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Picasso, digital glue & animation

Rich Mix, a charity and social enterprise arts venue in Bethnal Green, East London is expanding its educational programme for schools, colleges and teachers. They offered a free animation workshop for Tower Hamlets teachers with animators, Tom Hillenbrand and Shelley Wain. I knew the principles of animation from working with Flash in the early noughties, but the hands on experience was entirely other and much more enjoyable.

Over a period of about 3 hours, we went through the processes of development, pre-production, production (I Can Animate) and post-production (iMovie) and produced a 30 second cut-out animation. From a stimulus involving a pile of subjects (ours was History) and a pile of film genres (ours was Horror), some hand-crafted flat elements, a latent appreciation of film grammar and a collective knowledge of Anne Boleyn’s sad demise, our group of 3 created a multi-layered text with narrative meaning – in a medium that was new to us. See here at 33 seconds in.

Persistence of Vision was an MEA animation project from 2009 – 2010 whose central hypothesis was “that recurrent opportunities for children to engage in critical and creative activity with animated film would lead to substantial gains in children’s attainment, not only in relation to film but also in relation to other curricular areas and behaviour, compared to what they might achieve through “one-off” projects” (taken from the summary report, accessed April 2012).

Picasso’s ‘Bulls Head’ 1942. Source: Wall Street Journal, April 16 2011

Activities and projects such as these reinforce my conviction that the synthesis of elements – concepts, ideas, tangible objects, media, music, sound, genres, photos, illustrations, disciplines, familiar narratives, plasticine, lego – is the most potent creative act and when applied in new contexts, this synthesis deepens our capacity to make meaning.

As Tim Brook puts it, film-making can be the “digital glue” that meshes our own personal network of skills, knowledge and understanding. In “Teaching Media in Primary Schools” (ed. Bazalgette, 2010:128), Brook alludes to Picasso’s ‘Bulls Head’ or rather his alternative take on a bicycle saddle and some handlebars arranged in a bovine way: “Picasso offered us a new way of seeing both bicycle and bull, and also a deeper understanding of our own perceptions. The film-making process likewise pulls together a wide range of competences from the curriculum and beyond.”

This range of competencies is beautifully illustrated in a local ongoing animation project, one of whose episodes was produced and filmed at Hackney Pirates last summer. Animator, Saskia Schmidt, has conceived of a story in which a sheep is on a journey to discover all the colours in the world. Hackney’s was Silver World. The film recalls all the surreal qualities of my childhood interactions with animation, where nothing was more normal than for soft knitted aliens with long noses to engage with Soup Dragons and speak in high pitch, whooping cadences. Young children are now given the opportunity to fully indulge, record and distribute the fruit of their creative urges, a privilege that was once the preserve of BBC programme commissioners and professional creatives of the day.

The business of film education?

Picture source: http://www.ideabuyer.com

April 2012: I attended a seminar at the BFI in association with a 3-year project entitled Film: 21st Century Literacy whose aim is to develop a strategy for film education across the UK. The project pioneered some excellent research and is now coming to an end. It produced this advocacy report. The seminar’s theme was “Re/defining film education” and I had a 5 minute slot in which to talk about the European perspective – having been part of a team researching film literacy in Europe for the preceding few months. I began developing a presentation around the concepts of Purpose, Positioning and Processes (the 3 P’s) in relation to film education.

Such have been the findings so far and considering the majority of the 60 delegates may well have ‘heard it all before’, I felt that this 5 minutes might be better spent entertaining a metaphorical notion. It offers a more playful approach inviting us to look at the field through a different lens. It could highlight where energies might best be spent if film education is to gain traction as a core entitlement for all young people. The 3 P’s reminded me of a business model…

What if … in the spirit of TV’s The Apprentice, film education was a product?:

  • with abundant USP’s, massive growth potential and clear evidence of longevity
  • but whose brand, despite its relevance, suffers in most quarters from perception deficit, issues of differentiation, positioning and a crowded market
  • whose backers lack sustained R & D commitment, even taking into account excellent in-house product design skills
  • whose target markets are highly receptive, but whose market penetration continues to disappoint – despite the potential for cross-selling, franchising and international expansion
  • whose excellent market research isn’t always acted on and is, in some cases, disregarded
  • whose PR strategy, Quality Control & Sales Rep training need bigger investment
  • whose stakeholders are debating the pros and cons of a being absorbed by another associated brand with bigger European clout: ‘Does this represent a good opportunity to raise our profile? Might our product’s distinct qualities be subsumed in the process?’
  • whose creative use of new media technologies both in its delivery and consumption, make it attractive, current and adaptable, but also burdened with heavy and punitive legislation
  • whose profit margins are really tricky to measure, in fact so elusive and diffuse that to some, the product doesn’t even look viable; however, such is the manufacturers’ and consumers’ belief in the benefits, it keeps current and successful on the margins.

I’m aware that indulging metaphors in this way can come across as a bit pleased with itself, but what’s useful here is the flagging up of similarities between social processes. Perhaps perceiving of film education in more metaphorical and less essentialist ways might inspire the kind of imaginative leaps and new connections necessary to advance it. Paradoxically, film education’s very plasticity, transferability and translatability, so often perceived as liabilities under current structures, are its most ‘marketable’ core strengths.

One of the more interesting ideas advanced by Cary Bazalgette during the seminar was to compile a list of agencies, interest groups and a few large brands with common interests, who might become allies in a bid to back film education during reviews of current education provision.

Andrew Stanton at TED on storytelling

WALL-E (2008) Directed by Andrew Stanton

Toy Stories and Wall-E – quality storytelling. Below is the writer, Andrew Stanton, at TED explaining his craft. I particularly like what he has to say about the need to seduce the audience into caring, the purity of stories without dialogue and also the importance of leaving gaps and withholding information. We create and listen to narratives all day long in business contexts, in academia, in education, in politics and more overtly in anecdotal chitchat and daily media interactions. Aspects of film education explicitly cater to our need to carve some cognitive sense out of everyday chaos and make it affective, so why not orchestrate more of that in the curriculum?

Here are a couple of transcriptions from his talk. (See full transcription here)

“The children’s television host Mr. Rogers always carried in his wallet a quote from a social worker that said, “Frankly there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you know their story.” And the way I like to interpret that is probably the greatest story commandment, “Make me care.”

Please, emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically… make me care.

We all know what it’s like to not care. You’ve gone through hundreds of TV channels, just switching, channel after channel. And suddenly you actually stop on one, it’s already halfway over, but something’s caught you and you’re drawn in. That’s not by chance, that’s by design.

“Storytelling without dialogue. It’s the purest form of cinematic storytelling. It’s the most inclusive approach you can take. It confirmed something I really had a hunch on, is that the audience actually wants to work for their meal. They just don’t want to know that they’re doing that. That’s your job as a storyteller, is to hide the fact that you’re making them work for their meal. We’re born problem solvers. We’re compelled to deduce and to deduct, because that’s what we do in real life. It’s this well-organized absence of information that draws us in. There’s a reason that we’re all attracted to an infant or a puppy. It’s not just that they’re damn cute; it’s because they can’t completely express what they’re thinking and what their intentions are. And it’s like a magnet. We can’t stop ourselves from wanting to complete the sentence and fill it in.”

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