Design Work: animated movies

Animated video:


Remember Commoncraft Videos? For a while, they were all the rage in the educational-tech community. We were sharing those things back and forth, learning about Twitter and blogging and YouTube, and how to create videos, and … and … and.  That was… what, four years ago? Five? Then they sort of dropped off my radar, and I went on to other things.

At the time I was an active consumer of them, but I hadn’t yet made the leap to visual literacy as a mission-critical skill for modern students. And I can date the beginning of that shift to August of 2009.  Which means it’s been six years since that fateful introduction to one of the core competencies of my own ideas about Design Thinking.  More on that some other time.  And then I started coming across resources on making RSAnimate style videos, and Commoncraft-style videos:

For today, though, know that I’m currently prototyping an after-school program for my school in how to make Commoncraft videos, with a couple of students as assistants, in the summer school program.  My students and I decided that we would do Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  Wow, were we in for a ride.  We’ve developed seven scenes to this short film, from Goldilocks lost in the woods to the bears coming home, and we’ve developed… what, about fifty small illustrations in Sharpie marker for this project so far.  That’s pretty good!  I imagine we’ll need another 20–30 such drawings to finish this project before our time is up this week.  And we’ve only put about 6 minutes of footage into our digital vault — which means we have another two to three days of work… which means our final film project will be around three and a half minutes in length (I already know that of that six minutes of footage, three minutes will be unusable… I figure the same will hold true for the next two days).

Animated video: A lost goldilocks
Amazing what you can do with some simple linework, really.

I have to admit, the students have not done many of the drawings here.  A good many of them are mine.  They’re certainly helping with the process of making the film, but I’m doing a good deal of the work. This time.

What have I learned?

First of all, this is challenging.  The kids barely know what they’re doing; and I barely know how to guide them forward, because I’m doing it with them — not exactly for the first time, but certainly for the first time with a team to work with.

Second of all, this is hard work. When I was a college student, it was not uncommon to put two hours into a five-page paper for a class, or something like 15 hours into a research project of some kind.  This project, when it’s finished, is going to be around 10 hours of labor from me, and 6 hours apiece from two students — twenty-two hours.

Third, it’s not shortenable. Yes, I know that’s not a word.  But surprisingly there hasn’t been much wasted time on this project.  Wasted time would actually make this project take longer than it has to run, this week. It would require all of the time we had, and more, to do it badly or slowly.  And we haven’t even had that much research time.

Fourth, the skills are not transferrable.  Just because I can learn to draw Goldilocks from scratch, just because I can do a passable Mama Bear in 3 minutes, doesn’t mean that my students can do so.  As I said above, it’s been six years since I realized/recognized with Dave Gray’s and Josh’s help that Visual Thinking Skills are mission-critical.  But now I’ve been drawing pictures of Goldilocks for two days, and my students are still hung up on getting the sizes of Papa, Mama and Little Bear all right and proportional. That took me six years of part-time practice to learn.  Start now, if you think this is an important skill — you have six years of catching up to do.  And I have six years of teaching to do before my students will be able to do what I can do.  And I have six more years of training to do before I will be anywhere near as good as I’d like to be.

Seven — and this is really where the work of this animated movie class starts to bite me, only two days in — Educators want students to develop the powers of abstraction that come from Design Thinking.  But Design Thinking culture is actually resting on the backs of some fairly toxic behaviors, as this article (NSFW, really, particularly the references and links that follow from this expletive-laced commentary) makes clear.

And while our aggrandising of bullshit through language is both notorious and aggravating, we aggrandise bullshit even more-so by our actions:

  • We spend our time and energy not on things that improve the lives of people around us in an honest fashion, but on whatever seems most profitable and tempting to VCs; then, we convince ourselves that our profit-centric ventures are actually humanitarian causes because it sounds really good in the press and makes us feel special and warm and fuzzy. (It also makes people trust us more than they should, which is great for profits.)
  • We start companies just to flip them, taking consumers along for the joy-ride only to finish things off with a “we’re so thrilled to announce we’re moving on…” blog post, as if it wasn’t our plan to use people and their data as stepping stones to selling out the whole time.

These are not behaviors that we, as educators, want to be inculcating into the next generation of students — we don’t want them growing up pretending to work on humanitarian causes while actually being out for themselves; and we don’t want them growing up to treat people as means instead of ends.  That is, we don’t want students to grow up pretending that they care about other people when they don’t.  In short, we would like them to grow up to be something, someone, other than Goldilocks…  who invades people’s private domains, takes their food, dishevels and destroys their property, and makes use of their worldly goods and material, before departing, frightened away by discovery.  From the perspective of Goldilocks, of course, her behavior is completely normal — she was alone, frightened, hungry, etc., but from the Bears’ perspective, she is an intruder and a robber who feared their ursine appearance far more than was warranted (and I’m kind of annoyed that my students colored in my line drawings… but it’s interesting that they chose brown, no?)

Mike Monteiro addressed this in How Designers Destroyed the World, too:

Webstock ’13: Mike Monteiro – How Designers Destroyed the World from Webstock on Vimeo.

Coming back to the questions of Makery vs. Abstract Thinking that preceded this digression on the toxicity of designer culture, though, I want to touch on some challenging things here.  This project is twenty-ish hours of face-to-face labor: for many classes, that’s weeks of in-class time.

Animated video: Goldilocks, Running Away
A frightened Goldilocks. And I didn’t even draw her!

It requires access to paper, to video cameras, to scissors, to markers.  It requires access to a whiteboard or other white surface that can be used for the video.  It requires good lighting.  There’s a whole host of pre-requirements that are concrete, specific, and only partially-negotiable.  If you, the teacher, can’t provide those basic tools, then this project isn’t going to be much fun — and that’s assuming the team collaborates.

But the abstract thinking skills that many educators want to see developed, are present in this project… the challenge is that they’re deeply embedded in the work itself. There’s no getting around that basic issue — kids are going to learn the abstract thinking skills in the course of very concrete, very specific issues.  How does one represent Goldilocks running away, frightened?  How does one represent curiosity? What does a surprised face look like?

And a traditional teacher, in a traditional classroom — particularly a teacher in a traditional classroom who’s governed by expectations that their students will perform well on the test! — can’t let this much instructional time go by, used in this way.  It’s unconscionable to him or her that this be allowed in the classroom, because it’s much fuzzier and complicated in trying to evaluate the results.

But now that I’ve run even half of an animated movies class, I have a much better idea of what needs to happen, and how it needs to be done, and what the challenges are.  I get the sense that 50 drawings are going to work better than ten. I know that it’s going to take kids time to develop fifty drawings, and that parts of this project need to run in the background to other kinds of work.  That — in a classroom setting — some of this work is homework, where each kid develops one character, and draws it 10-15 times, happy, sad, running, falling, lying down and so on… that each kid develops a color palette for each character… and so on.  Only the making of videos needs to happen in a classroom setting.


I’m so far from understanding all of the ins and outs this project is going to have to go through, really.  I’ve made the beginning of the work, though.  And I’ve learned that there is much more that I have to learn about making this style of movie.  But I also know that there’s plenty of useful knowledge here for any student in the modern world, and plenty that even a medieval student of the 12th century might have found useful, in terms of the necessary exercise in creating visually-interesting drawings or cartoons.

In the meantime, though, there’s a movie to finish.  I’m sure I’ll say more eventually on the subject of this film.  But this is likely enough for now.

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