Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Summer Film Festival

When I was thirteen years old the school I attended in Florida had what I would now call the precursor to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) in the form of the Enhanced learning Program (ELP). It was also known as the nerd class. I had been in ELP since about the third grade. Although the primary focus was identifying gifted and talented students and providing them with additional structured learning like brainstorming, creative design, computers (TRS-80 Model I and later we moved up to an Apple II color), we also got to do film making - in particular, animation!

My junior high school ELP teacher truly believed in learning and the power of imagination. Whether we were creating Rosetta Stones and archeology digs about our own made up civilizations, or acting out our own variations of Shakespeare, he not only made it interesting, he made it fun. The day he walked into class holding an 8mm Bolex animation camera, I just couldn't believe it. My first animation was of a chess set where the pieces actually did battle, cocktail swords and all. Little did I know that 30 years later I would experience a sense of déjà vu.

My son Izy may not have all of the interests I had as a youth, but he does share my passion for film (although his fortunately comes in a digital format and is a lot cheaper than 8 millimeter to produce). As he does not have the benefit of my favorite teacher of all time (Mr. McCoy, I hope you are still with us), I have tried to support his interest and for a couple of summers we have attempted to produce movies. This summer was no exception, and with an empty living room in the apartment in our new town, we had the perfect location for a stop motion animated picture.

For those of you not familiar with the tools and the process, it is actually quite simple. Take a digital camera with manual focus and white balance (this is to keep it from auto adjusting while recording), a tripod (to keep it from shaking between frames), a controlled light source (or sources), and a computer with some kind of video editing software capable of sequencing a series of images (Google the phrase "Monkey Jam Animation" for a free application). The rest is just imagination, something to animate and a lot of time and patience.

Izy's two week visit this summer came with no distractions or responsibilities during the day. This left him with all the time necessary to produce some movies; and he did. The first were a little rough. Getting the feel for timing in stop motion is a little tricky at first. We worked in some good old fashioned math, including geometry, and learned how to calculate distance and time and then convert to number of frames between point A and B so that an object seemed to move at the correct pacing. And then, one evening, I came home from work to find he had spent the entire afternoon shooting a car race across the room.

It was awesome! Izy had taken the whole process several leaps beyond the basics we had discussed and figured out how to do camera panning, multiple camera angles, and a car jump. Although I was impressed (especially with the creativity of the different camera angles and the jump) he and I knew it was a little rough in spots. For example, the wheels spun in different directions at times and the distance between frames was erratic. So we sat back and determined that we needed some cues for the wheel spinning which would solve both problems. The spokes of the model cars did the trick. Not only were we able to smooth out the speed of the cars, but we were also able to do some acceleration and deceleration to boot. The final output can be seen on his YouTube site: The Jump.

The best part of the whole thing was that we did it together. His creativity and imagination were brought to life. The short deviation from his usual summer break resulted in a little bit of movie magic. Since then he has produced several different types of videos, working on his editing and sound effects, and is still experimenting. I hope to have the opportunity to continue working with my son and helping him make whatever dreams he has come true.

- Ken

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