Home > Digital Design, Video > Teacher Hack: Easiest Method on How To Learn and Teach Animation

Teacher Hack: Easiest Method on How To Learn and Teach Animation


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This is the fastest, best way to learn animation and teach it to any age student. File this under Hack to School: I adapted a 3D stop motion animation app to make 2D hand-drawn cartoons using a tablet computer. A smartphone can also be used, but the smaller screen size will make the process more difficult. This method is easy, gets quick results and is fun. This is a great way to combine hand-made art for painting and drawing with digital skills. I found that kids came up with ideas and completed their drawings on a varying timeline so a whole classroom of students were able to share a single tablet and everyone made a cartoon. Enthusiastic go-getters made more than one cartoon.

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The real benefit of adapting the 3D stop motion app for making cartoons is a primary feature by which each shot you take shifts to a “ghost image” or “onion skin image”. You take a picture, it becomes very transparent, you see the stage with your art through the frame which you just shot, you move your object and take another picture. This way, you create the frames that give animation its motion. You can play around with lighting and dimensional objects, too. I was focused on this project to create hand-drawn cartoons; most people using this type of app are making DIY Robot Chicken or LEGO stop motion animations.

Creating frames becomes a patience test for children. They tend to want to make their whole cartoon in five shots so this is where you need to step in and teach process. Using flip books -I had the Hero Bear and the Kid comic drawing flip book and a Muybridge photography flip book- was a good way to demonstrate how many frames only give seconds of motion. The key is coming to understand FPS (frames per second). Now it is time for math to hang out with art! At the lowest, you need 12 -13 FPS to have the illusion of motion. About 18 – 25 FPS is ideal. Disney and higher end animation studios topped out their traditional animation at 28-30 FPS. If you go above 30 FPS, the animation freezes. So, at a pretty decent 20 FPS a six second cartoon would take 120 shots. Also, the amount the character moves on the stage relative to the number of frames – wide jumps or slow walks- play into how the finished animation works. One app I tried had a slider bar that allowed the finished collection of frames to be sped up or slowed down.

It helps if the students create a storyboard to plan an idea for their cartoon. This also feeds into the idea of process: having a planning stage. My students were as young as first grade up to sixth grade. Many were not too wild about the planning stage.  Many of them, even very young children, had surprisingly high end smartphones so if they want to noodle around with a 3D animation app on their own time, direct them to the one you are teaching or a comparable app.

I had them create both characters and backgrounds for their narratives. Making the characters is the most important part: each one needs to work like a paper doll, with hinged areas for all moving limbs such as arms, legs, tails, wings – any moving part needs to be drawn, cut out and moveable. I made the flying bird on a calendar page as a fast example to show the students. They could hold the little red paper bird, its two wings and the background. Making your own mini project to demonstrate and allowing the students to handle the components helped them grasp having separate limbs for character movement.

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This project is great because it attracts students who are not interested in art for its own sake. The student now has a greater purpose for drawing and painting: to make the cartoon. I also experienced that this project was helpful to engage boys, some of whom as young as the first grade openly told me “art is for girls” and declined to participate in art lessons. I did not expect to run into the Expression Gap in boys as young as six years old, but I did; and they were sadly programmed with enough sexism that they refused to make not only crafts but fine art, even in traditional media. I found that having a project that involves movement, hand tools and technology usually attracted them to doing a particular project; incorporating digital technology into a lesson worked well.

Creating the art should not be rushed. I advised students that their assets were very important. If the background looked rushed, if the characters were poorly drawn, then the cartoon would look bad. I didn’t sugarcoat it either, and told the kids flat out that is their art looks like crap then their cartoon would look like crap. The cartoon can only be as good as the assets created for it. Students were really eager to get their hands on the iPad to try the project and there were a number of pieces where they colored their work in a rough, ragged fashion to crank out the assets as fast as possible. I tried to encourage to slow down and do their best work. Maybe consider making two projects: a shorter introduction to get the eagerness to try the process out of the way and then challenge students to make a longer, more complex, sophisticated animation. The shorter project will reveal errors like big jumps of characters and other slips.

Use a table top for creating the animation art board. Have the tablet above the table -a tripod and adapter to hold the tablet is very helpful- and put a diffuse light on each side. An ideal setup looks like this with the tablet on a tripod mount over the art board:

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Important tips for success:

  • Test the 3D animation app before you throw it at students. Test an app before you buy it and look at reviews. The apps are not all created equally. There are an array of free and low-cost for iPad and Android tablets but a wide range of features. The sample animation with the red bird at the top was a free app but did not allow export of the video file and maxed out at 360p resolution, which is as low as video goes. Low cost stop motion apps run about $5 – $10 for the full program, so the software is very affordable.
  • Art supplies do not need to be very expensive. Construction paper, markers and crayons work well for the lowest cost. Cardstock paper or bristol is nice for a heavier weight paper which is nice for characters. Tagboard, watercolor paper or illustration board could be nice for painted backgrounds.
  • If characters are hard to see, if they have light colors or pastel shades, a dark black outline for the characters will make them “pop” and more visible for photography.
  • Use compact flourescent light bulbs in desk lamps for your lighting so they are not hot to the touch. You do not want to have a skin burn or blister for the sake of trying to make a cartoon.
  • Use white tissue paper taped over the lamps to diffuse the light and avoid harsh cast shadows.
  • Tripod mounts for an iPad / tablet can be found online. I found models for as low as $30; the mount holds the tablet and attaches to the foot of the tripod.
  • Also consider weighing the tripod down with a heavy sand bag so it cannot be easily tipped over by a hand reaching back and forth to adjust the characters and touch the screen to take a photo. Tape down any cords on the table that can get yanked or cords on the floor that can be tripped over.
  • Patience helps! Moving characters and taking a shot over and over again is really repetitive. It is easy to get your hands in the frame of the cartoon because you took a shot before getting your hands clear. Maybe trying say the steps out loud: “move, shoot, clear” to make each step distinct and form a habit of keeping the artist’s hands out of frame. It helps if the app allows you to delete a frame and back up to shoot again. Also, it works best to shoot the whole cartoon or at least the whole scene in one session so that you are not trying to align your work where you left off from a prior session.
  • Do post production in a video editing program like iMovie or Premiere, etc. Most of the apps are compact; they are an overall small file size for the program, and the audio features for syncing sound to the animation are low quality and/or difficult to use. Most of the apps have you use the tablet’s microphone to record while the animation plays. It is very annoying and slow, the audio quality is often poor; so export a saved file of the animation and do all audio in a video editing program.
  • Your video editor should allow for multiple soundtracks, so put any music on one track and foley (sound effects) on a different track. There are many free sound effects on AudioMicro that you can download and use.
  • If the video is very short (like a few seconds) consider looping it in your video editor to make it longer such as Gabby’s Disco Snowman above.
  • A digital recorder is helpful for recording spoken dialogue for characters. Use a free audio editing program like Audacity to edit sound and create files (export files) for use with your video editor. Encourage kids to make their own foley and music.
  • Free music (open source, no royalties) should be used to avoid copyright infringement. There are some sites that have free music on this prior post. Unless students are making their own music, introducing the to open source works is also a good way to bring up the issue of piracy and intellectual property theft, what Fair Use is and how it relates to parody. Remember, teaching children to commit digital piracy is bad!

It would be great to see older students try this project. Who has not thought about how cool it would be to make their own cartoon? I bet junior high school and high school students would do great with this project. This project is so intuitive and simple anyone can try it. I loved working out how to do this project and making the rapid bird demo. The only downside is having access to a tablet with a camera since they are as expensive as laptops and not every teacher or school has one. I don’t own a tablet but I am going to be able to borrow one as of this month and will definitely do a stop motion 2D animation in the future.

This project has additional benefits, not does it teach planning and process, but it also shows the complexity of making an animation. Tell students that the movie length animation they like, especially an older hand-drawn one but surely also the computer animations, are good because thousands of people work on each movie for years. You will see the awe in their eyes when that thought sinks in.

Short link this article: bit.ly/1WDDVo5

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Categories: Digital Design, Video
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