Student Moviemakers

By Katie Ash — June 04, 2008 4 min read
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Until recently, making movies required expensive equipment and software, hours of postproduction editing, and skills taught only in highly specialized courses. But now, with the proliferation of user-friendly video-editing programs and Web 2.0 technologies, almost anyone with a computer can create a professional-looking movie in a matter of days.

As a result, the medium has begun to creep into art classrooms across the nation—and the world.

“When I was in college, … [making movies] was a great deal of work that required an upper-level video class to create the same kind of results that my 3rd graders can achieve in a few minutes with iMovie,” says David S. Gran, a technology integration specialist and art educator at the Shanghai American School in China, referring to movie-editing software created by Apple Inc. The 2,600-student K-12 school teaches students from about 40 countries.

“Maybe that’s a bit humbling,” Gran says the effect of the new technology, “but it’s also truly amazing.”

See related story “Digital Approach to Art Ed. Gains Momentum

Three years ago, when Gran was an art teacher at Huntington High School in Huntington Station, N.Y., he began a project in his advanced video class in which students would rotoscope—or create an animation by tracing and altering film frame by frame—a 15-second video of themselves receiving a ball from the left of the frame, interacting with it, transforming it into something new, and passing it on to the right of the frame.

He then linked all the videos together, added music, and unveiled the first edition of what has come to be known as the rotoball project. Since then, his annual film project has grown to include contributions from 80 students in 11 schools in four different countries.

“Web 2.0 technologies have allowed us to work far beyond the borders of our classroom walls and collaborate with schools from around the world,” says Gran. “Through participation in this video, [students] have the opportunity to see a large and varied series of creative and technical responses to the same lesson.”

Patricia M. Fuglestad, an art teacher at Dryden Elementary School in Arlington Heights, Ill., was one of the teachers who participated in the project.

“[It] was enthusiastically trail-blazed by three girls who would work on the animation during recess,” she says. After Fuglestad taught them the software, the girls drew the 75 frames for their 15-second animation on their own, making one or two frames each day.

Watching her students work on the animation, Fuglestad learned two important lessons. “Complex software is not intimidating to my digital natives,” she says, referring to the generation of students who have grown up using digital technology. “They just need to know where to click.”

Secondly, she says, “digital media can create a surprising motivation level when it is connected to an authentic audience, even if it requires tedious work.”

‘Tell Stories, Make Movies’

Fuglestad, who has been making videos with her art classes for several years, has noticed a consistent spike in student enthusiasm when her students know their work will be shared online. Last year, when a group of her 5th graders made a movie called “Young Sloppy Brush” about a paintbrush that is destroyed in the hands of a careless artist, she tracked the progress of the project on her blog.

“On the day that the movie was uploaded, we had over 800 views,” says Fuglestad. “To help [students] understand how large their audience was, I printed out a world map and put push pins in places where they received an e-mail or some feedback.”

The student-made movie has gone on to win a local film festival and be screened at three international children’s film festivals.

“Now all my students want to tell stories and make movies,” she says.

Several of the movies by her students center around ways to treat art supplies properly, and most feature catchy songs with lyrics about art concepts that Fuglestad hopes students will find educational. In addition to the concepts reinforced by each video, the filmmaking process teaches countless interdisciplinary skills to her students, she says.

“When students make a movie, they learn so much more than the content of the film,” says Fuglestad. “They learn to frame a shot, express and capture the appropriate mood from their subject, articulate their words to better communicate, politely critique, work together, take turns, be fair, and share.”

‘Shared Creative Expression’

Kristine M. Fontes, an art teacher at Union City High School in Pennsylvania, has also noticed an increased level of engagement with her students through digital animation. In her 6th grade class, Fontes teaches students how to produce stop-motion animation, a technique that makes an object look as if it is moving on its own by linking together a series of photographs taken after the object is moved slightly, with Legos and other small toys, using digital technology. Like Fuglestad, Fontes has discovered that although the process is complicated, students are eager to learn and often master the software easily.

“They enjoy the responsibility of creating a project with so many layers and can’t wait to show me their work each day,” she says. “The entire process is so engaging that it is difficult to get the students to log off their computers and go to lunch.”

Fontes, whose students also took part in the rotoball project, agrees that having a global audience makes students more excited about their projects.

“I honor their commitment by hosting their animations on my Web site and burning their work on a CD for them to keep,” she says. “The world is no longer as big as it seems, and their moments of shared creative expression are no longer limited to the four walls of the art room.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 20, 2008 edition of Digital Directions as Student Movie Makers


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