Junior Moviegoers Academy: Introducing Elementary-Age Kids to Film History I

You can scroll through my archive of posts and watch how having children has affected the amount of time I’ve dedicated to writing about my explorations of film. The impact actually isn’t that noticeable after the birth of my first daughter in 2011, but when my son was born in 2014 you can see everything hit a wall. Posting suddenly dropped to a couple times a year. And now here we are, over two years after my last post, which went up shortly after the birth of my second daughter. (And yes, obviously being a parent of young children and being a writer are not mutually-exclusive. It just happened to be my most labor-intensive pastime, so it was the first on the chopping block.)

Then, too, if you take a look at the film diary on my Letterboxd profile, you’ll see that those explorations themselves dwindled considerably around the time my second-oldest started to walk and talk and pay attention to television screens, and have only recently begun a resurgence. Of course, I never just completely stopped watching movies. I just finally start logging films that I was rewatching.

One of my great regrets from when I first started keeping a log of the movies I was watching back in 2004 is that for so many years, I only logged a film once, and didn’t keep any sort of record of watching it the second, third, or (occasionally) tenth time. For many years, that seemed to make sense. It was originally envisioned as a list of all the films I’d seen, not a film diary. There are so many more movies to watch than I could ever possibly see in a lifetime, that I usually avoid putting on something that I’ve seen before anyway, unless I’m revisiting it to write about it or to share it with someone else. Well, guess what . . . I now have 2 elementary-age children, and most of the movies I watch are movies I’m sharing with them.

And that’s basically what I’m back to write about now. My two oldest are 9 and 6, and I was inspired several months ago to start sharing with them, not just my love of specific movies or of movies in general, but also an appreciation for film as an art form that has a rich history. It’s an undertaking that benefits from very intentional planning, but beyond that there are a million viable ways to undertake an introduction to film history for elementary-age kids . . . This was my way.

This is the my way.

Lesson 0: A Love of Movies

Of course, this all began before I was fully conscious of doing it. You have to start by instilling a love of movies, and it’s never too early to do that. My kids have been watching classic Disney films and the masterpieces of Pixar and Miyazaki on a regular rotation for many years. As a huge Star Wars fan, I of course introduced that franchise as early as possible as well. You undoubtedly have your own list of things to plug in here.

The selections started to get a bit more conscious on my part early in 2019, when the older two were 7 and 4. Someone had invited me to be part of a proposed group watching our way through the AFI top 100 movies and posting short reviews of each one, and I immediately saw an opportunity to introduce my kids, particularly the oldest, to some of the more age-appropriate entries.

The very first one I showed them was Ben-Hur, which I remember seeing for the first time when I was around their age. It is epic and sprawling, full of drama, romance, action, and intrigue. We didn’t watch it all in one sitting. I spread it out over 3 or 4 nights, and we made connections with things that they already knew about from Sunday school. Connections, particularly at this age, are key if you want them to be engaged. Well, connections are key at any age, but younger kids have a much smaller knowledge base from which to launch.

Nothing will excite your elementary kids more than finding those points of connection to things they already recognize or know about. Highlight their prior knowledge. Celebrate it. Compliment them on the things they notice. And remember, these moments can and should be engineered! As much as possible, seed these flashes of insight yourself beforehand. Choose movies you know they’ll be able to connect with, or better yet, teach them some things and then show them a movie that makes the most of what you just taught. As a teacher I can tell you, lesson planning actually is important.

If you did it right, this will be your kid.

Ben-Hur is where the list of movies I was intentionally sharing with my kids begins, and sprinkled throughout are the kinds of movies I already talked about: Disney, Pixar, Studio Ghibli. Also, their cub scout pack hosted a Star Wars marathon last summer, so we watched them all again over a couple of days.

The AFI project also gave me the idea to introduce them to some of the great musicals. A lot of their favorite Disney movies already fall into this genre, and they both love The Greatest Showman, so this felt like a natural step. Over a period of a few months we watched Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, The Phantom of the Opera, My Fair Lady, Swing Time, and The Fiddler on the Roof. Then, last Christmas, we had a Lord of the Rings marathon. During the early days of Coronavirus lockdown, we also watched movies like Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, The Princess Bride, and all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. (If you don’t already know your kids’ limits, you’ll figure them out very soon doing this. I’ll never forget holding a disconsolate 5-year old as he heaved deep sobs over the death of Groot in Infinity War.) This stage in the process is all about sharing the joy of movies as pure entertainment, and anytime is a good time to do that. I intend to go on doing that indefinitely. It can last as long as you want before you proceed, but it doesn’t end where Lesson 1 begins. Hopefully it never ends.

We’re over 100 movies into this list and we’re just getting started.

Lesson 1: Motion Pictures, How Do They Work?

My next objective was to start establishing that movies don’t just spring fully-formed out of nowhere onto the screen. Film history begins with a series of technological innovations that slowly over decades developed from a novelty into a distinct and hugely-popular art form, and the basis of those innovations is the illusion of the moving picture.

What’s particularly great about introducing children to the concept of this illusion is that it is perfectly illustrated through the art of animation, which is the one kind of film they’ll already be most familiar with. But I wanted also to make the connection between how animated drawings and live-action film were reliant on the same illusion, and features that use stop-motion animation are the perfect midpoint between the two. There are many excellent examples to choose from. We watched five: Chicken Run, Coraline, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, and Kubo and the Two Strings. I already own most of those on DVD, and we watched some of the behind-the-scenes features so they could get a glimpse of the incredible amount of painstaking work that goes into the creation of these films, and witness how the characters are brought to life before their eyes via a series of sequential still images.

I also stumbled upon an episode of Walt Disney’s Disneyland (better known under its current title, The Wonderful World of Disney) from 1955 called The Story of the Animated Drawing. This is a 50-minute journey through the history of animation narrated by Walt Disney himself, and it provided some really fun historical background on early animation that I hadn’t planned to cover. It was on Disney+, a source of lots of the films listed above, plus many more besides.

I should note that the final 15 minutes of the show are just a clip from Fantasia illustrating a part of the animation process for that film that Disney had just described. Because this was broadcast on television in the 1950s, it’s in black-and-white, which doesn’t really do it justice. Plus, the particular animation element he focused on in his description doesn’t even appear until the final 5 minutes or so, so this definitely feels like it was mostly just filling out the hour for broadcast. If you’re watching this on Disney+, it’ll be easier (and far more effective) to hop over to the full-color version of Fantasia and watch it there. It’s the second animated excerpt, beginning about 15 minutes in. Though, of course, depending on attention span, you may just want to jump an additional 10 minutes and watch the briefer segment that’s most relevant.

At this point, I turned to YouTube to do a lot of the heavy-lifting going forward. This lesson concludes with a couple more videos about animation. The first is this excellent 2-minute explanation of how animation (traditional, stop-motion, and computer) works by Tyler Pacana. It’s fun and concise and it shows as well as tells.

Then we watched this video from Andymation about the creation of a giant flipbook. Andrew “Andy” Bailey is an animator for Laika who worked on movies like Kubo and the Two Strings. He has lots of these videos. I chose this one because it’s, as it says, his BIGGEST EVER and he goes into a lot of detail about his process all while showing exactly what he’s talking about. It’s very engaging and it really illustrates the incredible amount of time and effort it takes to produce even a small amount of animation.

I have to say, my kids were riveted by this video, and they immediately asked to watch his flipbook animation 2 or 3 more times. My daughter immediately wanted to make a flipbook of her own, and at this very moment there are index cards covered in slightly-varied drawings scattered all over my house. Naturally, I’m encouraging this.

Leaving aside whatever stop-motion films you choose to watch in the days or weeks before this, you’re looking at a very manageable runtime of 60-70 minutes (depending on how much Fantasia you watch). We split it over 2 different evenings because my kids were ready to do something else by the end of the full Fantasia clip. And that worked out well because when we did the other 2 clips on a different evening and they took only 20 minutes to watch, there was still plenty of time before bed to start working on a flipbook.

With my youngest being 2 years old, at this point it’ll be many years before there isn’t anyone in the house who’s up for watching cartoons with me. And now there’s an added dimension to our discussions of any animated films that we watch. You could have your kids start identifying whether a film is hand-drawn or computer-animated, and ask them to describe how they can tell. If there are behind-the-scenes features available, and you have a budding artist on your hands like I do, there might be some real interest in seeing how a movie they really liked was made. Feed that. Meanwhile, now that we’ve laid some groundwork, we’re ready to dive into film history proper.

Next Time: Motion Pictures Are Invented

~ by Jared on November 23, 2020.

2 Responses to “Junior Moviegoers Academy: Introducing Elementary-Age Kids to Film History I”

  1. […] Last time, we talked about instilling a love of movies and using kids’ familiarity with animation as a foundation for explaining the illusion that is the basis of motion picture technology. This time, we’re gearing up to travel through time. But first, now that we know what movies are, it’s time to discover how they happened. […]

  2. […] I began this series with a discussion of how I shared my love of movies with my kids, and how I used their experiences with animated movies to teach them about how motion pictures work. I continued last week describing how we explored the invention of the earliest motion picture technology, the experiences of those first audiences, and how we can still experience a sense of wonder ourselves through the magic of witnessing these vivid images of what life looked like over 100 years ago. Today, I conclude this introduction (but not the series!) with a look at how movie storytelling began to develop. […]

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