper whilst each shot was being taken to produce a blurry image.

Interesting departure in terms of the desire to experiment / subvert the instructions. J & Sh. emphasise that this is the kind of work that they would do at degree level… at art school…. to play with combining techniques and the recognise different ways of using tools and methods. “Mucking about” and “having a laugh” is an important part of the process. It’s how film makers work, it’s their mind set. How to make something more interesting, the creative process as free & loose.

John: he reckons a lot of the students still have a “childlike” mindset – ie. what’s the right way of doing something? … how do you want me to colour this strip? what’s expected? Difficulty in un-learning that and allowing a random output.

Here’s a pretty bad recording of the resultant film, until a better quality one is posted on the CLC site:

My obs:

  • Interesting mix of the analogue and the digital. The playful ‘childlike’ artistry and the ‘technical’,
  • Although there are parameters set, i.e. no pictorial drawing or writing, they’re allowed to play within the parameters. Shelley “difficult for them not to have parameters at this age”
  • Sh. & J are also in experimentation mode – it’s the first time they’ve done this form of abstract film making. In between groups they’re refining their practice and discussing what went well and what didn’t and how to change it the next time. Improvisation.
  • Constant battle against time and getting through the lesson content in the time available… 1 hour. Students had just started to experiment with the form and it’s time to wrap up and finish. Only filming for about 10 mins… what’s being learnt?
  • Group B more sluggish and less engaged at first. Brought round eventually. Some not looking at screened films, not joining in the artwork. Teacher and J. in coaxing mode.
  • Student to me: “Are you a teacher?” “No, I’m a researcher”, “What yer lookin for?”
  • This activity may be described as enrichment’ … shame that’s not the normal standard… why aren’t all lessons an enriching experience?
  • In January 2013, J & Sh. will be working directly (not via CLC) with Columbia Road Primary school nursery – on literacy and numeracy and animation. There’s a joy in this in that kids will not come with as many per-conceived notions of what’s expected of them. Sh. told me about difficulties of her choosing a school for her daughter: she went to a struggling school that needed to improve, so it had jettisoned its Arts curric in favour of ‘academic’ subjects. She chose not to send her daughter there for this reason.
  • Significance of cultural input and showing old pioneers’ work first … many were drawing on these for their own patterns. Parallel with Cinémathèque project and the lesson structure they use.

What’s being learned here? On the surface it’s an original way of engaging the students in hands concepts of abstract art… Teaching about media education was touched on in a ‘by the way’ kind of delivery. The practitioners feel there’s no time to really go into the context of the old animations and the way they were used.

In terms of actual production – the students don’t get much hands on time at all and nothing of the more practical (as opposed to ‘making the abstract visible’ stage) aspects of media prod eg. exporting and editing their work into an integrated piece for screening.

More thought should perhaps go into contextualising the work and having the students own a project of their own in the 4 time slots available?

Other referenced animations:

Stan Brakhage’s 1963 ‘Mothlight’:

Gerty the Dinosaur – Winsor McCay, 1914:

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