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BY AUDREY DWYER | APRIL 18, 2013 5:00 AM

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A captain oversees his crew of sailors diligently working among a sea of organized chaos full of crayons, cardboard cutouts, collages, and paintbrushes. This adventurous pirate unleashes an uncanny characteristic from the mighty crew — a passion for art and a yearning to learn. The captain? An art teacher. His crew? Elementary students. His ship? An art classroom.

Mark Jones, an art teacher for Lemme, Mann, and Lincoln Elementary Schools in the Iowa City School District, as well as the Iowa City District art coordinator, gave orders during one of his classes, "You have two minutes to 'journal,' now go."

The students colored sketches for potential scenes, characters, and story plots for an upcoming film and placed them into a "Movie Suggestion Box." These ideas aren't scenes for an ordinary film but rather a stop-motion animation process film created by Jones and his students.

Last year, Jones and students from Lincoln and Mann Elementary schools created a short 10-minute animation film titled, "The Robot and The Butterfly.

This year, Jones, with the help of Lemme (K-six) and Mann (five-six) elementary students, have developed new tactics — a modular set and students singing with their own lyrics — to create a shorter film, "Stand Up Tall." The première of this film is set for the Lemme Elementary Fine Arts Night, April 23 at the Opstad Auditorium in City High. The event is not open to the general public because of limited seating; however, the film will be placed on Jones' YouTube site after the premiere.

Jones became inspired to integrate stop-motion animation into his art classes after watching a short film from the "Tiny Circus." This traveling group of Circus members facilitates and hosts stop-motion animation workshops for all ages at schools and universities around the nation. When he watched the group's short film, he got the idea for the film's format and how to incorporate the techniques into a classroom setting. Similar to art, animation can be a range of media from printmaking, clay sculptures, collages, painting, drawings, and everything in between. 

But the inspiration for animation didn't just begin on its own. Jones' love for art — unearthed at a very early age — and the ingenuity of assembling something out of nothing set the stage for the creation of this film. His aunt had asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up and he replied "a pirate or an artist." As a kid, he said, it was always hard to imagine the two combined for a profession, but now he combines his dream of being a pirate into his classroom.

"It is almost like a wave of chaos from the sea," he said and chuckled.

Jones received the Shine Award for excellence in teaching from the Iowa City School District Foundation in part for his work on "The Robot and the Butterfly." This student-made animation received Best Student Film and Best Short Film — Audience Choice — at the Iowa Indie Film Fest and Landlocked Film Festival in 2012.

Last year's film also grabbed the attention of a documentary film crew based in Los Angeles. The group travels the country to find unique artists and tells each story through film on the free web series, Half Cut Tea.

"Working in Boston and now LA, I knew people who were teaching this form of animation but on a bigger budget," said Jordan Long, one of the founders of Half Cut Tea. "We wanted someone who was out in the middle of what seems like nowhere, bringing new ideas to kids. He is a teacher who isn't on a big budget, but yet he says, 'I can do this.' That's important to us, he can be resourceful and figure out how to do it."

In a sense, it's free, Jones said. The animations are made from scraps that would normally wind up in the recycling or trash. Cardboard, bits of construction paper, and other various items allow the innovation of the animation to come alive through the art projects students made throughout the year.

Long and his partner created Half Cut Tea, a documentary hub of artistic innovation, in January of this year as a database for people to discover and become inspired by talented individuals who they were acquainted with or had heard of through friends.

"We want people to realize that no matter where you come from, you can make something that impacts others regardless of your background," Long said.

Currently the two have up to eight documentaries on the site, and they plan to film 15 more artists in June. Jones was one of the first on their list, Long said.

Jones has no formal background in stop-motion animation, making it a constant learning process. He incorporates styles from other local art teachers by adding a unique twist to his database of ideas. By allowing students to solve problems with their own projects, it enables them to find success on new levels instead of regurgitating information in traditional ways, said Jame Hayes, the visual arts instructor at West Middle School in Muscatine.

"I know that creating films like this are invaluable to teaching skills needed in the work world," Hayes said. "Learning to organize, prioritize, execute, and present a quality product are skills that every job requires on some level. Finding one's voice and a way to present it in a meaningful way is the big goal. We have to find ways to keep things relevant and interesting to students; if we don't, we all lose." 

Ann Langenfeld, Lincoln Elementary School principal, agreed with the invaluable qualities stop-motion animation provides.

"This animation supports our school and district's goal to integrate technology and 21st-century skills into the classroom," she said. "It met the district's standards and benchmarks for art education in the elementary setting. It is also highly engaging and supports the use of multi-media to create a story and present it in a meaningful format."

Stop-motion animation is an animation technique to make a physically manipulated object appear to move on its own. The object is moved in small segments in individually photographed frames. These frames are then played together, creating the illusion of movement. The kids designed the characters and sets for these frames and Jones showed them how the process physically works.

"The thing I like about art … it is a profession you can do with your hands," Jones said about his teaching style. "Good art is always tough to do, and there is no short cut — it takes work and something of yourself. These animation films are an extension of me, and you can see all the effort in it that the kids have cobbled together. I like the work from the students with all of its imperfections, edges, and charm."

His personality of teaching and learning with a hands-on mentality connects to a child's way of thinking, his wife, Erica Jones, said.

"He has an energy that keeps things moving forward and exciting," she said. "I think that he is able to reach students who learn by doing and learn well with visual aspects and support. I think that is a different avenue he gets to tap into and bring to the table."

Although the animation film is not the main lesson for his art classes, he teaches it in the background.

While students painted with watercolors, he called students to the front of the room to help move the characters for the movie's "spidey scene" as the hero escapes the depths of a spikey pit. The students each took turns pushing the button to take the picture, moving some piece of the set or repositioning a character.

"Stand Up Tall," Jones said, is a movie centered on standing up to life's biggest challenges. The hero in the film overcomes many obstacles and challenges thrown at him, including a dragon, bear, puffer fish, and giant spider. The 2011-12 students from Lincoln Elementary took part in a voting process to determine the monster characters for this year's film.

Jones wanted the hero — a kid — to tame the "menacing" monsters with friend-like qualities instead of violence. He and the students came up with the idea of tickling the monster with a magic feather. 
"As a teacher, those moments where I see they know how to help each other register a shot in a scene, and they are just doing the animation themselves is one of the most remarkable things I have seen through out the whole process," Jones said.

In the animation films, Jones incorporates a musical component. From a young age, his passion for music transpired. Growing up in Lamoni and Iowa City, Jones took piano lessons and taught himself how to play guitar. In college, he filled his free time outside of classes with the band Audio Kinetic Assault.

"In the past, art was more of my hobby while music was my career," Jones said. "Now the two have flip-flopped. Music is more of my hobby now, and art is my career. Not sure what it is, but sometimes something will just aesthetically hit you, giving you emotional tingles. Music is like this fleeting, in-the-moment thing, and I like being able to put the two things together."

During the video-making process, the students used Dragonframe, a program that helped the students see a "ghost image" on a computer screen of what the previous frame looked like which allowed students to see two frames at once. "Onion Skinning," Jones said, is most useful for pacing out an animation, so things don't move too fast or slow. This is also a vital tool to put the set back in the right place if jostled or moved.  

Throughout his third- and fourth-grade classes, the students watched an excerpt of the film to witness all the work brought together. Almost like a whisper over the film's music, humming began. Then, a unified chorus of voices began singing the "Stand Up Tall" song. While watching this scene, smiles were pasted on the students' faces as they saw the monster they helped create from beginning to end.

Jill Johnson, a third-grade teacher at Lemme, said the students become inspired through Jones' enthusiasm and his love of teaching.

"The kids are always talking about the film outside of class," Johnson said. "There is so much chatter about what will happen next and what they did in class that day."

An art student at the University of Iowa, Delaney Gale, has helped Jones with his classes to fulfill a requirement for an art-education degree. She has been genuinely moved by what she has learned from Jones' teaching methods.

"The kids are so enthusiastic and motivated with their work, it makes me so excited, and it truly inspires me," she said. "There is no holding back — the inspiration just flows freely."

Not only are the animation films a collaborative work from students at different schools, but it is also a constantly changing process. Jones explained the plans for next year's film are up in the air. Focused more on living in the now, he has high hopes for this year's event and has enjoyed watching the students become independent thinkers and learn the complicated process of animation.

"In the end my drive is to give them more access to the creation process," Jones said. "Having taught several years in the past, I found that animation has become the closest thing to magic you can get with art. You get to create from imagination and make things move. As a teacher, you work day in and day out with the students, and they struggle just like I do. Part of what I like about teaching is that I can help them overcome those hurdles. When they have those realizations that, No — I got this; I love those moments."


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