Claymation Class Brings Out Young Filmmakers


(Sunday, April 13, 2008 8:40 PM EDT)

Young people have enjoyed clay animation films such as “Wallace & Gromit” and “Chicken Run” for years, but not too many have had the opportunity to create a “claymation” film of their own - until now.

As of February, aspiring young animators (ages 8-12) have been learning the skills and techniques of claymation and have made their own films, in a class offered by the McLean Project for the Arts in partnership with the Corcoran College of Art & Design.

Corcoran College faculty member Erik Swanson has offered a cartooning course at the McLean Community Center for the past year, but he thought adding claymation to the class would take it to a new and more exciting level.

It seems that the participants agree and find it a welcome addition.

“I wanted to make films,” said participant Nic Rowan, who has taken the cartooning class before. “I want to bring my [cartoon] character Liplodon, which is based on a pre-historic creature, to life. I thought it would be fun.”

From story lines about ducks outsmarting alligators to imaginary people fighting over a giant mushroom, the claymation students let their imaginations run wild. But as much fun as they have in the class, a good deal of effort goes into the finished product.

Swanson started the 10-week session by teaching his 14 students the fundamentals of construction drawing (the breaking down of objects into simple shapes) followed by introducing them to the concept of persistence of motion by creating flip books.

(Persistence of motion is the phenomenon of the eye that makes animation look like actual movement.)

“Once they see their drawings move, like in a flip book, it gets them massively enthralled,” Swanson said.

After they had the basics down, Swanson moved on to 3-D animation, and let his students use Plasticine clay to create figures for their five- to 10-second films.

Once their films were ready to shoot, he worked with the young claymators in a “studio,” where he took digital still-photos of the scene as they moved their figures a little bit from shot to shot.

“They get 10 minutes with me where I'm the cameraman and they're Steven Spielberg,” he said.

Swanson then converted the digital photos into animated GIF files through a program in Adobe Photoshop. The students' final work will be shown in a class screening, once everyone has completed his or her film.

By taking an animation-based class, Swanson thinks his students are ahead of the game in the art field.

“Animation involves so many artistic principles,” Swanson said. “Nothing in animated film is done by accident.”

From having to understand a figure's position in space to applying color theory for proper ambience to getting a character's physical appearance to reflect a given emotion, claymation can be very tricky, he said.

“Getting the facial expressions is hard!” said participant Ryan Creeser, who tried his hand at making the eyebrows of his figure move up and down.

Although claymation has its challenges, Swanson's students seem up to it, and often don't want to go home when the two-hour class is up.

“It's a nice feeling that it's 6:15 p.m., they've been in school all day, and they still have the energy and desire to work,” he said. “It feels good that they're excited about it.”

For more information, see the Web site at or call (703) 790-1953.

Click here to see more photos from the class.

Nic Rowan, a 10-year-old student at the Heights School, has big plans for his claymation film at the McLean Community Center.
(Photo by Kristen Armstrong)

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