Once upon a time...
Once upon a time, my parents took us on a road trip from Newcastle to Melbourne. A highlight was a visit to Scienceworks and an interactive exhibition called Special Effects – The Secrets Behind The Screen. Designed to introduce young people to the visual effects of chroma-key and blue-screen technology, this exhibition experience has remained with me to this day.
Each station was set up with a blue screen, and VHS video camera (yes, we're talking 1994 pre-digital!), and you could film yourself performing scenes on a variety of film sets by popping in your tape and collecting your takes as you went. We crossed wooden bridges over lava streams, we became trapped in an Indiana Jones-style stone temple, and even had a conversation with Ernie Dingo from inside a refrigerator. Not only did this experience spark my love for film, technology and performance, it also revealed the magic created when these elements combine.
Museums have the capacity to transform. For young people, in particular, stepping into a new world and engaging with an array of new experiences, learnings and visual treasure is inspiring and can be life changing.
Many years later
Flash forward many years later and now, as part of the ACMI Education team, I help create transformative experiences for young people.
Blue screens have now given way to green screens but magical visual effects have maintained their appeal. One of our most beloved and longstanding workshops is a green-screen experience called Fairytales and Fantasy. It transports learners from Foundation to Year 2 to a wonder-filled fairytale world and introduces them to an understanding of the moving image as something that is ‘made’ using a range of technologies. Students make their own fairytale film in our green-screen studio and have the thrill of watching their filmed performance in a screening at the end of the workshop.
Thanks to the democratisation of film technology and the development of user-friendly software and smartphones, the makeshift green screen has become common place in homes and classrooms. But the ACMI experience operates on an entirely different level. Presented in the Gandel Digital Future Lab, our Fairytales and Fantasy workshop provides students with the experience of being in a state-of-the-art professional film studio – and even the littlies recognise that this is something special. Our program involves discussion and immersion in the technology: what it is, why we use it and how we interact with a set, cameras and other equipment. Students learn about the kinds of roles on a film set, film technologies and the way we tell stories in this setting.
Learning through fairytales
Teachers often bring their classes into ACMI as part of a narrative unit or as a way of finishing up and consolidating this learning. Fairytales can be an effective component in units on creating and retelling texts. They can be a tool for students to begin learning about the features of fiction texts and understand how to build stories. Fairytales can be used to explore ideas of morality – what does it mean for something to be right or wrong, good or bad? Through character and themes, we can explore how we feel empathy, and understand how our actions affect others. Ultimately, storytelling is a tool for teaching many lessons and fairytales are a great entry point. In the classroom, they may have explored character perspectives through reading, writing or dressing up, and in our workshop, these discoveries are consolidated through creative performance and the embodied exploration of character and narrative.
One of the delights for us in the Education team is seeing the looks of wonder and excitement as students cross the threshold into the film studio (for some, their very first school excursion). When we decided to renew and refresh this program as part of a whole-museum renovation, we knew we wanted to retain this special magic at the heart of the ACMI experience. However, we wanted to connect this magic to a program that was relevant to today’s society and communicates ACMI values.
ACMI’s museum renewal project began in 2019 and gave us the time and breathing space to reflect on what worked well about the Fairytales and Fantasy program but also to to think about how we could represent this fantastical world through a more diverse lens. How could we signal important messages about the voices and faces on our screens and in our society more generally? It made perfect sense for us to respond to this from a moving image perspective and also from one that sits proudly within ACMI’s role as a leader in inclusivity and diverse representation.
We were committed to harnessing the multi-faceted learning embedded in our existing Fairytales and Fantasy program to a renewed workshop that was more forward-facing and relevant to the diverse experiences of our young green-screen performers. In our renewed Fairytales and Fantasy workshop, we wanted to use the fairytale context to communicate values of equality, respectful relationships and inclusive representation.
Fairytale stories have often been based around moral tales or learnings, so we thought it was time to bring this into the 21st Century. We planned to draw on the abundance of contemporary takes on fairytales and the opportunities they provide for teaching kids literary and narrative devices in combination with contemporary values – think ‘fractured fairytale’.
As a museum focusing on screen culture, we were also very conscious of the long tradition of animated fairytale films that reinforce old-fashioned views and poor messaging around gender, race and disability. These classic animations bear the mark of histories and opinions that are unacceptable in contemporary society and have no place in a program that is relevant and accessible for young students. With this in mind, we wanted a program that celebrates both storytelling and the fairytale tradition but also leaves room for resisting convention and reimagining what living ‘happily ever after’ might mean in our contemporary society. We also wanted to create an inclusive environment for children where they would see role models on screen and also become part of the narrative themselves.
The new workshop
Our new workshop still contains all the magic of the original experience, along with updated and truly wonderful, interactive digital sets. We have created characters who are familiar to students, but are also strong, original and progressive. We have created a story arc that celebrates the idea of choice. We are activating our student performers with the question: what if these traditional fairytale characters want more for themselves than their earlier narrative history has demanded of them?
In fairytales, there tends to be a narrative tradition of women behaving “badly” if they attempt to disrupt the status quo, or an untrustworthy woman yielding a dangerous power, often in the form or a witch. (The old anti-feminist cautionary tale!) There’s also the tradition of “wise” white men being given the moral high ground as they restore order, often in the form of a wizard or monarch. These powerful men also try to uphold the notion of an “ideal” man that will no doubt be on hand to rescue the innocent princess.
In our reimagined workshop, we decided we were going to rethink this fairytale formula including what might be considered ‘badly-behaved’ and the traditional happily-ever-after-ending. We don’t want to give away too many secrets but we can at least let you know that our story includes a feisty Cinderella and a fairy godparent with attitude.
Magic lantern journey
Our new program also forges a dynamic connection with the renewed ACMI’s celebrated centrepiece exhibition The Story of the Moving Image by incorporating a magic lantern into our green-screen narrative experience. We take up the idea of being transported into a magical world and the magic lantern becomes a portal into the fairytale world that the students are entering. This gives our performers an opportunity to connect with the history of the moving image and engage with the museum more generally. During the program they will be given an opportunity to visit the exhibition so they have the excitement of making a real-world connection with the fantastical apparatus they encounter in their participatory fairytale story.
Within the walls of our museum, ACMI contains a treasure trove of talented humans. This project has involved a collaboration of talented filmmakers, cinematographers, directors, writers, educators, designers and animators. This project has enabled us to work collaboratively using our skill sets. For many of us it felt like an eternity since we had been on a film set (let alone in the same room), so this was pure joy.
As a team, we know it is an ongoing project of finding and telling stories that are relevant and inclusive. Our offer is one that is constantly evolving as we strive to push creative, social and learning boundaries and to welcome and create a sense of belonging and inclusion in as all young learners who engage with our programs.
Magic is a universal concept. It connects with the imagination, celebrates the unexplainable and is exciting and full of possibility. Magic knows no boundaries of place, time, class, race or gender. Magic and film are a perfect match – providing a place and opportunity for young learners to use their imaginations and be inspired to become the next moving image magic-makers.
– Zoe McDonald