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Class Act : Professional-Level Animation Program Wins Raves for Rowland School District

February 09, 1989|SIOK-HIAN TAY KELLEY | Times Staff Writer

His fingers moving rapidly over the computer keyboard, Musa Mustafa "sketched" a hat on the screen and maneuvered it onto Gumby's head as a visiting Soviet animator shook his head in delight.

Fedor Khitruk, president of the Union of Soviet Animators, was tickled again when Mustafa, selecting from a computer display of colors, created green eyes for a cartoon alien.

"I would like to take this toy," Khitruk said finally.

Despite the glare of movie lights and the high-tech wizardry of the video, sound and film-editing equipment surrounding him recently, Khitruk wasn't touring a Hollywood studio. Instead, he was in a high school classroom in Rowland Heights.

Not that the teen-agers' productions are anything to dismiss lightly.

Within the last decade, animation students at Rowland High School have produced more than 1,000 films and won about 50 international prizes.

Six Rowland animation students brought back prizes from this year's International Student Media Festival in Dallas, the 10th consecutive year the school has won first-place awards in that competition. Last summer, three live half-hour shows produced at the school, featuring sights and activities in Rowland Heights, were aired by local cable television stations.

Coaches 200 Students

Animation teacher Dave Master coaches 200 students at the high school, and four other teachers instruct 125 students at elementary and junior high schools in the Rowland Unified School District.

Students from throughout the district, as well as graduates of the program such as Mustafa, 21, gathered at the high school for the visit by Khitruk and Czechoslovakian animator Jan Svankmajer, who were in Los Angeles last month for the third annual Los Angeles Animation Celebration.

Through an interpreter, Svankmajer answered questions after a screening of his surrealistic work.

A vignette featuring two tongues aroused plenty of curiosity. Real pig tongues were used, Svankmajer said, with wires inserted in them to make them more lifelike. Some students giggled or said "Ugh."

"For every (camera) take," Svankmajer said, "we had to bring a fresh tongue from the slaughterhouse because they deteriorated very fast."

Rowland Unified's animation program was created single-handedly by Master, who joined the district as an art teacher 12 years ago.

In 1977, Master assigned an animation project to his art class at Rincon Intermediate School as "just something to try out." With one camera, the students made a 10-second film that combined drawings, paper cut-outs and clay.

The following year, his students' works were praised at a Los Angeles film festival. District officials let Master start teaching animation full time, then encouraged him to move to Rowland High to develop a more in-depth program. In 1984, he won the California School Board Assn.'s "Golden Bell Award" for excellence in education.

Meanwhile, Master helped develop animation classes in the district's other schools, conducting workshops and sharing equipment with fellow teachers. Today, he said, Rowland Unified is the only school district in the country that offers animation classes beginning with the elementary grades.

Teaching Workshops

Several students have transferred from other high schools to Rowland to continue studying animation. In response, Master has begun conducting animation workshops for teachers in other districts, said district Supt. Sharon Robison.

Through film festivals and competitions, Master has developed close ties with professionals in the field, who have donated sophisticated equipment as well as their time to share tricks of the trade with his students.

Master was president of the Los Angeles Student Film Institute for four years and has served for seven years on the Education Commission of the International Animated Film Society.

An early supporter, Bill Littlejohn, an animator for "Peanuts" and "Garfield" cartoons, described the Rowland students' works as remarkably sophisticated.

"Everybody's thrilled to see them," said Littlejohn, who often judges at film festivals. "They have good gags, and they get better every year."

June Foray, the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel in "Bullwinkle" cartoons, often visits Master's students to give them tips.

"It's very gratifying that he starts teaching them early," said Foray, who gave the animation program its first recording unit.

Atari Educational Action Research Group has donated a $10,000 video-camera animation system, and Apple Computer Inc. has given the program three rooms of sound recording and mixing gear.

Today, Master's 200 high school students can work with more than $800,000 worth of animation equipment.

Master's classroom looks more like a large workshop. Boards bearing the titles of award-winning films and star-shaped pieces of wood with the student producers' names adorn the walls. Current students hammer and saw to build sets ranging from dollhouse-like homes of plywood to cardboard mountains and painted rivers.

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