Valley Academy of Arts and Sciences School

Whimsy, wonder and wisdom in 30 weeks of student animation

Computer programs with the capacity to love. Monsters versus ninjas. “Desirables”, “undesirables” and broken angel wings. A cat odyssey?

On June 7th, an audience made up of students from all over Los Angeles, their families and friends, peered into the minds of middle schoolers. Full of whimsy and wonder and wisdom all at once, the middle schoolers’ stories came to life and were projected onscreen at Barnsdall Gallery Theater in Barnsdall Art Park.

Students from Wilmington based out of Banning’s Landing Community Center collaborated to bring to life characters on elaborate homemade sets (think sterile spaceship rooms, a forest thriving with wildlife, an ocean under a  soft pink sky) for “Last Mission,” a 12 minute stop-motion animation film about saving the environment from evil forces depleting the planet’s natural resources.

First line of the film: “There is only one human civilization left.” Last line: “People can take their gas masks off, and swim, once again.” By the end, audiences were left both giggling at the barking pink dolphins and reflecting on the hypothetical unlivable world they had watched the heroes revive.

The Sony Pictures Media Arts Program (SPMAP) held a screening of 1 hour and 40 minutes of animated films and shorts produced by middle schoolers. The students received instruction at community art centers in Eagle Rock, Pacoima, Watts, Los Angeles and Wilmington over the course of 30 weeks prior to the screening.

The program, a private-public partnership between Sony Pictures, the LA City Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) and the Cal Arts Community Arts Partnership (CAP), has delivered free instruction to inner city kids for 14 years.

Professionals in the animation industry, along with returning students, serve as mentors for the students. Films have won at the regional, national and global level.

At the screening, Nadine Rambeau, managing director of CAP, not only thanked the organizations responsible for the program, but the “community that (came) together that made this happen” as well.

SPMAP also partners yearly with The Big Read, a program of the National Endowment of the Arts. This year, students read and drew inspiration from Ray Bradbury’s well-renowned novel “Fahrenheit 451.”

“To start the film… everybody came up with ideas on paper and tried to incorporate one thing that would fit the theme,” explained student animator Haajarah-El.

El is one of many returners to SPMAP, and says that before joining, she “really didn’t know anything [about animation], so that first year really helped.”

El and fellow students from the Watts Towers Arts Center produced a 7 minute film about a character named Sam, who lives in the “Mall on the hill.” The film takes place 500 years after the “same-ification” of the remaining inhabitants of the planet led by a character bearing an uncanny resemblance to Trump (who proclaims that differences “led to our downfall”).

The character Sam discovers a flower that looks differently than the rest and she decides to do different things while inspiring others to “be different and embrace their personality,” says El.

Riffing off of current political events and figures, the film delves into the themes of conformity and individuality, and is one of several examples of complex topics students decided to explore. Films ranged from facetious and joyful to eerie, solemn, and poignant.

Patrick Taylor, who participated in CAP and has been teaching at the Watts Towers Art Center for 6 years, appreciates the impact the classroom environment had on him as a teenager, artistically and personally.

“A lot of teachers [were] really, really real with me. My teachers were better counselors than the counselors at my high school.”

He says interactions with his former CAP teachers have influenced the development of his own teaching process and the way he approaches his students.

One instructor would “try his best and do his best to inspire [him and his classmates]” with a learn-by-doing method of teaching. Another teacher was like a friend, an older brother even, while being a teacher at the same time. Taylor describes it as a “same-level kind of teaching,” in which he felt like an equal.

“Instead of taking a student-teaching position, it was like a, ‘let’s learn together and do these things together.’”