Visual Literacy & Kids: Acclaimed Animator Explains

Our kids are growing up in a media-saturated culture and learning how to recognize the subtle and not-so-subtle messages in TV, movies, and video games is as important as the three R's.

 The average American child watches two to three hours of TV a day, according to the American Association of Pediatrics. And that doesn't include the Our kids are growing up in a media-saturated culture and learning how to, sitting in front of the computer, and watching movies. Yet, few children are taught how to decode the messages that come wrapped in visual media. Ellen Besen, an acclaimed animator, author, and teacher who's worked with students from pre-school to college level says that visual literacy is a skill that every child should be taught. "Because of technology our kids have near-constant access to visual media, yet we've done very little to teach them how to really understand what they're seeing," says Besen. She offers this help for parents and teachers.

*     RECOGNIZE THE MOST BASIC CAMERA TRICK. "Framing," the way that a camera focuses on a particular element or scene is often use to distort or enhance reality. For example, the shot of a crowd cheering or jeering a particular celebrity or politician that overflows the edges of the screen gives the impression of a mass turnout. Yet, if the camera were pulled back a little it could reveal a largely empty stadium or a relatively sedate street. "Teach your kids that what they don't see if often as important as what they do, especially when their watching news or reality TV" says Besen.

*     DO YOU REALLY WANT SHOE POLISH ON YOUR BROWNIES? Familiarize yourself with the ways in which many consumer products, especially food, are doctored to make them more appealing. Foods are often coated with paint, shoe polish, or oil to make them look brighter and more enticing. Also, portions sizes are often exaggerated.

*     TURN OFF THE SOUND OCCASIONALLY. We often forget that with visual media there's much more at work than the visuals. Encourage kids to notice the difference sound effects and music make in how they perceive what they are seeing by watching something first with sound and then without it. Then, encourage them to watch and listen for the effect of rhythm on perception. Rhythm can come from such elements as music or camera moves and can be used to make a story seem more exiting or more important.

*     PLAYING ON FANTASIES. Ask your kids to think about what desires or fantasies certain ads tap into. "The opportunities to do this are nearly endless," says Besen. For example, think of the SUV commercial that has the driver tearing off the road into the wilderness or the toothpaste commercial that ends with a beautiful woman fawning over a man.

*     POW! CRASH! WHAM! DIFFERENTIATE BETWEEN FAKE AND REAL VIOLENCE. It's particularly important to remind kids of just how highly staged most of what they see on TV is, especially when they're seeing violence. Make it clear to them that fight scenes are among the most choreographed and manufactured and that while violence on TV or in the movies doesn't leave lasting destruction, in real life it does.

Ellen Besen
is the author of Animation Unleashed: 100 Principles Every Animator, Comic Book Writer, Filmmaker, Video Artist and Game Developer Should Know (Michael Wiese Productions, November 2008, Paperback). She has worked in animation for over 35 years and has been a teacher for over two decades. Besen has taught at all levels and was on the faculty of Sheridan College's School of Animation for nearly 20 years. She continues to teach the principles of animation filmmaking on an intensive one-to-one basis. Besen has been interviewed by national and local media, including USA Today, the Denver Post, and Canadian Broadcasting.


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