Secondary Secondary Technology

Animate your lessons!

Too often, the first unwelcome obstacle a teacher has to overcome when entering the classroom is the inertia of disaffected students, students who arrive expecting to be bored and, as is generally the case with self-fulfilling prophecies, who get exactly what they expect (and, some might say, deserve!).   This is not to say that your lesson is in any way uninteresting.  In all probability, you will have given it considerable thought, possibly having worried about it all weekend, but, let’s face it, if your students arrive with such a profoundly negative attitude, then you really are up against it!

So what can be done?

One solution is to open with an exciting starter activity which raises the emotional level of the class and thus, hopefully, ignites a spark of enthusiasm which will propel them through the rest of the period.

Animation is one way of creating that spark … as, I hope, the accompanying four minute animated film, ‘Fire!’, will illustrate. The objective of this film is to introduce an intensive session about what students should look for when faced with the challenging task of responding to a GCSE English examination question which requires them to analyse a writer’s use of language in order to create effects.

Download class activity plan here

Download ‘Fire’ lyrics here

If you have a quick look at this animation, and then compare it against the high-tech, high budget productions of internationally renowned film companies, you will immediately realise that it is certainly not Pixar-perfect!  However, I have tried and tested it in class and, despite the fact that I have only been competing with Pixar, Disney and DreamWorks for the past eight months, never having made a film of any description prior to March 2012, it certainly grabs the attention of my students – not least because they are often excited (one might even say animated) by the fact that I made it.  And this leads to such questions as:  ‘How did you do it?’, ‘Did you write the song?’ and ‘Is that you singing?’  Well, it certainly isn’t me singing but, at this point in the proceedings, it doesn’t much matter because we are all sufficiently enthused to progress with the rest of the lesson.

So just in case you are interested in spending some of your spare time pushing the boundaries of both your teaching and your creativity, just how do you do it?

Well, your first task is to download a free trial version of a suitably powerful and affordable animation programme.  You could make a web search in order to see what is available.  The one I use is a 3D programme called iClone Pro 5 and the 30 day trial version is available from:

http://www.reallusion.com/iclone/iclone_trial.aspx

Once you open the programme, it will offer you the option of surfing through some of the online tutorials (on the Training Resource tab) which contain relatively simple projects designed to familiarise you with the iClone workspace.  This is well worth doing – otherwise, you will be faced with the daunting task of somehow bringing life out of a most visually unappealing putty-grey screen. Below is the link to the tutorials bank should you wish to peruse it:

 

http://www.reallusion.com/reallusiontv/ic/tutorial.asp

Of course, if you are animating, you will also need to experiment with sound.  The soundtrack to ‘Fire’ was initially recorded on a Yamaha PSR 8000 synthesiser but the vocal was remixed on a totally free recording programme called Audacity:

http://audacity.sourceforge.net/

Audacity includes many first class editing tools and special effects and, most importantly, enables multi-track recording – so you don’t have to get your performance right in one take, which can be very frustrating when trying to record a five minute script which, through nerves, you keep botching in the final paragraph!  Once successfully recorded, there is the facility to export your masterpiece as an mp3 file which can then be imported into iClone.

Another very useful iClone product, again available on a trial basis, is 3D Exchange:

http://www.reallusion.com/iclone/3dx/3dx_trial.aspx

This programme allows you to make use of the thousands of free 3D models created and uploaded by animation enthusiasts.  These are available from the Google 3D warehouse:

http://sketchup.google.com/3dwarehouse

iClone 3D Exchange will enable you to select from this massive range of content and then convert your chosen 3D models into iClone files which can then be imported into your animations.  In my film, ‘Fire!’, the shimmering silver moon and the sleek and stylish Dodge Viper GTS are courtesy of the creative talents of such generous enthusiasts. The alternative, of course, is to make all your own models – but that could prove to be very time-consuming … and could we well be regarded as over-stretching the boundaries of dedication!

A further useful piece of software to consider is a text to speech (TTS) programme such as Natural Reader or Neo Speech.  If, like me, your voice is so uninspiring to listen to that you certainly wouldn’t want to subject your students to it more than once, this could be the perfect solution for you.  Such programmes allow you to convert text into one of a number of very convincing speaking voices with accents which can range from US to UK and German to Arabic.  So, for example, let’s say that you teach history and you want to bring Karl Marx to life.  iClone would enable you to create a Karl Marx look-alike avatar and your TTS software would allow you to paste in quotes from the great man himself which, for argument’s sake, you might have copied from the Internet.  Your TTS software could then articulate these in a genuine, if rather heavy, German accent – so subtitles might be advisable!  As with Audacity, your TTS software should then allow you to convert your sound file to mp3 which you can then import into iClone and thus allocate to your Karl Marx avatar:

‘History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce’ … and thirdly, of course, as animation!

Natural Reader can be found at:

http://www.naturalreaders.com/index.htm

And Neo Speech can be found at:

https://ondemand.neospeech.com/

Again, as with iClone, you can try before you buy.

Finally, you will need a video editing programme such as Windows Live Movie Maker (but, if your computer is reasonably new, do have a quick check that it has not already been bundled in with your operating system – it was with mine):

http://windows.microsoft.com/is-IS/windows-live/movie-maker-get-started

You will have to save each change of camera or each change of scene in iClone as a separate file and then render (export) each file, preferably as an AVI file with MJPEG compression.  Windows Live Movie Maker will then enable you to stack each of these exported scenes in the order that you would like them to appear in the finished film.  It will also enable you to meld them together via such neat transitions as ‘Fade in’, ‘Cross fade’ and ‘Flip’.

If you feel daunted by the prospect of familiarising yourself with so many new programmes, then you might initially begin by experimenting with only one; just download the trial version of iClone Pro 5 for now and see how you get on.  However, if you’re really pressed for time and even this seems a step too far, then why not simply take advantage of the thousands of animations (and other short films) that the ever-growing army of enthusiastic amateur (and professional) film directors regularly upload to Youtube.  Type your chosen topic into the search box and you might well be very pleasantly surprised by what is out there.

But if you are really are up for the challenge, animation is fun … and seriously addictive.  Furthermore, you can upload and publish your own creative output – on Youtube, of course.  So, if you are looking for a wildly creative new hobby that could open up all sorts of doors – real as well as virtual – then this might be the perfect holiday project for you!

 

Peter Morrisson

 

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