Clay And Animation Class

In Lynn Pass's clay and animation class, students learn the benefits of painstaking attention to detail as they build 3D clay characters and create film animations-one frame at a time. Most student film animations total two minutes, including the titles and credits, and the film playback speed is 30 frames per second. A little multiplication shows this effort is no small feat.

"It takes a great deal of patience, because it's 30 frames per second," says Pass "You have to make sure everything is perfect."

Crafting characters

Students begin with a facial expressions assignment in which they create a clay head and adjust the figure to portray seven different emotions: surprised, happy, angry, sad, frightened, bored, and a blank face. The students use mirrors to study how the face appears when expressing these emotions.

"They need to be able to show emotion," Pass says. "If the characters are blank, if they don't blink their eyes, then people watching them can't really relate."

Pass calls the next assignment the Talking Head. The students make a clay head that says "Hello Bob, my name is [insert a name]. See you later." Those sentences involve almost all the different mouth movements, and students learn to pay special attention to when teeth and tongues show.

In the walking assignment, the students examine how body weight transfers during walking. They use mirrors and act in front of one another to demonstrate how a body moves or gets from one point to another. In essence, it's a lesson in kinesiology.

The students make a skeleton out of wire and add tinfoil and clay around the wire frame to create a character. "They have to make sure the clay is not so heavy that it'll fall apart or break when they make the character walk. So we use tinfoil in the heads of the clay characters that have bodies," Pass says.

The students also complete homework assignments and participate in discussions that help them identify the elements of a good story and interesting characters. For example, Pass requires the students to keep idea books, where they write about movies, television shows, or books that have affected them. They identify what intrigued them. They write character sketches that include what the characters like to do in their free time, who their friends are, what kind of music they listen to, what their job is, and what kind of food they like to eat. "This helps the students to make their characters multidimensional," Pass says.

Storyboards and sets

At this point, the students form small groups of four to five. They share storylines, determine a group theme, and write character sketches and personality descriptions. Then it's time for detailed storyboards and set designs-the blueprint to making their film.

The students must include camera directions in their storyboards, and Pass uses class discussions and homework assignments to help students learn this aspect of filmmaking. "We talk about different types of shots-pans, zooms, fades, wipes, the whole thing," Pass says. "These are things they don't necessarily notice when they're watching a television show, so another assignment I give them is to watch a television show for 15 minutes and every time the scene changes they have to document the type of movement of the camera. They're amazed at how hard that is to do. I've actually had them do it from a tape because they always have to stop it."

In addition, students also must analyze why the shot was used. "Why did they go in for a close-up on the person's face at that certain point in the television show? What was the purpose? They can then use that knowledge when they're making a clay animation film," Pass says. This study also helps students examine popular culture and how creators manipulate the thought processes of the viewer.

Students use their set designs to determine the rooms and props they need to build. "The little things really make a difference with the animation-for example, putting pictures on the wall in the set," Pass says. Most students use a wooden set that has a floor, solid back wall, and two movable side walls so they can adjust the lighting as needed. Students create their own set walls and tape them to the wooden pieces so that all the elements remain sturdy during filming.

"I'm amazed at the ingenuity of the students," Pass says. "Kids who normally are not very interested in school often come in with innovative props that they built over the weekend to create a special effect."

She especially recalls one student who built a complex wooden tool that allowed him to film a hand-painted explosion in 14 different stages and create the effect of a magician appearing out of a cloud of smoke. The prop was placed in front of the clay character and then, one by one, various sheets of plastic were filmed as the character was positioned behind the plastic and painstakingly moved bit by bit. This same group created movement in a river by inventing a method in which they slid a painted sheet of water about a quarter of an inch at a time underneath their cardboard and papier mache bridge and hills.

Capturing and editing

Prior to production, Pass reviews the storylines and storyboards with each group, and the rest of the class also offers suggestions. After the students have finalized their storyboards and constructed their sets, filming begins.

The Video LunchBox frame-grabber tool from Animation Toolworks forms the linchpin of the filming process. The device connects to an analog video camera, a monitor, and a VCR. Students use the camera to frame a shot, the Video LunchBox to grab the shot, and the monitor to review it. Frame by frame, moving just a finger's width each time, the students shoot their video.

The Video LunchBox, in conjunction with the monitor, lets students instantly review a previous frame before capturing the next image. Students also can see a ghost image of the previous frame so they can determine whether the movement was too large, too small, or just right. The Video LunchBox that Pass uses can hold up to 512 frames.

When the students are satisfied with the scene, they record it onto videotape. To edit their footage into a film, students first convert the analog data to digital using digital video converters. Then their work continues on computers.

When the class began, students edited using two PCs that ran Pinnacle Systems Studio MP10 and Studio DC10 software. Now, most students use the classroom's three Apple iMac computers loaded with Apple iMovie video editing software.

iMovie lets students edit their footage and add sound effects, voiceovers, music, transitions, and titles. Students collaborate in groups as they contemplate what options work best to achieve a desired effect. They experiment with disguising their voices for the characters and discuss what type of music fits the mood of the piece they're creating.

"There's a great deal of give and take during the editing process, and a great deal of laughter and fun," Pass says. "It's like magic, seeing how all of the work and effort and creativity come together in the final product. The pride in their work is evident-especially at the end of some semesters when we're pressed for time and many students sign up to come in and finish the editing after they receive their grades for the class."

When they've completed their films, the students can export them to DVD, or they can run the data back through the converter and onto videotape.

Keeping pace

Up-to-date equipment is key to the course's success. "We now have a greater ability to actually follow through and have them finish in good time and with good quality because the equipment isn't constantly stopping and hindering progress," she says. "We're also more realistic about the time issue."


Pass gives the students a grading sheet for each assignment, and they evaluate their own work. For example, following the Talking Head assignment, students must answer questions such as: Did you create a head? How easy is it to tell what your talking head is saying? When he's saying "Bob" are the lips going together?

"I have them talk along with it, and then we grade it together," Pass says. "If there's a disagreement, we discuss the particular issues involved. I have found that this type of grading works quite well with my subject area. When the goals are clearly outlined from the onset, students are very adept at evaluating themselves."

Lea Anne Bantsari is a freelance writer and editor in West Linn, Oregon.

Reaching Many Students

The clay and animation class meets several national standards for arts instruction, including the creation of artworks that employ the elements and principles of design to solve specific visual arts problems. Students must pay attention to elements such as line, texture, form, shape, and movement to create a successful finished product. During the class, students observe how artworks differ visually, spatially, and temporally. They must reflect on their own aesthetic views, and they learn to use a process of critique.

In the process of developing clay animations, the students explore many areas in addition to art: story writing, the physics of movement, facial expressions, 3D set building, and the effect of light on objects and mood. They gain cineliteracy-an understanding of the language of film-by studying film or TV shows. Students must learn the technology of filming and the process of editing on a digital system. Creating films also involves math and music as well as collaboration among students.

"Although it's a heavy technology investment, I think Lynn's class is something that K-12 teachers could use in the classroom," says Karen Mitchell, co-chair of the West Linn High School fine and performing arts department and teacher of TV and film classes. "It requires so many different types of skills. I would urge any teacher of any grade level to look into the kind of program that Lynn is doing."

The class at West Linn High School is open to all students and has offered greater opportunity for hands-on involvement with art and technology. "The class has been a success for students at all levels of the spectrum, and group learning encourages students to relate to each other in a very helpful, positive way," Pass says.

Several life-learner students with significant intellectual disabilities as well as students who often need additional assistance in classes have done well in Pass's clay and animation course.

"This is a class in which these students have been able to see themselves as successful learners," Pass says. "It's been really great to see the other kids stepping up and helping them from wherever they are to progress and get something out of it, whether it be socialization, movement, or creation in three dimensions. For some kids, the tactile part is really important."

In the midst of all this, Pass sees herself as a mentor and catalyst for her students. "We work together, experimenting, questioning, and bouncing ideas off of one another," she says.

Pros lend a hand. During the first year that Pass offered the animation course, four employees from Vinton Studios in Portland visited the class and shared some of their stop-motion and clay animation techniques. Vinton Studios, founded by Will Vinton of Claymation fame, has developed TV shows such as The PJs and Gary & Mike as well as animated characters such as the California Raisins and talking M&Ms.

"They were really helpful," Pass says. "They explained how the use of wooden beads for eyeballs allows animators to move the eyes around in the head for a livelier look. They revealed that melting the clay in a double boiler helps mix the colors more thoroughly and easily. They used the students' own characters to demonstrate making smooth movements. And, an animator for The PJs disclosed how his team achieves many of the show's special effects. The Vinton employees also offered suggestions for equipment.

Extended reach. Several students have seen their clay animations reach audiences beyond the classroom. Local public access television stations have used several clay-animation public service announcements created by students. The clay-animation films of two students recently were included in the International Student Original Film Art (SOFA) festival.

At the end of each semester, Pass's students complete a course evaluation, answering questions such as, What did you like about the class? What did you learn? What would you change? What would you do differently if you were the teacher? Among all the students, "I have so much respect for animators now," is a common reply.

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