April Tiscareno, 11, carefully considered the fanciful, two-dimensional puppet she had made from magazine cutouts and small metal fasteners.
It was her turn at the "lunchbox," a high-tech camera device hooked to a monitor and a VCR that would allow her to make an animated movie, using her creation.
With help from college student Tyson Laurent, she was posing her puppet and deciding how many times to push the button on the rectangular box -- each click representing a single frame.
"The more times you push the button, the slower it moves," April said of the speed of the animated short feature she was making.
April and her classmates -- including her twin brother, Jonathan -- are learning the basics of art and animation in a novel after-school program that grew out of a collaboration among the city of Los Angeles, an entertainment industry giant and one of Southern California's premier arts colleges.
For two days a week throughout the school year, students 11 to 14 years old gather at one of five sites throughout Los Angeles for instruction in drawing, design, color approaches, animation and media technology.
By the end of the year, they will have amassed large portfolios of artwork, created dozens of animated short features and -- program collaborators hope -- tapped a creative force that will follow them into adulthood and perhaps lead to careers in the arts and entertainment field.
The Sony Pictures Media Arts Program, as the art and animation classes are called, had its roots in the cash-strapped Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department's desire to find corporate partners to help provide art instruction for youngsters.
"I thought it was brilliant" for the city to tap the region's vast arts and entertainment industry, said Janice Pober, a senior vice president at Sony Pictures Entertainment.
"We have such a need for animators and art directors, and here we have an opportunity to help provide a proper arts education," she said. "It's a work force development issue for us.... We need these young people!"
Sony teamed with the California Institute of the Arts and that school's Community Arts Partnership to design a pilot project targeting youngsters of middle school age.
"Many of our after-school programs are aimed at younger age groups," said Leslie A. Thomas, assistant general manager of the Cultural Affairs Department. "We wanted to offer something that would interest older kids."
Sony donated about $125,000 in computer and video equipment and worked with CalArts to design the pilot program, which opened in 2002. CalArts, which has its main campus in Valencia, provides one of its faculty members and two student instructors from its character animation program for each of the five sites. Plans are to make the after-school program permanent and expand it when the pilot phase ends in 2005.
Students are chosen first come, first served for the free classes, open to Los Angeles residents in the targeted age group. Classes are limited to 15 students at each location for plenty of individual attention.
"But we don't like to turn anyone away, so sometimes we have taken an extra student or two," said Glenna Avila, director of the CalArts Community Arts Partnership. CalArts also helps provide other free arts instruction to middle and high school students in 40 Los Angeles County communities, Avila said. It oversees instruction, curriculum development and evaluation of the media arts program for the city.
Unlike many other after-school programs, the media arts classes are held at art centers, not on school campuses, because the centers are better equipped for animation work.
Families must make their own transportation arrangements for three of the sites: the Center for the Arts Eagle Rock, the William Reagh Los Angeles Photography Center in the Westlake district near downtown and the Banning's Landing Community Center in Wilmington. Transportation is provided for some students attending the program at the Watts Tower Arts Center, while the fifth site is at the San Fernando Gardens Community Service Center in a Pacoima housing project. Like the other centers, it is a short walk or bus ride from many students' homes or schools, said Thomas of the city department.
Students receive six hours a week of instruction that could start them on paths to a variety of arts-related careers, including cartoonist, animator, comic book illustrator, video game creator and Web designer.
At Eagle Rock, where classes meet Wednesdays and Fridays, students one recent rainy afternoon worked on puppets and backgrounds for their short animated features. Some had been in the class since fall and their work had been highlighted in a video compiled at the end of the first semester.
That video included shorts of an imaginative basketball game on a futuristic L.A. freeway and such fanciful animals as mad cows and a giant blue clam-like creature. Two of the girls inserted moving photos of themselves into their work.