North Tonawanda Middle School pupils Anna Svirgun and Rachel E. Smolinski are learning more than reading, writing and arithmetic this school year.
They're also learning how to make claymation movies and animated cartoons.
For the past three weeks, the two seventh-graders, both 12, have been studying the art forms in their gifted and talented class by virtue of a $900 grant from the Orleans-Niagara Teachers Center.
Their teacher, William C. Markarian, said he applied for the grant and used the money to purchase special camera equipment, computer software and other materials. Working as a team, the two girls are among 10 pupils who have opted to take the program as an independent study project.
"We've already made a short claymation movie, called 'Fall Out Boy,' " Rachel said, "and we've made a short cartoon where Pac-Man is under water and eats a frog."
"For the claymation," Anna said, "we made a man and a dog out of clay and took a lot of pictures of them [slowly] changing position to make a movie out of it. We also are going to add sound effects, voices and music to it. It's difficult, but we are starting with easy things so we get the hang of it."
Rachel said she and her partner are thinking up ideas researching what other young people their age have done in different parts of the country. They hope to make a good two- to three-minute claymation movie before the end of the school year.
"Fall Out Boy" is about a guy whose dog is up on a pole. So he climbs up to get the dog and falls off.
"Then the dog comes down to get him, and then another man walks in to help and call an ambulance," Rachel said.
"This movie is kind of choppy," Anna said, "because we didn't take enough pictures, so each character doesn't move naturally enough. You need to take the clay character and change its position slightly each time you take a picture, so when we put them together on our computer program it looks like they're really moving."
Rachel said that requires about 20 to 30 pictures for each second of action. She said she and Anna are using a special Kodak camera with a "10X optical lens, so we can get pretty close and take stop-action photos."
She said she and Anna also made their own sets for the claymation piece, which takes a lot of patience.
Anna, who taught herself to use "Flash" software to make cartoons, said she likes the claymation aspect of her studies best.
"I like working with clay better because it's more hands-on," she said. "You're actually touching it and building something instead of trying to do it all on a computer," like the cartoon animation.
Rachel said she also likes the animation program.
"You can make anything you want on the computer and make it do whatever you want it to" with the Flash program, she said.
In their experimental cartoon, Rachel said, she liked the end. An anchor hits the ground under the water "and just kind of blows up in a cartoon explosion."
The two girls said they don't divide up their duties to specialize because both of them want to learn all aspects of what they're doing.
Markarian said there's merit to both programs.
"I think it teaches students how to deal with abstract concepts in a visual way," the teacher said. "They don't get a lot of opportunities to do that in middle school. It also exposes them to something new, maybe a different career path, and to a different use of computers and a different use of technology in general. And I think its very beneficial to their appreciation of school . . . "
"Once they get comfortable with the programs," he said, "we'll do some storyboarding and script writing and, by May, they should have produced something good for this year.
"If they can make a good, two-minute feature, if they did that, it would be fantastic because that's hard to do."