This same class made the request to do something completely different-
they wanted to make flip books.
I knew from my colleagues on this course team that this section of students was a particularly challenging one to engage. I wondered:
Would I be rewarding poor behavior by indulging this request?
Did I really want to research and write a new series of lessons in the middle of the school year? Could I really do this with my limited knowledge of animation?
Probably, I guess so, I’ll see…not the best answers to start with but, I dove in anyway.
Student choice is so often the key to student engagement, so I figured that was worth the risk. Sometimes going off track from the predictable, tried and true path leads to unexpected and positive results, not to mention increased teacher engagement. And besides, I love nothing more than the smallest excuse to dive down a rabbit hole of art research. And of course, sometimes our goals as educators are occasionally less than high minded: I love animation and I never made a flip book before: this might be fun!
As I began, I turned to an animator whose work I have always enjoyed, Terry Gilliam, aka the creator of the Big Cut-Out Monty Python Foot. I came across this quote from him:
The whole point of animation to me is to tell a story, make a joke, express an idea. The technique itself doesn’t really matter. Whatever works is the thing to use.
Sounds a whole lot like teaching to me! For my part in our freshman introduction to Visual Arts Principles, which is a team taught course, I need to teach the students how the Elements of Art and Principles of Design are employed by artists in drawing and painting with non-digital media. I make every effort to make sure the students’ experience includes not only the Great Masters of the past but contemporary masters as well. I always hope that they leave the studio seeing a little more and able to recognize the Elements and Principles around them in their daily lives. I suppose generally more visually literate in a hype visual culture. So when I made the decision to build an animation unit I had to come up with an entire new cadre of master artists. Master artists I found that had far more personal meaning for my students since cartoons and animation is so much part of their lives. I also had to find fun and interesting examples and videos about how those artists work. Thank Goodness for TED and You Tube!
So I’ll begin and the beginning, here’s how it’s gone so far. I will be updating since this class section is not yet completed and I do want to share my students work with you.
The new animation unit began with a study of optical illusions in order to get the students comfortable with the principles of balance, visual rhythm, and techniques on how to create visual movement. The students had to find three optic illusions and recreate them in a three inch by three inch square. To start, I focused on craftsmanship since it is so important to draw carefully and accurately for an effective optic illusion and ultimately for a successful animation. I taught them how to use a 2H pencil with a ruler and triangle to draft a perfect grid on a blank page. Then they had the chance to use softer pencils to see the value differences and the utility of a hard lead for under drawing. They selected illusions from searching the web. They had to find ones that focused on: figure/ground (e.g. face/vase), movement (e.g. spinning/moving grids), spacial (e.g. making a hole in the page or impossible geometries). Once they selected their own “classic” illusions to study and recreate, they had to come up with three illusions of their own. The students truly enjoyed this. I assigned each student at random a “Wow! Partner” to sit with. This was their classmate who they needed to “Wow!” with their illusion and exchange honest feedback with. The random assigning of partners had two great benefits. It forced the students to mix it up and get to know each other and it promoted honest feedback. For how to give effective critique, I used the Ladder of Feedback as our casual critique rubric. This first time around, I think I spent too long on the optic illusion exercise and intend to keep it as a shorter two-three day exercise in the future.
Then there was the fun of researching the approaches of classic Disney and Merry Melodies and finding some terrific flip book artists on You Tube (I highly recommend Andymation) as well as getting some terrific advice from folks in the field. All of which meant I had to watch animation shorts for Professional Reasons. To quote Billie Holiday, "Nice work if you can get it." It was was great fun sharing the best of my research with the students and discussing the elements and principles with them in light of these works.
I then had the students create a six to seven panel story board of a simple action by a simple character, e.g. a ball bouncing, an eye winking, stick figure jumping. I then asked them to come up with two more different storyboards. I’ve found that three’s a magic number. The first idea is often clumsy or overly simplistic, the second derivative, and the third you begin to find your stride and have something to build upon.
After their storyboard brainstorming in pencil, I asked the students to ink their favorite storyboard. Here was my opportunity to discuss with them different line types and how to create a hierarchy of line. It also was a chance to demonstrate how using overlap and simple perspective and compositional techniques to create the illusion of three dimensional space on a two dimensional surface and thereby increase the visual impact of their story and character. Wrapped up in this was a condensed opportunity for character development. With more time I would pull character development out as a separate exercise with a chance to talk about structure/anatomy, proportion, and expression. But, because of the time constraints I needed to keep this to as needed one-on-one instruction. As they developed their storyboards they began to add value and color so I was also able discuss basic color theory.
They currently are creating “draft” flip books using sticky note pads. What’s really fun is that they have begun to see the mechanics of how to create smooth action, adding frames where there were omissions in the storyboard action. The sticky note pads and working in pencil make the entire development process very easy, flexible, and much less intimidating to beginners. This also give them a tremendous amount of drawing practice, even though much of it is repetitive, they have been cheerfully drawing away (even going so far as asking to take their books home and coming to the studio to work during free periods). I'm noticing too that the students are gaining confidence in their own drawing ability. The end goal of bringing their character and story to life has been quite a motivator for both general work ethic but, also craftsmanship!
In the final days of the unit I will have the students create a final flip book on index cards with post or rubber band bindings. No worries I will post video, so stay tuned!
When I retold the story about the young man exploring his cranial orifice with a pen cap to my husband he laughed, shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, some things you can teach, but other things you just have to learn.” I got thinking, maybe part of that spark to really engaging the students is that expression of your own learning…pen caps up the nose aside.
Below are examples for my students of my learning to teach about animation. If you would like to learn more specifics about my lesson plan, feel free to drop me a line, I’m happy to share and would love to hear about what you learn when you teach!
The short video above is of a homemade zoetrope I have in the studio. Not only is it a fun gadget to make, it was very useful in teaching animation by providing interesting historic background. It also proved to be very useful in testing my storyboard. I was able to cut my story board strip and place in the zoetrope and watch for "jumps" in action. In the end I added two additional frames in order to make the rabbit jumping from the hat smoother action. I also was able to create a fast flip book from the same storybook by using a copier. That book can be seen in the photo above with the binder clip. The final (or at least where I chose to stop) flip book "Poof" can be seen below. Using the rubber band binding with copier images spray glued on index cards I was able to experiment with adding and subtracting frames in order to change the pacing of the action. It has been a great demo tool for the students in explaining this concepts creating smooth action sequencing and the pacing of the action. Not to mention really fun!
This blog post will be somewhat different than previous posts. I think because maybe my writing, for the first time, is part of my processing the experience itself.
Recently, I experienced a brief illness: a severe allergic reaction to a vaccination. Along with the typical flu like symptoms, this reaction caused intense spasms pain all over my body. Pain of this kind is the notable symptom of the disease which I was trying to avoid. I could ironically muse about the fact that the medical profession has found that the path to better health often times seems to be what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. But, I'll refrain. Having had loved ones who experienced the disease that the vaccination prevents, I am grateful that now, with the unwavering support of my loved ones, I stand on my own two feet immune, despite a terrible experience. I suppose another bright spot of this experience is that I have found that there is actually something on this planet that makes me quite literally “one in a million.” Most folks get this vaccination and their only experience is a pinch and cheerfully move on with their lives. Alas, I must admit that my vanity was hoping for a bit more out of life than to be an anomaly of medical science. Maybe that’s why I make art and write? A good question. But, I don’t think the drive of mere vanity, a desire for some kind of immortality, or brand of uniqueness alone is enough to fuel a lifelong personal vocation for anyone. So maybe my soul is safe in that regard? At least I’m hoping so. Besides, we all know the old story about artists never gaining respect or recognition until long after their own deaths. To engage in art betting on fame and fortune would certainly be one’s vanity playing the long shot in life it seems to me.
Be that all as it may, my recent personal experience has left a mark beyond the singular one on my left upper arm where I got the vaccination. The experience of intense pain, pain that simply does not allow you to think clearly or about anything else, that is quite literally physically staggering can be profound. My small recent experience of pain brought to the forefront of my mind a dear friend who lived with severe chronic pain. The sheer heroism and grace of his daily life where he somehow put aside his pain to dedicate himself to productive pursuits, kindness, and cheerfulness staggers my mind. Indeed, such people seem to have chosen that Buddha-like path: knowing that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. And that in pain, our challenge is to find the gift.
So many stories of suffering artists, artists where pain was an almost constant companion in their lives. Vincent Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo come immediately to mind. Despite all the romanticizing of the image of the suffering artist neither artist found creative inspiration in pain. In fact, Van Gogh cursed his physical limitations and bouts with mental illness as the greatest obstacles to his work. Kahlo found her art as the best way of expressing her dreams and all that was good, wonderful, and beautiful, despite her physical and emotional pain. For both artists, pain was chronic, but suffering was the inability to create. Creating was the gift because the act of making art was not only a way of coping, but a way of making sense of their pain. They didn’t chose their physical pain, but they did actively chose to manage their suffering by channeling that energy into their painting.
Pain is a strange companion, when present it is almost all there is. When not, the relief makes it almost difficult to recall with any exactitude. Like a stranger wearing a mask, we recognize the fearful shape of pain, but cannot recount specific features. In many ways, I think Hayao Miyakaki's image of the character No Face in his film Spirited Away, is a perfect personification of Pain. But, our hearts keep a record of pain, its heralds and its scars. Like echos of a shout in a canyon, remnants of little hurts live in one’s body and heart and are recalled when there is a symptom, a rainy day, a hint of that form on the horizon, or any small reminder. The causes of physical pain can be varied, from a virus to a shattering life experience. We even call it “a broken heart.” A broken heart is real pain and suffering. Anyone who has loved and lost knows this. Certainly Van Gogh and Kahlo knew this. The sleeplessness, nausea, dizziness, pressure on the chest, difficulty in breathing…sounds like the flu, sounds real enough for a diagnoses does it not? Our bodies remember this pain too, just as it does the stubbed toes, bumped heads, and flus. Perhaps, some of the gifts of pain is perspective on life’s events, and the ability to recognize and compassionately support others in pain. In pain, one’s thought process is completely simplified. One’s psyche completely paired down to the bare essence of things, perhaps this is a kind of "flow," perhaps this too may be a kind of gift. But there is no doubt that in the Herculean effort in channeling all this some extraordinary people can create with a fervor and intensity of vision that is wholly singular.
I think it is unwise and tragically naive to seek out pain in life in the hopes that it will make one more creative. That not only is foolish, as Jim Morrison said, "Nobody here gets out alive" or I'll add without pain. But, that romantic vapid media image of suffering artists I think does artists like Van Gogh and Kalho a great disservice by not recognizing their incredible strength of will in their heroic dedication to their life’s work. As for myself, I never found any artistic inspiration in the trials and tribulations of life. To be sure the sun shone a bit brighter the morning I awoke and the pain was gone. And maybe that was that part of this experience’s gift to me. For surely I have a deeper appreciation for my ability to experience the world as a healthy able bodied and able minded person as well as a profoundly deeper admiration for those who, despite their pain chose to create the beautiful from suffering.