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Mike McKinney: Inspiring the Animation Youth

by Chris Magee, Summer 2002

Those who know Mike McKinney agree, he is a talented, supercharged human with a lifelong passion for education, invention and animation. Mike has been teaching summer animation classes at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) for the past nine years.

  • Could you give us a brief history and overview of the kids’ summer animation program at OMSI?

    It’s part of the OMSI animation program; it’s officially just a class. Kids come every summer for a week at a time. It started nine years ago as a two-week class; 2nd and 3rd grade for one week, and 4th/5th grade for the other. We had two teachers and two interns. Because there was no middle school program, we created an internship around two, avid middle-school kids, Justin Myers and Elizabeth Randall, and they’ve stayed the whole time. Justin is now at the Brooks Institute, and Liz is at Cornish in Seattle. They’re lead teachers; they’re both multi-talented.

    The program has evolved over nine years; we started off doing Claymation®. It was initially a two-week program; the next year it was five weeks, and then it was eleven weeks, just through popular demand. Lyn Bonyhadi, who helped put this program together, is the godmother of the whole thing. She would come in at the end of the week and ask kids what they wanted, take them seriously, and take notes. In the first four years, she made it possible to provide 100 percent of those suggestions and ideas-every request came through.

  • What has it evolved into as a result of that early feedback?

    Well, we’ve gotten away from the “beloved tyranny” of clay. I mean, clay is so great, it’s so immediate, but, it’s not the whole thing; we’ve done more drawings, and worked with pattern blocks, and with objects and with collage, rhythm animation; different things over the years, but now we can actually concentrate on drawing, and cut-out, using the downshooter for flat, 2D animation- giving an entire room to that.

  • Could you talk a bit about the way the rooms are set up, how kids interact with the environment here, and how this relates to your teaching philosophy?

    We have a tripod made out of crutches next to a giant abacus, a borrowed Bolex, and a discarded video monitor. All the furniture in here has been adapted from something that can be used at least two more times before being thrown away. It¹s about active resource, and about perspective.

    Having been a child, and working with children a lot, I think scale is so significant. Here, we’ve distilled it down to three operative scales: “normal,” which is slightly smaller than adult, “large,” (a giant marshmallow, a giant chair, a giant abacus is great, a giant ball to sit on- a giant anything is just cool!), and then there’s “tiny.” We use so much miniature, especially in claymation, that it’s kind of shocking to have a camera you can walk inside of. If you have a tiny camera, a regular camera, and a giant camera, then you have a juxtaposition, and kids can get playful with it. The fact that all three work is kind of nice, even though they do different things.

  • So it’s the entire environment which you offer as a potential animation, rather than delineating too clear of a boundary between passive and active elements in the space?

    Yea, if we are actually living in a still life, if we are the set, if we are the characters within a set, that adds another layer to the lesson. For kids to jump up, click a frame, jump up, click a frame, jump up, click a frame, to where they are flying around the room, that’s cool, that’s fun; right away it teaches them incremental change, positioning, timing, path of action, and it’s a hoot!

    Animation is the medium of “attractive nuisance.” As long as they’re going to be distracted by something, why not have it be something that is also a part a fundamental lesson, without shoving it down their throats? It’s subversive and it’s playful; kids don’t want to live in a monotone, and we are in fact “colonizing” the domains of children. I mean, it’s their world; we set up the programs, and their parents pay and bring them in. But to make them sit down and shut up is neither effective nor ethical, and why not give them a chair they can sit on three or four different ways, and also turn that chair into a ride, also have it be a character in their shot.

    We’ll be doing 2D, 3D, and 2-½D (bas-relief, lumpy things), a lot of pixilation (where they animate themselves) and object animation. Some kids will just sample like crazy and do some sand animation, do some cel, do some cut-outs, do some magnets, you know, do something with the abacus.

  • How many kids are in the building at any given moment during the class?

    We’ll have somewhere between 40 and 60 kids in all three rooms, so it’s a three ring circus. There is equal time available for each person to spend time in each room.

  • How do you organize the different activities, and how does a child decide where to be and what to do?

    We bracket it so that they have full exposure to all three rooms. It’s mixed media, but we do bracket it- we have four basic block periods. We have some lessons where it’s “lecture/demonstration” type, some “show and tell.”" We have “centers,” where it’s independent. It’s also important for us, once we get them going, to walk ten to fifteen feet away, so that an eight year or or a fourteen-year old is handling professional equipment. That’s empowering even if it doesn’t hit them until later.

  • How do you keep things coherent for individuals as they travel from room to room?

    Wherever you end the day, you start the next morning, so you can have a follow-through. Wherever you end at lunchtime, you come back to the same spot. Everyone needs consistency of some sort, and we’ll help them find their consistency. We’re going to mix it up a lot, so they can have consistent choices, and they can sit in the silver chair, they can sit on the spinning stool, they can sit on the big red ball, and they can fight and whine over it if they want to. There’s that, but there are a lot of choices; somebody might have a special need, or a special whim, but they’ll get to sample and survey different things.

  • What, for you, characterizes animation as an activity, both mental and physical, and also how does that perspective inform your approach to teaching?

    O.K., there are six functions in the hypothalam us: food, drink, fight, flight, simple feelings/emotion, and sex/reproduction. That’s the hypothalamus; that’s the lizard brain. We’ve all got it; all these wonderful creatures have it. Isn’t that the domain of expressive animation? Isn’t that Wile E. Coyote? Isn’t that the type of movement that engages a viewer right away? It’d a visual/visceral hit, and whether it’s gun battles and car chases and sirens and crying babies- whatever it is- that’s making a direct hypothalamic connection.

    In order to pull that off as an animator, you have to work within the cerebral cortex. To be able to do infinite, sequential, deliberate, painstaking movement. It’s a huge irony. Here, in order to do what they want to do, the kids have to engage both those parts of their brain. There’s no reason we should make them sit down, shut up, stand in line, follow a particular regimen, and force them to do that. Nor should we let them run wild and hurt each other and not care.

    Kids need to be able to take ownership of their educational experience. Just by looking at this room, you can see that a lot of it was designed by and for kids, and as the summer evolves, their suggestions and their treatment of it are going to continue to change it.

    Another part is doing rhythmic animation; breaking down 24 (frames per second) into, not just one, two, and three frames per image, but down to where it gets chunky: four, six, eight, twelve, so we can do patterns of “STOMP, clap, STOMP, STOMP, clap,” “twelve, twelve, six, six, twelve.” Then they only need five images to get a viable cycle, to get a dynamic rhythm, to get a change of position. You can do metamorphosis, rotation, even path of action with crude chunk of things, the same way language function — it goes from chunk to refinement — animation can go to refinement that way. They will then always know that they can use six frames to ’zip’ something, or use it for a pause or an elegant hold.

    To know that is essential, and a lot of us have had to go back and know that is essential, and a lot of us have had to go back and relearn it. We missed that in the first five years of the program, and we were teaching kids strictly narrative technique. It’s like teaching Hemingway to third graders. You still have to start with words and phrases and rudimentary grammar.

  • How do you go about making “grammar” interesting, and avoid falling into animation pencil test exercise cliches?

    We have a lot of “touchpoint” fundamental, rote, gimmicky, standard things we do. I saw animation tests that were just dry as a bone coming out of the early Canadian Film Board; very effective, but everyone moved that same black disc on a white field the same way, and if you got the “correct” result, that was great, but that was all.

    We can adjust that a little bit with kids to where every kid has twelve moves, and we bracket the parameters, by having them go from one spot to another, do an ease-in or ease-out, a rotation, or perhaps move along an arc. Whatever the guidelines are, they’ll all nail the assignment, but each one will look as different as their personalities. Anything we can do to help them internalize the structures of the discipline that¹s already there, means that we don’t have to impose a rote lesson on them.

    I mean, c’mon, 24 frames per second-we don’t have to say anything more — if they want to shoot it at “seven,” fine, then they can decide, “oh, too slow, too fast, too jumpy, too this, too that.” We didn’t make 24 frames per second, it’s a really handy standard. We didn’t make up persistence of vision; we didn’t make up the laws of physics. So the more they learn about those, the better they’re able to tweak them.

  • What kinds of relationships and interactions do you envision occurring between this space, the students, and ASIFA members?

    The students are part of the animation community, and some of them will be or are becoming ASIFA members, and maybe ASIFA has a role in mentoring. That happens, unofficially, big-time. There are ASIFA members and non-ASIFA members who are contributing their ideas, their equipment, their expertise, and their presence; people visit after hours and also while the kids are there; we have animators on site, animating, testing things out. We have the Aberle Annex where Doug Aberle actually spends a lot of time working on his own stuff, so kids can watch him do it.

  • What do you think would most strike an adult animator about what the kids are doing and learning in this environment?

    I think the older animators are surprised at how articulate the kids are about their chosen medium. And the kids are truly engaged in it. They’re all developing their own style, and some of them are actually conscious about that. Just the fact that these kids have a bunch of elder future peers to hear about and eventually meet is a very serious contribution.

  • What sorts of things do you envision in order to make this building and this program more sustainable and even more closely connected to the local community?

    We have the means to put together, on a particular set, silent broadcast-quality animation, with enough stuff to go into post-production sound. Why not have commercial animation alongside service-oriented animation? Same quality, different budget, different price tag, different reason, different venue, but the same people involved. “We’re All On the Same Bus” was a collaboration — the theme, the idea, the phrase, the clay, the sculptures, the concept, the animation — everything was done by students. Patrick Rosenkranz documented the whole thing on video, and we ended up with a Public Service Announcement, as part of the Federal Safe School Grant. Everyone who’s on that sponsor list: Will Vinton Studios, Obie Media, Downstream Video. They all provided services at a cut rate. Beyond that, they donated two, three, four times that in terms of their time. For seven weeks in the summer, this is going to be a full-service, young people’s animation studio.

    Why aren’t we doing PSAs? Why aren’t we doing PSAs that would underwrite the salaries of the interns so we could have the full batch of interns, and bring in more and better equipment, knock the price down to “affordable,” and make sure that this goes on year-round? That’s part of my agenda.