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Moving Pictures Lab: Using Stop Motion and Time Lapse to think about Documentation and Narrative

Written by Ben Worthington
August 27, 2013

The “digital” moniker can be applied to most anything—I have a “digital” wristwatch, “digital” toothbrush (analog brushes just don’t fight plaque like streams of ones and zeds), digital scales so I can sweat a tenth of a pound, and a “digital” signature to pay “digital” bills with phantom dollars never tendered for cash or gold.  “Digital” as applied to writing has weakened barriers of time and space. We take composition, a tool as old as our very concept of recorded history, graft it into the superpowered frame of “e” . . . and we are off to races run at the speed of thought—or fingertips, at least.  “Digital” as a descriptor can almost always be associated with greater faculty, greater detail, and greater productivity.  Even the simplest form of digital composition—word processing—can be seen as addressing these pursuits.  In other words, “digital” makes what we were doing before it more accessible or attainable now that it exists. 
 
As a child of the 80s, I’m old enough to remember my first keyboarding experience being at school.  Pricetags on personal computing during the day rivaled that of my family’s car.  Now I’d be hard-pressed to find a student in my class whose second or third-best computer wouldn’t squash my state-provided desktop in a playground brawl.  Disparity has always been a preoccupation of my lesson planning, and the tech-gulfs among what teachers have to offer, what students have already at home and in their pockets, and what they will ultimately need at school and work seem impossible to close.
 
This resource begins as a lazy answer to that problem, not a stock solution.  We can’t possibly train a student for all the manner of digital interactions she or he will enter into during the next half decade; surely many of these modes do not currently exist, but will likely be ubiquitous by the time I finish this sentence.    How can we train students to use tools that aren’t yet tangible?  I’m reminded of a photo of late WWII-era pilots sitting in long lines, training choreographed flight movements on rudders made of wooden dowels, in cockpits made of soapboxes.  They didn’t have real machines to spare in training—they were too valuable off dealing death—but skills honed with dowels and boxes could translate to most working cockpits of the near future.   We have a similar task ahead—to prepare students to navigate a space using versions of tools that might follow a familiar model, but that also change shape and application in our very hands.
 
It is clearly essential to create a digital literacy.  But in exercises designed to do so, the tools in focus needn’t/shouldn’t be an Office suite, a browser, engine, or the hot new web-based app that’s this month’s successor to PowerPoint.  A toolkit that specific will not hold in the long term.  Instead, the tools we hand off to student writers in a digital space should be (could they be?) timeless, universal, and just precise enough to concern us with the end.  In this case the means are unruly, but the end—to hear and to be heard—is as common as the cold.

Filmmaking, like most other pursuits, is enhanced by digital tools in that it democratizes the form—requirements of camera, crew, filming, editing, and distribution are thrown out the window.  Home movies, once grainy, rough cut, and intentionally amateurish, have become incredibly slick.  With a cheap camera, an unremarkable computer, some ingenuity, and an afternoon to kill, virtually anyone can make a “million-dollar” Madmen era car ad for pennies on the “million-dollar”.  I started toying with filmmaking as an analogue for writing years ago, during a project for an elective film and literature class.  Myopic course description tossed aside, it quickly became a class about film as a medium for storytelling.  Early on, students wanted to make film as they watched it, but it took a few years for technology to catch up to a point in which I felt they could effectively do so.  In days before a kid could dump a half-hour of footage from their phone into a laptop, we experimented with some of the most rudimentary motion pictures available:  stop motion animation.
 
In the Film and Lit class, we start with a little history lesson of stop-motion filmmaking.  We view a few clips from Willis O’Brien (Missing Link, Creation, Lost World, King Kong) and few other luminaries.   We talk about the extensions to modern filmmaking, namely computer generated and captured images.  Students find it interesting that as soon as Steven Spielberg thought the tech had caught up, he makes a dinosaur film set on Kong’s island.  Later, after doubling the GNP of New Zealand with his hobbit movies, Peter Jackson throws all his capital into another Kong film, also full of dinosaurs.
 
In a class in which Film History isn’t as much of a concern, or to put it more to the point, in a class in which film geeks aren’t in as ample a supply, I often skip to the next step—the Post-It Flick Lab.  Students need access to a stack of post-it notes and a digital camera.  3×5 notecards work well, too, but I like the stickiness of the post-its.  I start by making a post-it note movie in front of them.  I have made one here at my desk as an example.  I start by setting up two stations—a place to draw, and a place to shoot.  They can be small and really close together.  I’ve included a pic of my shooting station.  I start with a post-it placed for reference, then set up the camera to focus on that space.  The camera can sit on a desktop, and the post-it attaches well to a book, wall, or box.  I’ve done the exercise with a shoebox as the stage, a post-it on one inside, and the camera on the other to add a little stability.
 
Student’s don’t need much to start their imaginations.  You simply want a simple figure that is easy to draw and recognize.  It can be a cyclical sort of thing (think of a galloping horse) or something with a start and an end.  In front of the students, I take about ten shots, with a little scribbling and erasing in between.  When I take my post-it down, the reference sheet underneath keeps it in the center.  Once I have the pics, I insert them into my moviemaker software (standard with pc and mac/free elsewhere), adjust the transition speed, save, and upload to YouTube.  The film above is a common result.

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