Computer class at summer camp. I had never thought that this would turn into a weeklong project about movie making, social skills, and story telling. In the context of an international summer camp, I recently worked with two teens, an eleven year old and a sixteen year old, both on the autism spectrum.
The context of our work together was computer class at an international summer camp, and as I started the class together with them, both students were more interested in being engaged separately on computers and playing games then interacting. One young man was older and spoke English quite fluently, and would launch into long explanations about games and the Internet. The other group member would look away from me when I greeted him, and preferred to interact with me only when talking about games.
I gave them the challenge of creating an animated film together. Through stop motion animation, the students used video as a tool to interact with each other, with me, and as a way to zero in on verbal and non verbal cues, both with their characters and with each other. We also used storytelling, storyboarding, and the creation of scenes as a way to model that a film, just like schoolwork or a problem has a beginning, middle, and an end, and can be broken down into easily achievable chunks. It was also their creation, and creating links into feelings of pride, happiness, and uniqueness.
We began each class with a warm up that had nothing to do with computers. We threw a ball back and forth to each other. The person who threw the ball asked a question, and the person who caught had to answer. The sixteen year old young man, P, had very high verbal skills in English, and was ready to ask very complicated questions to his classmate. Through the contact with the ball, T, the eleven year old, who was prone to looking away during social interaction, needed to watch the person throwing the ball to know if it was coming his way or not. P was able to get T’s attention but would lose him with a very long question in English, when T was a beginner in English. I asked P to look at T’s eyes and mouth as he asked his question to make sure that T followed him, and understood. I told him that he needed to think about things from T’s perspective, and that some of his excellent questions needed to be tweaked a bit for T to understand. Everyday began this way.
To create the film, we used a stop motion animation kit called Animatazz, from the Drummond Park game company. The students mold plasticine onto plastic mannequins, with jointed hands and legs, and moveable heads. With the kit the students learn about the steps in animation, including how to create facial expressions, by moving the mouths, eyebrows, and pupils to create a look of anger, surprise, happiness. This was helping to reinforce social interaction because both students saw that by looking at the facial features of a character, they would be able to discern feelings, and understand what someone was feeling or thinking. We practiced with our own faces and then tried it out on the “dummies.” We finished our two hour session doing a screen test with the characters, and filmed the changes in their facial features.
The children took the lead on the storytelling, and each student created a character, drew him out on paper, and created a profile about their character. T decided to create a Vietnamese Engineer, because his grandmother was a quarter Vietnamese…What inspiration…
T shared his idea that the Vietnamese engineer was creating a robot. P volunteered to create a house-cleaning robot, and I was asked to create a thief who would be trying to steal the robot. T continually told me that the thief was a woman, and that she needed a cascade of long blond hair. I ended up giving her blond braids; T was not thrilled, but accepted the idea on account that the long blond hair was impractical for a thief. P told me he felt that T was quite eccentric character, and not willing to bend a lot on his ideas for the film. I told him that in life there are all sorts of people, and that even if one has quite solid beliefs about how to do something, there is always a way to talk about and propose new and different ideas. I asked him if he knew any other eccentric characters with quite fixed ideas sitting at the same table, he told me, “No, I don’t think so.”
We mapped out the story by writing a short script, and then chunking the script into short scenes, and drawing out comic book style how we would shoot each mini scene. I stressed to the students that having an essential story idea and framework was important, and that later, as the story began to take shape, we could veer from the script if we wanted to or the movie-making bug pulled us into another direction.
As we shot the frames for our film, the teens needed to be in constant communication with each other, negotiating how to place the characters in the scene, who would take the picture, which direction they would move to, and how to create special effects, like a Frankenstein style bed that would rise and the robot character would slowly come to life. The boys had to negotiate with each other about whether they took enough photos, and if the combined photos’ movements’ were fluid or not. We loaded the pictures from iphoto into imovie, and even at this point there was a work of negotiation and communication between both boys, where they had to talk about the time that each shot would take. With the computer as the fourth member of the team, the boys needed to experiment together to get this fourth person to work correctly. By Wednesday, we had the silent version of our film.
Thursday we worked at finding a quiet space to record the sound and special effects for the film, the children were ecstatic to do the voices, and it was also a great way to practice English for both of them, pronunciation and vocabulary. The sound recording created a support for interactions, and we dissolved into giggles a lot listening to our voices. P was able to show off his amazing computer knowledge by showing us how we could modify our voices, and create computer voices, or rock star voices. We spent a lot of our time playing, but the sounds were such an important tool in putting the boys in contact with each other. I left the boys to create the screen credits, and their precision was awe-inspiring. I had spoken to them about how every story has a plot, which includes both a problem and a resolution. Their beginning credits included the quote, “Vince is a Vietnamese engineer and he creates a robot that cleans his house, here is the plot….” Which scrolled Star Wars style across the screen. P also credited the alarm that shrieks in the film in the credits, as imovie sound effect. As I said, “Awe-inspiring attention to detail.”
On Friday we combined our forces with the art class that was organizing an exhibition of their work, and set up a small screen and a projector to show our movie. We had been in a small group working together for the entire week, and I did not know how T or P would re-act to a larger room, and large groups of students moving in and out of the art room, coming for the exhibition. It was very hard for T and P, they thought it was noisy, and crowded, at one point T faced the wall away from the film and said, “Why are we here?” I let him know that part of creating a film was sharing it with other people and talking about the process. I said, “Ask other students and teachers, ‘Would you like to see my film?’ and then watch their faces and eyes as they watch the film to see how they react, and what kinds of questions you could ask them afterwards.”
Later I saw him ask a counselor if he wanted to watch the film.
As the counselor watched the film, I asked T what he saw, he said “He’s smiling, and laughing.”
“What do you think that means?”
“He likes it.”
The counselor turned to T and said, “I really enjoyed your film, can you explain to me how you made it.”
T grabbed two rolls of scotch tape and explained the process by moving the scotch tape, and taking imaginary photos. He spent a good five minutes elaborating on the creative process, and of course his favorite part, the technical process.
By the end of the week, We had spent ten hours creating stories, making movies, and reinforcing important social skills, like recognizing facial expressions, looking people in the eyes, turn taking, and trying to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, be it your partner in crime or a character on the big screen.