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Buyer's guide to animation software

Posted on 17 Jul 2012 at 11:27

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.

3D isn’t the right choice across all age ranges, however. Most 3D animation packages have a complex range of tools, and may be overwhelming for primary schools looking for something a little simpler to use. Secondary school students, however, may thrive on the greater complexity. You may not end up with a Pixar Studios in your school, but you can achieve brilliant results.

Working in stop-motion

You’ll need plenty of space and time if working in stop-motion, since the process itself is time-consuming and there needs to be room for sets, figures, webcams and children. Working in groups can make the process quicker, with a student pressing the frame button while others move the figures. A good-quality and stable webcam will save unwanted camera movement, but in the unfortunate event of a mishap, an “onion skin” tool – it shows you an overlay of previous frames – will prove indispensable.

For all the effort, the benefits of stop-motion animation make it worthwhile. It’s a good way to marry the more technical challenges of ICT with the kind of simple, hands-on crafting that anyone can enjoy. As Year 6 primary school teacher Mr Boult explains: “I want to make sure the children can work in groups – important when doing creative work. I want the software to be easy to use so I can watch them create things they can be proud of with little supervision. Stop-frame animation is the best way to achieve this since it’s easy to use, hands-on and looks great when finished.”

2D animation software traditionally adopts a keyframe approach borrowed from traditional hand-drawn animation, where the animator draws or positions objects in the most significant frames – the keyframes – and the software works out the frames in-between. This is an easy way to create engaging animations, particularly as you can use pre-made effects including rotation, scaling and flying in and out. If you do, there’s a danger that the results can look like a well-made PowerPoint presentation; but pre-made effects can simplify the process, rendering it more accessible for younger students, while older ones get stuck in with customisation and in-depth keyframe editing. This will be more time-consuming, but it’s the best way to get a more organic outcome.

When making a decision on which animation software to thrust into the classroom, the interface and the available tools will be pivotal to its success. It’s all very well having an advanced set of features, but if those features are hidden, badly implemented or incomprehensible, they won’t get any use. You also need to think about the hardware you have available. A 3D package will require more processing power than a 2D package, so you need to make sure that the PCs at your disposal are up to the job.

Prepare to have fun

Storyboarding is recommended when you’re animating. It makes the class think about what they’re doing and enables them to plan, and it can save time when working out how many frames it may take for a few seconds of movement. If the program uses a range of frame rates, this process can be a great tool – not only for animating, but also for maths. It’s also important that students grasp the concept of a timeline: it’s seen in all animation packages and is vital to understanding the basics of how animation works. If the timeline is easy to see and manipulate then creating and changing each frame becomes less laborious.

When the movie is finished there are many ways to make the animation better. One is video editing, particularly if you’re working with stop-motion. It helps youcutouterrorsandsmoothoverany cracks, and if the program includes good editing facilities then it’s going to do a better job. You can always export the final movie to add sound effects, titles, transitions and effects is another package, but this adds more work to the project. Luckily, the best animation packages have strong video- and audio-editing facilities, sound-effects libraries and the ability to record audio into the program – all built in.

Most of all, animation should be fun. It’s a great way to combine ICT learning with artistic endeavours, and you’ll be amazed by the crazy worlds and stories that students can come up with when their imaginations are given free rein.

Author: Jay Stansfield

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