In this signature blog, Projects Manager James Greenhalgh invites the artists and collaborators behind Dance for Kids with IRIS to share their insights on the creation process
Listen to an audio version of this blog
Fertile Ground: Growing a digital version of IRIS
The process of research and development began in October 2021, bringing together our creative learning program and artistic team to share ideas and explore how we could bring IRIS, our inclusive dance syllabus, to an online audience. During the pandemic we recognised the need for accessible digital activities for children, so set out to create this series of inclusive dance exercises presented by disabled role models. Harnessing what we know works in our community classes and developing it for an online audience, saw Community Engagement Artist Cherie Brennan and Artistic Director Lucy Bennett emerge with the concept for Dance for Kids with IRIS.
Drawing on exercises from the syllabus, the format for the series sees it take place inside a home full of dancing friends, with each session enriched by the environment of the surrounding room.
The concept of each film being set in a different room in a house and garden grew out of this, and to create a format typical of programmes aimed at pre-school children. Lucy shares more insight into how the ideas for the series started to grow and develop:
“As we began to discuss our initial ideas with the artistic and creative learning teams we learnt quickly that the more perspectives we had in the research – the better and more rigorous the ideas for our children’s series became. Everyone had a different experience of growing up and engaging with dance and children’s programmes and that with our experience of teaching IRIS to our fantastic youth companies created fertile ground for us to grow our digital version of IRIS.”
In order to realise the vision for Dance for Kids with IRIS we collaborated with multiple creatives and specialists working across digital arts and animation. We worked with stop motion animator Patrick O’Mahony, and filmmaker Floyd Kondé to design and produce a visually exciting animated series. We also developed a partnership with the University of Creative Arts in Farnham, bringing onboard students from Digital Arts, Animation Design and Post-Production, utilising the University’s facilities for filming, recording and editing.
We aim to embed access and inclusion from the beginning on all the projects we do, and this was included in our design brief which was presented to Further Education students at UCA, along with resources we shared to provide some guidance. We asked them to design concepts for the rooms, and were spoilt for choice with many submissions of the different parts making up an inclusive, animated house. We considered what rooms could work together within one house, which included a warm living room with a content cat, a kitchen disco and a forest garden featuring a resident frog.
We worked closely with the stop motion animator Patrick to start to bring these designs to life. Patrick tells us more on his working process:
“I’m a stop-motion animator and filmmaker and my role on this project was to adapt the designs from the students of UCA into fully realised sets, also including the creation of IRIS as a stop-motion puppet.
The designs that were chosen really represented the creativity of the students and how they embraced the brief. I built the sets as real miniatures and included an animated element that could be looped, bringing life to the background. One of the best things about working with Stopgap was the freedom I was given to be able to adapt these designs to be functional. When building the sets, I needed to make sure the scale worked throughout and that they fit within the ratio of the screen. Using an action figure for scale reference when building the walls and props helped make sure the inserted dancers didn’t seem overly large or small within the space.
To make sure the designs stayed consistent I made sure to keep the materials the same and redesign some elements that appeared throughout, for example making the windows in each of the rooms round. Everything was mostly made from coloured card with super sculpey used for minor props. The spaces also needed to be disability accessible so certain elements had to be changed or removed to accommodate wheelchair users. One of the biggest redesigns was the bedroom which in the original design had a cabin bed but would need to be a standard bed which I added steps too.”
At the same time our team of presenters developed personas for their characters to go with their session, including Super Hannah who loves fitness, the calm Moonlight Mo, and exploring different textures with Laura the Curious, as well as developing their scripts and teaching styles. Lucy shared more about this development process:
“Yet again, working digitally taught us how vital clear and creative communication is and how it is the bedrock of our inclusive dance teaching. As inclusive presenters unable to interact with their digital audiences, the presenters had to carefully script their teaching, alongside balancing using open language, body specific mapping with expressive sounds and imagery to get their invisible audience moving.
They had to find a way to reach right through the camera and connect with their audience as if they were in a one-to-one session with just one young person. All this whilst staying bright, fun and nonjudgmental. The team practised weekly, and we shaped the episodes as a team, this way of co-creating a product that has very clear aims and audience enabled us all to leave our creative egos at the door and really persist in pursuing inclusion”
Inclusion & Access Aesthetics
The team had many conversations around inclusion and access. One of our main aims was to offer disabled role models for young people and their support networks. Before starting filming in the green screen facilities at UCA, we were able to pilot the series with children via video call into school classrooms. Portfield Academy and Tangmere Academy in West Sussex included neurodivergent and non-disabled young people – who were very vocal in what they thought worked and what was challenging. The exercises we thought may be a little slow proved to be the most popular and IRIS, our audio describing robot, became a clear learning tool that supported the sighted young people as well as blind and visually-impaired young people.
I asked Lily, Access Artist at Stopgap, if they could describe some of the discussions we had around embedding accessibility during the development of the project:
“We wanted the access to be a part of the same world of Dance for Kids with IRIS; so often accessibility is at the back of the queue and doesn’t ever get the chance to inform creative work in any way. In recent projects we’ve really been exploring access aesthetics – ways to remove barriers that also richly inform the creative work and enhance it for all. So, rather than have the audio description as a disembodied voice, we created a character who became integral to the series, who interacted with the presenters, and who without the sessions wouldn’t make sense.
As the series was aimed at children it pushed us to really consider the way we described movement instructions and how we balanced styles of description to make it fun and age appropriate. In doing this, not only is accessibility normalised, but it demonstrates how inclusive design and approaches can benefit everyone.”
The presenters use Makaton to aid with their visually animated teaching, the hand gestures and physical cues being particularly helpful for learning disabled and non-English speaking children. We hoped most young people would be able to follow the visuals without needing words, and the children who couldn’t access the visuals would have the audio description. For the ‘Dancing with the Seasons’ episode with Emily we worked with BSL interpreter Kate Labno to integrate her as part of the aesthetic as another character, who works with IRIS to support Emily and the viewer.
Bringing IRIS to Life
As Lily mentions, the audio description and music for the series comes in the form of IRIS the robot, a small colourful radio with eyes made of speakers and two thin metal arms they use to move around and dance. Scripted and voiced by access artist Lily, IRIS supports the viewer with descriptions of the presenter’s movements and the surroundings of their rooms. This animated character developed out of one student’s responses to our design brief where we had asked for a source for the audio description in the house. IRIS’ movement is influenced by the late Dave Toole OBE, and we worked with Patrick to share videos and ideas to bring IRIS to life. Patrick details how IRIS was created:
“IRIS was an extra addition that appeared in a design based on a disco. To be built as a fully functioning puppet the design had to change while keeping its essence. The character had to dance, speak and interact with the presenters and needed to move freely, so the length of the arms was changed. This gave IRIS a unique way of moving which matched Dave Toole, who also danced primarily on his hands.
The build itself was relatively simple with the outer elements being made from card to match the sets. The inside of the speaker was carved from Styrofoam to give IRIS their shape while also remaining light. A rig was attached to their back to help them stand, move, jump and dance. IRIS was animated to match certain performances but also have their own moves. To make sure the compositor could use IRIS in multiple ways and to cut down time on animating, IRIS was animated in sections. Each dance move was its own clip that started and ended with IRIS in a neutral position. This gave the compositor the option to swap the dance moves around, remove some, add some and create unique dances for each episode. This approach meant IRIS could be adapted to what was needed and could be used for multiple things including future elements. As they were based on a speaker it was decided early on to not have the character be fully lip-synced. Instead, their mouth is a speaker in itself so that any dialogue could be added at a later date.”
“This was an extremely new approach to animating for me but the freedom in creating a character with ‘options’ was very rewarding. To be able to swap around the dance moves each time meant the character did far more than appeared and could react according to what was happening.
The final build for the sets and puppets goes to show the creativity of the students who designed them and the willingness of Stopgap to give it a go. The videos are colourful, fun, unique and full of character from both the dancers, IRIS and the moving elements in the background. The multi-style approach to the project and the different collaborators made it creatively rewarding from start to finish and is a great example of why it’s always worth taking a leap on something new and inventive.”
We really enjoyed having the opportunity to work with students in the Digital Arts and Post-Production departments at the University of Creative Arts in Farnham to edit the recorded footage into a fully-realised visually animated world, in collaboration with our filmmaker Floyd Konde. I asked one of the students, Milo, if they could share their experience of working on the project:
“I’m a 3rd year student interested in digital art and animation, hoping to cover a range of personal and cultural themes in my work. This was my first involvement in a professional project, and it gave me insight into how much communication is needed to get everything done. This was an opportunity to step out of my comfort zone and be given specific roles in creating assets and animations.
Before working with Stopgap, I had no experience working with accessibility or inclusive practice in disability arts, but the series has brought light to how fun and fulfilling dance can be for any kid, so it’s been great helping put it together. I think collaborating with UCA students was a brilliant idea, as the whole team from filming to post-production has embraced the experience of encouraging inclusivity in the arts.”
Dance for Kids with IRIS is available to watch for free on our Youtube channel. We hope you enjoy it, and we always welcome any feedback!