The common room of the Chilmark School rustled with popcorn bags and whispers on Friday afternoon as the entire school, kindergarten through fifth grades, prepared to become the audience for their own animated films. The projector screen lit up and animated puppets hula-hooped, built forts, played four square, shared snacks and engaged in lively dialogue about conflict, compromise and cooperation.
The films were created as part of a collaboration between the school and Cinema Circus, the kid-focused arm of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival (MVFF). An integral part of the Wednesday night lineup of the MVFF’s summer series, Cinema Circus is entering its fifth season as a weekly summer festival event engaging families with a mini-circus and an hour of international short films for children. The Chilmark school project is a part of Cinema Circus’s new education initiative, now in its second year and spearheaded by MVFF Director of Children’s Programs (and Chilmark school mom) Lindsey Scott.
“Technology being as pervasive as it is in our culture right now, and the moving picture being such a prevalent form of communication, really requires kids to be skillful — skillful in interpreting media, skillful in making media,” Mrs. Scott said. “What we’re trying to do is empower kids to be able to use these kinds of tools to express themselves. We’re asking kids to think about what they’re watching using critical thinking, using extrapolation, using inference to decode what they’re seeing . . . building the same literacy experience that we teach when we’re teaching reading and writing, but with a digital media.”
Mrs. Scott, who has a master’s in education, designed the curriculum for the Stop Animation Workshop at the Chilmark School. She and Cinema Circus programming director Brian Ditchfield visited the school once a month during whole-school activity time. All grades came together to learn and discuss basic film literacy concepts like story progression, filming techniques and shots, audience reaction and setting. Animation was the topic of another lesson, and students discussed how to apply what they knew about film into this medium. After this educational foundation, it was time for film production.
Students from all grades were broken up into seven groups and, with guidance from Mrs. Scott and Mr. Ditchfield, school teachers led them in writing dialogue, storyboarding, sound recording, set design and filming. Some group tasks were divided up by grade — the kindergarten through third graders wrote the dialogue and were the puppeteers, and the fourth and fifth graders were the directors and the tech and camera crews for which they received special training on using the software. Everyone participated in recording dialogue in iMovie and creating the movie sets.
Animation was achieved using an application for iPad called iStopMotion. Students would take a sequence of pictures, changing the positioning of the characters and props ever so slightly in each frame. Cinema Circus bought iPads and equipment for the project, thanks to the generosity of a private donor.
“Not only did they work in teams of all ages, they learned that everyone has something to offer in a group project like this,” said school principal Susan Stevens. “[The students] can see how everyone’s personality can lend to different roles and those students who aren’t natural leaders can shine and those who are . . . can be useful as directors.”
Students were eager to be their own critics after they watched the films.
“I thought the sound effects worked really well,” said third grader Emmett Favreau, raising his hand after the films ended.
“They turned out good, but I might have moved the characters little by little in smaller movements,” says Clyde Smith, grade two. Clyde was alluding to the frames per second of the stop motion animation film he worked on. The more frames captured per second, the more seamless the animation appears. To match sounds with action, students captured seven frames per second, and most of the movies ended up with around 200 frames.
Fourth and fifth graders Imogene Taylor, Thea Keene and Kiera McCarthy worked on direction and photography in their films.
“I liked taking the pictures,” said Kiera. “That was the best part.”
“The best part was hanging out with the kids,” said Imogene, who was a director. When asked about working in a group and possible conflicts of vision, the girls were positive.
“We would work it out, everybody saying what the best idea was,” said Imogene.
“Or doing a little bit of both,” added Thea.
The Chilmark School project is part of Cinema Circus’s growing educational mission. Last year Mr. Ditchfield and his wife, Brooke Hardman-Ditchfield, ran a program with fourth graders at the West Tisbury School with live action filming. Students wrote scripts, filmed and acted in scenes about Aesop’s Fables. The program continued this year with another curriculum-based project about animal adaptation that incorporated film and theatre. The project was done in association with Art Farm Enterprises, of which Ms. Hardman-Ditchfield is the director. Cinema Circus has also been part of the mentorship program at the Charter School. And this winter and spring, the group ran two film education programs for preschoolers at the Oak Bluffs and Chilmark libraries.
“In the preschool I think about it as engaging their whole body in the film, asking them to put on their thinking caps, screw in their observant eyes and buckle in their hearts, so they’re not just passively watching, they’re thinking and listening and observing and feeling the story, the experience,” said Mrs. Scott. “That’s a foundational layer of critical thinking.”
The Cinema Circus crew is also excited to incorporate film education into its Wednesday nights at the Chilmark Community Center this summer. Using circus characters, a mini film set and the Island’s natural backdrop, they filmed a series of nine short films that address different topics of film literacy. Each short will air before the regular short film screenings, using the conceit that Prof. Projector (played by Scott Barrow) is getting ready for the Cinema Circus screening and gets interrupted by a host of characters, including a little duckling, who asks him questions about film.
“We saw an opportunity with our audience sitting there ready, and we thought not only is this our moment, a gathering of 200 people, to put on a great event, but we might as well slide a little medicine in . . . and deliver it in a way that’s palatable for kids,” said Mrs. Scott.
The first Cinema Circus takes place on Wednesday, June 26, beginning at 5 p.m. and continues each Wednesday throughout the summer. For more photos, see our gallery Lights Camera, Action: Chilmark School and Cinema Circus.