An Animated Message : Film Workshops Try to Teach Young Participants More Than Just How to Make a Movie

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Morell is a Sherman Oaks writer

It's hardly your average cartoon.

A young man gets cigarettes from the devil and, between puffs, he kisses his girlfriend and she dissolves into a mound of ashes. Hooked on nicotine, his face changes into grotesque shapes and colors with each puff until finally he's drawn like a magnet back into the presence of Satan and is speared by his pitchfork.

The message of this 30-second animated film is about as subtle as cigar smoke, and it might be hard to believe that kids reaching the cynical teen years would take it seriously. However, this film is one of many made by 150 students at Richard E. Byrd Junior High School in Sun Valley in December for their peers.

"We used the devil in our film because he reminded us of someone who would sell cigarettes to a young person," said Rebecca Murray, 14, one of the cartoon's 10 creators. "The guy can't quit, and he's pulled back to the devil, who kills him. It has a good message and because it's made by students, other students pay attention to it."

The film Murray worked on and 14 others were made during a two-day workshop conducted by AnimAction, Awareness Through Animation, a 3-year-old Woodland Hills company that has brought some of the area's film and video magic into schools to create a message for students. Its founders and only employees, Clifford Cohen and Bruce Royer, both 32, were successful producers of television commercials in Montreal before they began their workshops with an idea gained from their marketing experience.

"We wanted to try to incorporate the target audience in the production of various public service announcements," Cohen said. "We felt that whatever the message, it would be driven home harder if the audience helped develop it. And we thought that a cartoon would work better since everyone likes animation."

A pilot workshop with five youth groups in Montreal to create films on drug awareness was a success, and the pair began a tour throughout Canada conducting anti-drug workshops in schools and on Indian reservations, sponsored by Canadian law enforcement authorities. They came to Los Angeles in the fall of 1990 to interest educators in AnimAction.

"Bruce explained their program to me and showed me some of the work they had done in Canada, and I knew it would be great for us," said Ruth Rich, director of substance abuse projects and instructional specialist for health education for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

"AnimAction works, but of course it isn't the answer to all of the problems of substance abuse," Royer said. "Kids are into visuals, such as music videos and video games, which I think makes them naturally take an interest in what we do."

AnimAction workshops, which are being conducted in 40 junior and senior high schools in the Los Angeles district this year, are designed to educate the students involved in the film's message, help them uncover talents and build self-esteem. "The idea is to promote pro-social bonding, which means a group of kids are brought together, and they have to get along and work as a team for two days," Cohen said.

"One of our biggest rewards from this program is when we see kids who their teachers say never completed any schoolwork get excited about creating a film," Royer said. "They leave with a positive attitude; they've created something of value."

After an orientation with a school's teaching staff to explain the program, five classes of about 30 students each are selected at random to participate in each workshop. "The idea is to involve everybody, not just the high-achievers or those with an interest in the arts," Rich said. A typical workshop would include students from different classes.

AnimAction workshops in Los Angeles focus on the dangers of cigarette smoking because the district's funding for them comes from the state's Tobacco Use Prevention Education program, which is supported by a 25-cent tax on each pack of cigarettes, box of cigars and pouch of chewing tobacco sold in California.

Once the students are brought together and broken into groups, they are assisted by Cohen, Royer and several young animators who are hired for the two-day program. Some of the animators are graduates of AnimAction workshops. Each group is given a soundtrack of prerecorded music and sound effects, along with the task of writing a story based on the anti-smoking theme and illustrating it with drawings that will become an animated film.

Although the students are excused from regular classes for the two days, they still have to work. "We push them," Cohen said. "They really have to concentrate since it's such an intensive exercise. And the peer pressure they get is positive. They're making a film against smoking, so they're not afraid to say to the others that smoking is bad."

After a group writes the story for its film, out come the pencils and paper. Those who have no artistic talent find that they have no choice but to be artistic. "The kids who can't draw, draw," Cohen said.

"They work on tracing paper, so one of them might draw a character holding up a cup. Another traces the character and moves his arm up a bit and another has the arm moving higher." In addition, other members of the group are coloring and writing the credits.

Each group's drawings are then shot with a 16-millimeter movie camera and combined with the soundtrack. Immediately after the workshop, a screening of the completed films is held for family and friends of the participants.

"The screenings are very special," Cohen said. "A spokesperson from each group gets up in front of the audience and presents his or her film. Oftentimes, in their presentation, they'll tell their parents nicely but firmly that they don't really appreciate their smoking in the house and they'd like them to stop. It's moving and it sometimes makes your hair stand on end."

After 20 workshops, an awards ceremony is held to select some of the best student films. The judges are often professionals in the animation industry, such as last year when Bill Melendez, who has won Emmy Awards for his work in the Charlie Brown animated TV specials, helped select the winners.

"It's kind of like our own Academy Awards for these students, and it's spurred many on to think about careers in this field," Royer said.

The films are then shown in the school's health education classes, and Royer and Cohen also pursue other outlets.

The pair was successful in getting films made by students in Manhattan Beach shown as part of the previews at the local Mann Theatre, and AnimAction films also air periodically on KLCS, the learning channel that's spread by cable throughout Los Angeles. A series of AnimAction films were also featured in "Over the Influence," a syndicated special on teen-agers and substance abuse that aired nationwide in April.

Although no formal survey has been conducted to show the effectiveness of AnimAction workshops in Los Angeles, the reaction from students and staff appears positive. "I think that the fact that the kids had a free rein to create an anti-smoking message to their fellow students made them more involved," said Jerry Horowitz, principal of Byrd Junior High.

"Instead of having them lectured to, they came up with their own ideas and they were able to depict their feelings through animation and show that to their family and peers. It makes an impact on the whole school."

Cohen and Royer have been hired to conduct a series of pilot workshops in Great Britain and continue to work with Canadian schools, but the future of the workshops in local schools is uncertain. Although the workshops will use what one source said is a "very small" percentage of the district's $1-million Tobacco Use Prevention Education funds this year, they may be cut back because of budget constraints.

"We've really fought to maintain funding for the workshops," Rich said. "We took some of the students' work to legislators and showed them the films and they were impressed."

Although the workshops attempt to get students to think in different ways, some ways of thinking may never change. "I was approached by a couple of kids at one workshop and they were asking me about being an animator and what kind of education they would need," Royer said. "One of them asked, 'Do we need math?' I told them absolutely, and they looked depressed. But I hope that didn't discourage them."

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