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Filmmaker Sarah Nagy first taught stop-motion animation to her 7-year-old son and his friends. Now she travels all around Portland teaching school children how to bring clay characters to life on video. She calls herself the Buckman Film Academy, partly because she lives near Buckman Elementary School and also because it gives her an excuse to put a “BFA” after her name. (She has a master’s degree in film studies from the University of Amsterdam.)
Nagy teaches elementary school kids everything about making a film, from storyboarding to editing. She does it through the Right Brain Initiative, a public-private venture that funds arts residencies in schools. Her students’ film shorts have been showcased at the Time-Based Art Festival and have won awards at the Annual Young People’s Film and Video Festival at the Portland Art Museum. Selected works will be featured in OPB’s Oregon Lens series.
Arts & Life recently talked with Nagy about her work.
Q & A with Sarah Nagy
Arts & Life: Why stop-motion animation?
Sarah Nagy: I like stop-motion animation because it defies reality. It allows the kids to do special effects with ease, so you can get your characters to disappear and enlarge, or with a little fishing line you can get them to fly. It’s not constrained by the realities of doing real film.
The other reason I like it is that a lot of children who are shy or don’t want to get in front of the camera are really at ease with stop-motion animation.
SN: I usually ask the teachers if they have specific subjects they want to cover. Some of them will be interested in science or history or identity, or I might pitch an idea if they’re completely open.
A&L: In one of the films, the kids made aliens and had them speak a new alien language, complete with subtitles. How did that idea come about?
SN: The teacher wanted to do something on habitats, and I suggested space. And I really like foreign films, so I wanted the kids to get used to reading subtitles so they could appreciate foreign films, too.
A&L: How did the kids make up their own language?
SN: We tried different things, like we had different letters equal other letters, but ultimately we just let the kids come up with their own gibberish.
A&L: In the same video, the kids describe which foods aliens on Neptune like to eat. The foods were things like “regrubmah” and “egasuas,” which as I’m seeing a second time I’m just now realizing are “hamburger” and “sausage” spelled backwards.
SN: Yeah, I was trying to emphasize how creatures in outer space would walk differently and eat differently, and they probably wouldn’t have a hamburger or a milkshake — the food would probably be called something else. And one of the students came up with the idea of reversing the letters.
A&L: What do kids seem to have a hard time grasping?
SN: Younger ones really have a hard time grasping that you can’t move your character really quickly, and it’s really hard for them to slow down that much. Often they don’t understand that you have to take your hands out with each shot, but they usually get it by the end.
What’s challenging is working in groups. Every single child has a version of what their film is going to be, and there are six of them, so they have to collaborate and share that vision.
A&L: Do you think kids do anything better than adults would?
SN: They all inherently seem to grasp the idea of a story arc, I think because they watch so many shorts or films on YouTube or whatever. And I try to integrate magic into the films, and they’re good at coming up with whatever that is — whether it’s somebody evaporating or disappearing or flying or having some supernatural power.
A&L: How often do the kids eat the clay?
SN: It’s one of the first things I tell them not to do, so never.
A&L: Do you think your life would have been different if you would have done this as a kid?
SN: Yes, I think it would have been amazing. I was always really into acting, but I very rarely actually got roles in plays. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I realized I loved movies as much as I did, and for [the students] to have this power and experience to make this now, I think it’s amazing.
Watch the Buckman Film Academy films on August 27 at 10 p.m. on OPB TV.