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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.

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

Okay, not great, but something limited to ten minutes.  Then, usually in small groups, I turn the rest of the class over to them.  I’ve been amazed at what kids can do with this sort of thing.  In an hour or less, they devise all manner of flicks, played out on a few dozen frames, consumable in 30 seconds.  In the film class, we would view the class submissions, critique, and then head back to the drawing board to make more ambitious stop motion films with models big and small.  I talk a bit about Brickfilm, show a couple of homemade Kongs (1&2), and send them on their way.  Above is an example of a film I made early on to illustrate possibilities involving special effects.

A similar stage setup was used here as with the post-its, and while more involved techniques were employed (some frame editing to remove my hand [badly], whiteboard animation, magic, etc.), the overall method remains the same.  At the end of the project, we upload film, have a festival, and a jury votes on winners of the Pine D’Or and the Silver Box Turtle.  Like any good show and tell, students are engaged, interactive, and just competitive enough to fuel some real creativity.  Your mileage may vary.

I have to stop here to give a shoutout to Digital Is contributors Paul Bogush, who gave excellent treatment to RSA Animate-style videos in the classroom, and Henry Cohn-Geltner, who discussed stopmotion variantions and methods with great detail. These resources cover some of the same ground that I’m treading here, but both Paul and Henry created resources masterfully wrought and practical.  Their detailed suggestions, which are recognizable from the perspective of my postit flicks, are graceful, experienced, and essential in helping steer clear of many of the pitfalls of this sort of creation. Attention to prior planning, analogous to scripting and storyboarding in film, has to be integral as to why these student products are so delightful.  Because the purpose of such text is to inform and perhaps persuade, I encourage students forming texts and presentation media to consider this approach.

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

By the end of the post-it flick lab, students can have two things.  One, they can post links on a shared document and see the whole season of postit movies made by classmates.  Two, they have rough tools to make all manner of video for documentary or narrative purposes.  As an example, I’ll look around and undoubtedly see an animation of trees growing up around a house, or a plant growing from seed, or something of the like.  The principle to illustrate here is that time can be sped up or drawn out relative to the subject—the cannon blast is short lived, whereas the tree animation captures decades of growth and change.

This ability to document change over time seems to be a perfect complement to a documentary approach.  In any process of making or doing, incremental change is taking place.  With a little planning and consistency, a series of carefully shot images could show a student’s spring garden breaking up from prepared ground or the brushwork involved in composing an image on canvas.  Coffee tables being built, cars or houses painted, high jumps increasing over a training period.  Here is a shoddy film of a roof being replaced.  Above is a short flick showing a plant being watered.  Here’s a better one.  As a text created alongside a research program, students making these sequential photoessays have the ability to think about change incrementally as it might be applied in process relationships like natural phenomena or goal attainment. This seems to be the most logical and effective application of this kind of filmmaking—presenting information in an effective order and context—either for narrative or rhetorical purposes.

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

In addition to a documentary approach, stop motion can also tell a story a bit more nuanced.  With the Tar River Writing Project, I recently participated in a toy hack led by the indomitable Stephanie West-Pucket.  For homework one day, we were to go home and find old toys to bring in the next day to fold, bend, mutilate, and repurpose.  At home that evening, I looked around and didn’t see much to fit the bill.  My son is 2 and still plays with everything we’ve ever bought him, and most of the toys I still have from childhood are quite dear to me.  Toy Story hits a little close to home, if you catch my drift.  Looking for some practical pursuit, I thought about my Kenner B@tman figure.  He was scuffed and had been missing an arm since I was ten, but his cape was still on, and paired with a R0bin and B@tmobile, he was just too good to let go.  Instead of taking him to class the next day and quartering him on the altar of hack, I decided to use whatever parts might be laying around from the other earnest hacking to try to restore him.  As I worked, I chose to document the process using stop motion.  The film above, which borrows from real events on that day, tells his story.

As with the shrinkray film, narrative sprung from what was available—a handful of toys, a landscape of parts and pieces, and the occasional human hand popping in to keep us grounded.  Even though I think what I did was “tinkering” instead of “hacking”, the results were happy—B@tman has a killer silver arm (that falls off a lot), and through my goofy movie I started thinking about the spectrum-straddling but complimentary pursuits of narrative and documentary.  When my students are looking for a kind of text that can get a point across, I’ll point them to a little easy filmmaking.

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