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Folk Animation: Low Tech Art in the High Tech Age

John Serpentelli relates his experiences teaching the folk art of animation to children in Philadelphia.

John Serpentelli.

The connection between children and animation seems simple enough. To a child, anything is possible and the same is true for animation. Despite this obvious link; it is very rare that children get to make animation. The reason that springs to mind is that the technology has not allowed this to happen with great ease. Of course, there have been adults and organizations that have dedicated themselves to bringing film equipment to children, but it is expensive and cumbersome. What will happen when high technology, as it becomes more affordable and portable, can provide children with the means to express themselves in the art form that best suits their unique abilities? Who will be in charge of the creative output, the children or the technology?

Children have the ability to devour all art forms and appreciate artists without bothering with "matters of great consequence," such as in what genre does the work of art belong or where has the artist shown the work. Since animation is an art form that can involve almost all other art forms and children can directly encounter the art world in an unfiltered manner, they have the ideal qualifications for creating what I call "folk animation." Children make folk animation when they disregard the rules of conventional animation and the established art world. Given the chance and access to the necessary tools, children can capture the essence of something: its look, its movement, its sound with all the truly important details, rather than just following a formula or coloring within the lines.

If you have ever closely watched a child make art, you have realized that it just isn't true that children have short attention spans and are incapable of sustained concentration. The capturing of the details becomes crucial, not for the sake of permanent documentation, but rather as a representation of the thing at that moment in time. A thing, as all children know, can look very different from one moment to the next. A thing is always in the state of flux, it changes depending on where you stand, what has happened before, and what is about to happen. A child will adapt the drawing of a thing to better explain it in its current state.

Children are interested not only in capturing the look of a thing but also in its sound. Their pictures and sounds can tell you something; they can tell stories. People can't resist telling stories. We start almost immediately; babies tell stories long before any adults figure any of it out; so many great stories are lost this way. For adults, it may be hard to understand a story, but it's usually not as hard as it is to tell a story. For babies and young children, it's not difficult at all to tell a story, or to tell a story over and over, or one little piece of a story over and over. So many, many details to capture.

Children, of course, tell stories with words and pictures. They have no difficulty telling a story with words and pictures at the same time. While a child introduces the main characters' "personalities" by putting on disguised voices, the characters are being formed on the page with meaningful lines and gestures. As more details of the plot are revealed , more details are added to the page. The drawing, in a sense, is moving. The child, in a sense, is making a film. For that matter, a child coloring a picture while providing the soundtrack is engaging in the most basic form of interactive multimedia.

Students creating artwork for Dream Quilt . Photo by Deborah Reber.

Some Girls in the Hood

My experiences making animation collaborations with children began when I had the idea to let children tell their stories in the art form that they love. What I envisioned was a classroom of bright-eyed eight-year olds; what I was led to was a correctional high school for girls with weapons offenses. This twist of fate turned out to be a fortunate blending of adult experience with childlike expression. This particular group of African-American girls had a great deal to say in their art due to their rather troubled lives, yet they did so in a refreshingly uninhibited manner due to an overall lack of formal art training or preconceived notions. The drawings were not the typical "studied" illustrations found in so many high school art classes; the drawings still had a link to an honest, precise and freer style of early childhood; the difference being that the subject matter was now drive-by shootings, winning the lottery, and racial identity on the evening news.

The final outcome, Some Girls in the Hood, was made by a group of girls who are virtually absent in mass media, let alone have access to make media; so, not surprisingly, they had doubts that they would really be making an animated film that might be seen by someone outside their world. Right from the start, my intention was not to give the basics of assembly-line animation, or even the basics of formal drawing lessons. Instead, I was more interested in what would happen if they could, with as little intervention as possible, make an animated film. The simple idea was to capture what was important to them in an art form that, although familiar, is not usually an option for personal expression. In order to unburdened the class of the notion that we would be attempting to imitate a big-budget, Hollywood," animated, musical extravaganza, I showed them examples of fine art animation that demonstrated that there was more than one way to skin a mouse. The girls responded strongly to the idea that they could actually make an animated film that meant something to them. Ultimately, the girls came up with the overall concept, produced the drawings and paintings, wrote the script and provided the narration. The result was a film that we viewed over and over, each time one of the young artists would point out a specific detail that they had included. They were there in the animation; they were telling their story complete with soundtrack and moving pictures. The film does suffer from one aspect of "low tech": it has a soundtrack which at times is difficult to hear, but due to the directness by which the film was made, the girls' "voices" are heard loud and clear.

I believe that it is this low tech directness, the folk animation qualities, that enabled the film to be seen outside of the correctional high school. It was broadcast on several local television stations in two states, won numerous film festival awards, has been shown in galleries and art museums, and even now, some four years later, it is still being invited to festivals as far away as Amsterdam and Germany.

Narrative Quilts

I have since had the good fortune to make several more films collaboratively with children. I was commissioned by Children's Television Workshop to create an animated segment for Sesame Street. This time, I was collaborating with a group of much younger artists. We looked at the art of Romare Bearden as a source for stylistic inspiration for the 8 foot collage that became the background for our cutout animated film. We also made a public service announcement for UNICEF, where we paid homage to Joan Miro in the visual style of the art and the dreamlike style of the story. With a different group of collaborators, I invited an artist and her 80-year-old mother to show the children how to make narrative quilts. The final animated project, Dream Quilt, is a patching together of the children's personal memories and imagination with their painted and collaged quilt squares. Once Upon a Time . . ., a short history of the USA as explained by Jason Walker, age 8 is a collaborative film made with composer Robert Moran. This "history tale" was originally told to Moran by 8-year olds, then transformed into slides of black and white American folk art characters. In this new version, I took the original designs from the slides and simply made the story move, and added the voice of a child to narrate. It's as basic as a child telling a familiar story with words and pictures--at the same time.

Students creating artwork for Dream Quilt. Photo by Deborah Reber.

The appreciation of child's art or of folk art is not just a warm feeling of "charm," but more of a fascination in a novel way of seeing, thinking and representing the everyday world. A simplified yet intricate way of making sense or responding to whatever it was that caught your attention while you were doing something else. Capturing this creative process in the state of movement is the catalyst for making collaborative folk animation.

It will be fascinating to see how technology will change the way children tell stories. If the technology merely provides the equivalent of an animated coloring book, then that would be a grave disservice to children and they, more than likely, would be insulted or at least bored. Hopefully technology will provide a means for children to create animated films with the flexibility of a piece of paper and a few crayons; after all, no one has ever been that inspired by a well executed coloring book page--low tech or high tech.

John Serpentelli and one of his classes. Photo by Deborah Reber.

John Serpentelli has had his animation collaborations seen on Nickelodeon, Sesame Street and in The New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City. He is the Owner and Creative Director of Art & Animation Station, a fine art animation school in Philadelphia.

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