Some Reflective Thoughts on Stopmotion and Students

Yesterday, all of my students watched a DVD of our short stopmotion movies that were created around themes of Figurative Language. Well, not all. A few of the movies are still not done, but another teacher has the laptops for a stretch, and I am not even sure if those uncomplete projects will get done before the school year ends on us.

Not one of my students had ever tried to make a stopmotion movie before, so this was new territory for all of them.

I’ve been thinking about the project and had some reflections about what worked and what didn’t work.

Completely Hooked and Completely Engaged: There is no doubt in my mind that bringing moviemaking, including stopmotion, into the classroom is a huge hit with most students. During the two week stretch — from storyboarding to editing — almost every single student was fully engaged in what they were doing. They were jazzed about making a movie and they rushed into the classroom every day, wanting to get started. You can’t beat that kind of enthusiasm.

It Pays to HaveĀ a Theme: Each group was given a term of Figurative Language, and their film was supposed to reflect that term. One year, I gave a lot of latitude to what they could film and it was a near disaster. Chaos and infighting ensued. While I stepped asideĀ  most of the time with this project, I was definitely the teacher at the start, assigning the basis theme of the movie. This gave structure to the project, and of course, made it a learning experience as much as a movie-making experience.

Prep Pays Off: I had my students brainstorm story ideas and then create a “movie pitch” for me to look over. Then, they had to use a storyboard to map out their story. This was all done before the computers were even turned on because once the power button is pushed, they are off to the races.

Mentor Movies: We watched some Wallace and Gromit shorts (including a behind the scenes video), and also a documentary around stopmotion movies. While this took time away from the project, it was invaluable for talking about the effort and patience that goes into stopmotion. They were amazed at the scale of things — how small the sets were and how patient the filmmakers were. I preached that patience every day. But for some 12 year olds, that word doesn’t always register.

First, Pivot: I had then using Pivot Stickfigure for a class period. This simple program is great for introducing the concept of “frames” of stopmotion. You can literally see the movie unfold along the stop of the screen. Kids love Pivot, too. What I noticed is they learned to slow down the movements of characters, which then translates into smoother actions. Pivot allowed them time to experiment a bit because if you make a mistake, it is easy enough to fix.

No Scripts, Bad Move (for some): I looked at the calendar and counted the days that I would have the laptops in my head and realized that I needed to push things along. I made the decision to allow groups to use the storyboard as a script and not write out dialogue. I’m not sure this was a good decision, as some of the movies became slightly incoherent and just a jumble of footage, as opposed to a story. I think the script would have helped provide a framework for the narration of voices. I’m second-guessing myself on this one.

Corrupt Files: This was frustrating and I think it is a result of our laptops now getting older and not working as well as they once did. Some groups spent a long time shooting a scene, saved the raw footage and then … the video file became corrupt. For the most part, I was pretty amazed at how well they took it (no one threw the computer out the window). They would sigh, shrug and get back to work re-filming the scene. I think my students are more resilient than I would be in the same circumstances.

Wiki Stix Rock: In years past, I have used clay with students to create characters. Honestly, it gets messy with 80 students and the clean-up time takes away from the filming time. This year, I went with Wiki Stix — little bendable sticks — and they were a huge hit. A lot of groups brought in props, too, but they loved the wiki stix. And I loved that there was no mess! Plus, the size of the wiki stix were perfectly scaled for the frame of the stopmotion movie.

Staying on Topic: I mentioned how every group had a figurative language theme. Not every group was successful in keeping on topic, and there are a few movies (all from groups of boys) that make no sense at all. I tried to get around to help as many groups as I could, but as one teacher in a room of up to 10 different projects going on at once, I was not always able to get everywhere, all the time. And some groups nodded their heads when I came to help them and then continued what they were doing as if I had not even been there. The strange thing is that even as we watched them on the DVD, these group members continued to think that their movies were clearly the top of the crop, even as peers were asking “what was that about?”

Ungraded Project: Partially because this was an end-of-year project and partially because assessing moviemaking is difficult, I decided that this would not be a graded project. I never told my students this and only one student (out of 80) even bothered to ask if they would be graded. I wonder now, though, about those groups who could not find focus and whether the grade incentive would have kept them better on track. Perhaps not. But, after we watched the DVD yesterday, I asked a few questions about figurative language and they mostly had a good understanding of their own term (from their own movie) and terms shown in other movies. So, that works for me. (Plus, there is no line on our new standards-based progress report for “making movies.”)

Girls versus Boys: This is an observation across a few years of experience. Girls stay much more on task with this project and are more likely to start over if something doesn’t go right than boys are. Boys rush things and are easily wowed by some cool effect. Boys are more likely to try something new — like holding the camera at odd angles — and then they live with that in their movie, even if it doesn’t help the story. Girls are all about the story, and they patiently construct the movie around the story. I think, too, that in this project, the groups of girls were more attuned that their movie might get a world-wide audience (via our blog and Longfellow 10) while the boys were more interested in impressing the friends in the room. The result? The girls’ movies are more refined than the boys’ movies, and that is pretty much across every single class. It’s interesting.

If you want to learn more about stopmotion, I created the Making Stopmotion Movie site to help teachers. And some of our movies are being published over at The Longfellow 10 collaborative website. If your class makes movies, you are invited to join us at the LF10.

Peace (in the reflections),

  1. Pingback: Kevin Hodgson is the YODA of Stopmotion in the classroom « Moving at the Speed of Creativity

  2. Hi Kevin
    I am particularly interested in your ideas about mentor texts. I am at present involved in a year long animation project based around poetry. Following the ideas of ‘the reader in the writer’ we watched a whole variety of animations throughout the year that are different to those that the children were familiar with. We followed this up with discussions about the meaning that the children made.
    What was most significant was that elements of these animations started to appear in the children’s own creations. In fact the whole process was cyclical – they used their viewing experiences to help them create and their creating experiences to help them understand what they were viewing.
    The purpose of our project is to try and become more secure in what progression looks like in animation. Animating demands so many different skills from the children that I now understand it to be a tool for learning. I have started to collate my thoughts about progression here. I am not the person who will write this all up at the end. They are just my thoughts.

    • That idea of cyclical reflection is interesting.
      One thing that I find, however, is that sometimes too much of an imitation of the mentor piece is reflected in the student work. It’s as if they feel they need to emulate the work instead of being inspired by it. I try to talk about this and make that inspiration visible, but it doesn’t always work.

  3. I agree. We don’t want lots of copies or imitations. It is a fine line to take. In their research Barrs and Cork suggest that it is not about teaching the device, more talking about the meaning conveyed. They are talking about writing but our experience on the project says this applies to creating animations. They also suggest that it is the reviewing and discussing of meaning whilst the animations are being made that has the most impact here.

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