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Arts & Entertainment - Campus & Community

A Spoonful of Animation Helps the Story Medicine Go Down

May 31, 2018

Jose receiving a special plaque at the screening held on Drexel's campus.
Jose receiving a special plaque at the screening held on Drexel's campus.

Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder (in dog and cat form, respectively) talking music over spaghetti. An angel dueling her frenemy in an intense swordfight in the middle of a purple forest. A high-stakes Olympic race that results with no winner. A scientific experiment proving that yes, pigs can actually fly.

These scenarios were all dreamed up by patients at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and then written, acted out and animated by Drexel University students. The finished projects were recently screened at Drexel as part of the “2018 Patient Film Festival,” to the delight of Drexel Dragons and the young CHOP patients and their families.

“I was shocked at how they made this movie,” said Jose, the patient who dreamed up “Dog Jackson” for the video “Dog Jackson’s Dream,” adding that he was really “thankful” and “grateful” that the students worked to transform his vision from a dream to an animated video.

This collaboration grew out of the latest project from “Story Medicine,” a community-based learning class taught by Nomi Eve, an assistant teaching professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of English and Philosophy. Since the class was first taught in the spring term of 2016, it has always connected Drexel students with CHOP patients to put on some in-house performances at the hospital, as previously showcased in a 2017 DrexelNow article.

These Dragons — who come from different disciplines across the University — write plays and then, twice a week, perform them on-camera in CHOP’s Seacrest Studio for shows that were then broadcast throughout the hospital. Children receiving treatment could participate in the show, but the Drexel/CHOP Story Medicine animation collaborative marked the first time that they worked with Dragons to create and storyboard their own original stories and watch them come alive through both live action and 3-D immersive motion capture films.

Jose sitting in the director's chair while Drexel students act out his "Dog Jackson's Dream" video.
Jose sitting in the director's chair while Drexel students act out his "Dog Jackson's Dream" video.

These are kids for whom a lot of enrichment opportunities are out of reach because of their health challenges,” said Eve. “But they have incredible imaginations and know how to use them! Knowing that we may have made some days a bit better for them is an awesome feeling.”

This collaboration marked the first time that the children’s stories were animated and that another college and class at Drexel became involved in the partnership. Eve was looking for possible collaborators and ended up connecting with Nick Jushchyshyn, program director of animation, visual effects and immersive media in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design. The children’s four animated films were born out of two classes that were held this past fall term.

The 13 students (hailing from all across the University) from Eve’s “Story Medicine” class met with patients to develop stories, write scripts and storyboard the film. Then, during week six and seven of the term, the students were directed by patients for live-action shoots of all four films, with those Dragons then acting out the film while wearing motion capture suits at Westphal’s Motion Capture Studio. 

The 15 animation and game design students who took a separate animation class taught by Jushchyshyn then operated as an animation studio to translate the work of the Story Medicine students and the CHOP patients into an animated film. As Jushchyshyn noted at the screening, a Pixar short film (like the ones shown before feature films) usually take about two years to produce, and an episode of an animated television show usually takes about nine months to produce. He and the 15 students in the class had 10 weeks to produce four short films, with each one clocking in at under four minutes.   

mario the dragon video thumbnail

“We operated as an animation studio, and treated the stories essentially as a client project,” said Jushchyshyn. “We worked through the entire process of breaking down a story that needed to be animated, and then broke it into parts for the students to manage.”

Some of the films were debuted at a smaller, initial screening held at CHOP in December, but all four films were shown at a May 2 screening to a packed audience at Drexel’s URBN Annex. Three of the four patients were in the room to watch their ideas come to life, including Jena, who was discharged from the hospital that morning. At the screening, she danced in her seat after watching her film and asked for the autographs of the students who helped work on it.

“One of the patients sitting in the front row had a huge grin on his face the whole time as he saw his story on the big screen, in a theater, in a room full of people,” said Jushchyshyn. “And it was great for the Drexel students to see the impact that they made.”

Jian White, who was a student in Westphal’s Film & Video program and has continued to help with Story Medicine, had acted in Jose’s video as “Dog Jackson,” the soft-spoken canine version of the aforementioned musician.  

“It was really cool seeing the kids’ finished dreams come true,” he said. “I didn’t really know what I was getting into — I basically read the course description when I got to class. But this has been a life-changing experience for me.”

Students and Nomi Eve posing at the Seacrest Studios at CHOP.
Students and Nomi Eve posing at the Seacrest Studios at CHOP.

Story Medicine will continue to be offered at Drexel, and Eve, Jushchyshyn and their partners at CHOP are already looking ahead for future opportunities to collaborate. Eve hopes that one day, the Story Medicine model can be exported to other children’s hospitals and universities and that she can collaborate with other Drexel professors for future classes.

“There is so much we can do to bring imagination-based pedagogy to CHOP while providing Drexel students with unique avenues to apply their learned skills in a real-world environment,” she said. “We are always on the lookout for students who want to bring their unique talents and abilities to Story Medicine. Whether a student is in app development, game design, fashion design or any other major ... there are interesting things that we can cook up.”

To watch an explanatory video showing behind-the-scenes footage and Story Medicine cast and crew interviews, click here.