Buyer's guide to animation software

Animation is a brilliant way to unleash the creativity of kids. Jay Stansfield takes you through six packages, with something to suit every year group

Animated films have been popular for generations, and animation itself has always been one of the easiest and cheapest forms of film-making to get into. In the 1970s and 1980s, you could do it with some plasticine, a Super 8 camera and a whole lot of patience. These days, you can do it with a PC and an hour of class time. This is progress. Whether you’re six or 60, the fun, imagination, creativity and experimentation abundant within the realms of animation never fades. What’s more, once understood the whole concept opens up educational possibilities that won’t be achieved through any other medium.

The challenge when buying animation software isn’t only with the range of packages available, but the fact that animation can mean so many different things. Packages may offer stop-motion animation, 2D animation using vector drawing and keyframes, and 3D animation, incorporating motion capture and more complex features. Yet, at a basic level, all systems of animation share a few principles. Showing students different styles of animation and comparing computer-generated movies to the more traditional hand-animated or stop-motion styles can be a good way to highlight how, when you look closer, they all work in much the same way.

Styles of animation

Stop-motion involves building characters from plasticine, creating a set and using a webcam to take frame-by-frame shots. When the shots are run in sequence at 18 to 24 frames per second you get an illusion of motion, and by putting sequences together you can eventually produce a movie. This is one of the earliest forms of animation, and the same principles lie behind the hand- drawn, frame-by-frame techniques of a Disney cartoon.

Even though this style requires more consideration, patience, understanding and delicacy, the results are rewarding. Children get a sense of achievement when watching their creation moving across the screen. And now that some companies bundle green-screen material, webcams and plasticine with their software, you can get a whole system in a box – and something on the screen in no time at all, which most educators will find refreshing.

3D animation has a steeper learning curve, but the results can be impressive. We’re now seeing school-level packages that come with pre-built characters and scenery, which takes the hard work of 3Daway,and packages that incorporate motion capture, so that students simply act out their own movements and have them translated into the 3D world. This opens up a different way of learning, encouraging role play in an exciting environment. The motion-capture work is achieved using Microsoft’s Kinect sensor and Kinect SDK drivers, and while it’s quick and easy to set up, the Kinect sensor comes at an extra cost – at approximately £80, however, this isn’t too prohibitive. More importantly, this simple interactive approach means you can avoid some of the technicalities of 3D animation. Instead of moving joints in a model, you just move, talk and act. This makes it more accessible for younger or even SEN students.

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