Visual Storytellers

Analyzing the elements of a good story, learning the language of film, tuning in to the movement of human face and body-these are just a few of the skills West Linn High School students practice when they combine art and digital video to create film and animation masterpieces. Under the direction of teachers Karen Mitchell and Lynn Pass, these students are achieving proficiency in the 21st century skill of visual storytelling.

The common goal of broadening the scope of fine arts and integrating digital tools drove Mitchell and Pass to craft hands-on TV and Film, and Clay and Animation classes that caught fire with students and have been steadily growing for the past five years.

Leadership played an important role in making this happen. The high school, located eight miles south of Portland, Oregon, is public and medium-sized with an enrollment of about 1600 students. It is part of a district that has long supported computers in the schools. By the early 1990s, teachers had computers in their classrooms for email and tasks such as attendance and grading. Use of computers in the classroom grew, and in 1997, a district-wide comprehensive technology plan and bond measure helped establish an overall strategy and greater funding. And following the introduction of courses such as those developed in the late 90s by Mitchell and Pass-who've made it their business to champion the cause-digital video is making greater inroads as well.

Fascination drives course development

Interestingly, these two technology pioneers neither grew up with technology nor felt particularly compelled by it prior to getting involved in this project. Mitchell's background is in theater arts, including the teaching of stagecraft, children's theater, and introductory acting classes. Pass was educated in the arts, but spent several years in general pediatrics, where she used play and art with children fighting cancer and blood diseases.

"In both our cases, these were subjects that fascinated us," Mitchell says of developing the new courses. "Lynn is fascinated by clay and storytelling with clay, and that's clay animation. And I always have been a film buff-not so much loving film celebrities but loving the art of film."

Teachers expand fine arts curriculum

Accessibility has been a driving force of the art and technology hybrid classes. Traditional art, with its emphasis on centuries old techniques, is often viewed by kids as "odd, snobby, and weird," in Mitchell's words. In contrast, the visual and hands-on nature of the new classes is the familiar stuff of MTV. Additionally, these classes provide an enjoyable and engaging balance to the rigors of high school academics, especially with the current emphasis on basic skills and testing.

Cultural trends provided further impetus for the new arts courses. "For years and years and years, as parents and teachers we have denied the popularity of film and TV and it's at our peril because they're not going to stop watching it," Mitchell says. "They love it. It's their medium. They are visual storytellers. It's where we are moving as a human culture. We were oral in the very beginning and then we were written storytellers and now we are visual storytellers. To pretend that it's not out there and to tell kids not to watch it is foolish."

Storytelling is a cornerstone of both courses. Pass requires her students to keep an idea book, where they identify their favorite stories, and class time includes discussions of what makes a good story. "The whole thing that holds it together, really, is having an idea or a vision or a story," she says.

Mitchell concurs: "That's why the old video production classes didn't work. You could give the kids the cameras and show them how to shoot, but unless they had a story to tell that they really cared about, nothing came out."

Means to an end

With today's rapidly changing technologies, Mitchell and Pass experienced a significant learning curve. "We're a walking ad for 'anybody can do this,'" Mitchell says. Being non-techies, the two were driven by a desire to accomplish a task, not by a love of technology. Says Mitchell, "You learn what you need to learn in order to do what you want to do."

And this attitude extends to the learning process for kids. "We didn't want the technology to get in the way of the creative process, but to have it work with us. The products are the kids' ideas and their vision," Pass says. "The technology helps them get there, which is great. They couldn't do it without the technology."

In Mitchell's TV and film class, students begin by analyzing films and discussing how film works as an art form. By the end of the semester, students have created their own music video and a 10-minute film using digital editing tools. (For details, see "Cultivating Cineliteracy" on page 18.)

Students in Pass's clay and animation course immediately dig into clay, experimenting with facial expressions, mouth movements, and body motion. They discuss storytelling as well as the different camera shots and transitions used in film. Then groups of students collaborate to develop storyboards, build sets, and capture footage frame by frame. Digital video technology helps the students pull it all together into a short animation.

Both classes incorporate art history, criticism, aesthetics, and production performance.

Sparked by a tool

The clay and animation course began to take shape when Pass received a flyer about the Animation Toolworks Video LunchBox frame-grabber tool, was intrigued, and had someone from the company demonstrate it. "Then the wheels started turning," Pass says.

Pass and her students rolled up their sleeves to raise the money they needed for the software and hardware that had captivated them. They sold cheese, worked concession stands, sold art cards, and held craft fairs, and after about a year made the money to purchase one system. She and the students raised $5000 to buy the video camera, Video LunchBox, VCR, and monitor.

The kids played with the system during lunch. "I would go down and get my lunch and I'd come back and see a banana from somebody's lunch sitting there on the screen and then all of a sudden it would start peeling itself and this little bug would be eating the banana," Pass recalls. "I thought, 'Wow, this could be an amazing class.'"

Pass proposed the idea of the animation class to the school principal, who told her she needed 25 students for a class to fly. "A hundred kids signed up for it," Pass says, "so, there definitely was the need and interest." When the principal asked whether Pass could teach the course with just one setup, Pass acknowledged many students would spend time waiting for access to the system. Some technology money was available through a program in which grocery stores contributed a percentage of each sale to the school of the shopper's choice. The principal told Pass, "Write it up and we'll get you another setup."

Mitchell's TV and film class came at technology integration through a different pathway. Not having their own technology, students relied on the video editing system of a local TV studio serving the community and schools in the county.

"Editing in the evenings and on weekends and then bringing their films back to the classroom was a frustration for them, but that way we got the class started," Mitchell says. When enrollment quickly reached 125 students, Mitchell had the evidence she needed to prove that students were interested in the course material and would travel to complete their assignments. That allowed her to request money for the in-house technology tools she needed.

At a time when tight budgets often mean significant cuts in arts departments, the technology angle has allowed Mitchell and Pass to expand their art curriculum. Again, having a supportive district dedicated to moving forward with technology has been key to their success. Pass explains, "Anything that prepares kids for the future is looked upon in a positive light."

Simpler is better

Finding the best technology to meet the needs of the classes took Mitchell and Pass through a trial-and-error process. "I almost gave up several times," Mitchell acknowledges. After struggling with PC-based systems, they decided the simpler the better and settled on the Macintosh platform.

"I'm not a huge fan of Macintosh, but now we're using the Macintosh system," Mitchell continues. "We buy iMacs that are loaded with iMovie. I'm not going to say it's error-free, because there are little glitches that happen, but every time something goes wrong the kids and I can figure it out quickly. They're able to capture, digitally edit, and export to either DVD or VHS. Now that's huge."

The only additional component Mitchell needs is a converter between analog and digital video, and for that she uses a Canopus ADVC-100 digital video converter. No separate video cards or sound cards.

"It's a beautiful way for teachers to get the technology right to the kids. When very few things go wrong, that frustration level is gone. So this is not an ad for Apple, but I think Macintosh does video editing the best," Mitchell says.

Students can produce effective animations and films by using software that lets them edit video, incorporate transitions, add sound (including voiceovers and music or sound effects from CD), create titles and credits, and play with some visual effects. Apple iMovie provides those functions. Mitchell's advanced film course will use the Apple Final Cut Pro nonlinear editing system, which provides more complex and sophisticated features.

Pass's students first used PC-based Pinnacle Systems Studio MP10 and DC10 video editing software. Now, most of the clay and animation students use iMovie editing software and the three iMac computers she has in her classroom.

Real world skills

As in the real world of work, collaboration happens naturally in Pass and Mitchell's classes. When it comes to troubleshooting and teamwork, traditional teacher-student lines blur, and often it's the student who comes to the aid of the teacher or to a peer. "When I've got three teams of kids at the computers, someone on one computer will have a problem and the kids on either side will help them solve it. Rarely do I have to go over there and solve problems for them. Someone will always know," Mitchell says.

"It's very collabroative and not all classes are that way," Mitchell continues, "I think for most students much of school is isolated and individual. You're not supposed to share your answers. You're not supposed to work together. It's your test scores, it's your grade, it's your work."


During the past four years, Mitchell and Pass have achieved their initial goals. Integrating technology helped attract a wider range of students to the art department. Their two courses have also proven a springboard for other art classes. For instance, recognizing that an essential building block to film and visual storytelling is a good photograph, some students will enroll in a photography course.

And really, Pass says, technology is just another tool for artists. "It hasn't changed the importance of making a good story. It's just like using the computer for graphic design. It's not a new concept, it's a new tool. So you're still working with color and value and balance and all those things. It's just a new tool to use, and a wonderful one."

Student passions

"Now, kids who ordinarily would not think of themselves either as artists or as computer people are able to do both and get very excited about what they're doing," Mitchell says. "I have kids who genuinely are filmmakers right now."

Sometimes students submit extra projects that stretch their creativity and the use of technology. For example, last spring some of Pass's students developed a 2D animation in addition to the required 3D animation. "It's about 10 minutes long and it's absolutely incredible," Pass says of the drawn, 2D animation. One student played all the music for it, and the team wrote some of the programs for the animation themselves.

"That's one of the exciting things," Mitchell says. "These kids-and each of us gets maybe two or three a year-get so excited about the concept and have the ability to go on and create bigger and better. They're writing their own programs, they're creating their own editing systems at home, they're doing it in their off time-it's what they do. While other kids are running off to parties and doing whatever kids do on weekends, these kids sit around on somebody's computer and make films."

On rare occasions, a single high school art class can change a student's direction. "We get some of the kids who are extremely talented as far as school goes," Pass says. "They're taking advanced placement everything and they feel that if they're going into the sciences or whatever, they have to take a lot of sciences as electives. And they don't allow themselves a lot of leeway. Then by their senior year they've done all these other classes and they try an art course."

Pass recalls one particular student: "I had this girl for just one semester-her last semester of her senior year. She saw me a few years later and said, 'I need to tell you this: I majored in art in college. I took your class. It was the only art class I took, and I was so excited....' It happens," Pass says.

"What we're both about is helping kids find a passion," says Mitchell. "It's not just what are you going to do for a job; it's not just reading, writing, and arithmetic. It's what is it that really excites you and what do you want to do for the rest of your life that gives you joy? A lot of kids end up wanting to be film editors or animators."

Concludes Pass, "We'll hear from them down the road for sure."

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

For More Info





International SOFA festival:

Pinnacle Systems:

Vinton Studios:

5 tips for teachers

Jump in with both feet.

Be willing to ask for help, and be willing to give help.

Ask the kids. Let them be the teacher. They usually know more about it than we do.

Keep your sense of humor.

Take a deep breath when the technology fails.

Read other articles from the November Issue