Playing with clay

Gillian Jones takes lumps of clay and shapes them into characters. Then she moves them through a scene on a tiny stage while her teacher, Samar Dawisha, captures their movements on video.

“It's the story of Puck, the fire dancer, and a friendly worm who wants to be like him,” the 9-year-old Medford girl explains, “but Wormie catches fire and is all black. He dies, and there's a funeral with a lot of people and animals.”

Stories such as Gillian's came to life in a claymation-animation class at Southern Oregon University, one of the youth filmmaking classes offered this summer at SOU. It's an animation technique that uses three-dimensional clay figures, rather than drawings, to create a sense of motion. A single frame of video is recorded, and each figure is moved slightly for another frame. When the frames are viewed in rapid succession, the eye perceives movement.

The technique originated in the 1920s, but it was refined and popularized in the 1990s. Dawisha says it helps kids develop a full range of artistic and technological creativity, including sculpture, storytelling, videography and editing.

A recent session was filled with energy and excitement as youngsters ages 9 to 13 shaped characters in clay, created story lines and slowly put their figures through movements that were recorded on a tiny DVD camera. A video monitor showed them exactly what each frame would look like.

The kids write titles and speech balloons for characters, but the emphasis is movement, Dawisha tells them.

“We want action, not talk. Make them do things!” she says.

Eleven-year-old Kai Weston of Ashland puts his band of warriors through their paces as they try to settle a disagreement with tridents and clubs while shouting (in speech balloons), “We need no more of you!” and “We shall start a war!”

“They're disagreeing,” Kai explains. “They don't live together that well.”
He says his skills improve with each video he watches.

“I learned you can't drop things on people,” he says. “It doesn't show up. You have to move things just a little bit each frame. It's pretty fun.”

One effect that does work, Kai learns, is rolling a big clay boulder on top of a bad guy.

It's a time-honored visual effect, says Dawisha, one sure to generate laughs and cheers as the villain gets squashed and stuck to the boulder.

Vincent Wright, 10, bases his story on the “Friday the 13th” movie, with the Jason character falling through a trap door into his grave. Ryan Loos, 11, creates a fantasy of food attacking people.

“Kids have great stories,” Dawisha says, and because most of them start feeling that they can't draw well, they love the bright colors and freedom of clay, where characters don't have to look perfect she says.

“The boys, because they play video games, like to pit bad guy against good guy, acting out their scenarios and smashing things, like slapstick,” she says.

Girls are different, going with lots of animals, dinosaurs and underwater scenes, but no battles, says Dawisha, who earned a degree in theater and film, and teaches art and video production at Ashland High School.

“The process is basically cartoons in clay,” she explains. “They learn they have to keep it simple, not doing too few movements —
because that will look like jump cuts — and not doing too many because that will take forever.

“They learn they have to be organized in their focus, keeping the action between two characters if possible. At the start of each class, we look at video of what they've done and they can see what has the good, flowing movement we're trying to get.”

Claymation classes at SOU have finished for this summer, but plans call for them to be offered again next summer.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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