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Computer Animation Course Helps Young People With Criminal Pasts

By Patrick Wall | April 19, 2013 9:40am

MELROSE — A group of amateur animators in their teens and twenties recently reviewed the rough cut of a video they created.

In it, 3D fruit taunt a pear — “Stop being such a vegetable!” — as they prod it to tag along to Club Blender.

But the pear, hoping to set a good example for his younger sister, resists the urge and stays behind — luckily, since the club soon pulverizes its visitors into smoothie chunks.

The title of this public service announcement? “Pear Pressure.”

Food puns aside, this question — whether to follow the pack or your conscience — resonated with the animation team, whose members are enrolled in a program for court-involved youth.

Not only have the animators been steered by peers before, but they have also inspired others, perhaps younger siblings or schoolmates, to choose paths dark or bright.

“I have three little sisters that look up to me and they always follow by example,” said one participant, Darius, 24. “The message is: somebody’s always watching you and you’re always teaching.”

The team of about a dozen fledgling computer-animators are clients of the Osborne Association, a nonprofit that provides drug counseling, parenting classes, job training and more to people in the criminal justice system.

The six-week animation workshop is run by The Animation Project, a separate nonprofit that combines art therapy with professional-level software training, which would cost thousands of dollars at many schools. The group also works with the city’s Probation Department and has taught young people in schools, juvenile detention centers and foster care.

(Because the program’s therapy component requires confidentiality, TAP requested that only participants’ first names be used.)

After settling on the animated video’s message, the group sketched a storyboard of the scenes then created each of the 3D fruits and props that fill the kitchen where the story unfolds.

That may have explained the participants’ reactions as they watched the rough cut Thursday.

“That’s my sink!” one young man exclaimed. “Look at that garbage can!” another crowed.

Though only a fraction of the participants will pursue animation as a career, tackling the sophisticated software is still valuable as both a resumé and confidence-booster, said TAP’s founder and executive director, Brian Austin.

“Our group inspires people to think beyond what they thought they might be able to do,” said Austin, a Grammy-nominated animator who left the advertising industry to study art therapy.

The therapy part of the program happens when participants discuss the message of the animation — in this case, the influence people have on each other, for good or ill.

William, 23, said he voluntarily enrolled at Osborne to kick an expensive and distracting marijuana habit that he feared would interfere with his parenting of his 3-month-old son.

He began smoking when he was 12, he said, after years of watching his father and other adults do so.

“It’s kind of like they inherited it to me,” William said.

In addition to the weekly animation class, many of the participants are also studying for the GED, interning or learning a trade — Darius, for example, is studying food handling in Osborne’s learning kitchen.

Still, finding full-time work after the program will not be easy for many of the participants, whose barebones resumés, limited schooling and criminal records will likely scare off some employers. (Knowing this, Osborne coaches participants on how to field “the conviction question.”)

Then, there is also the lingering lure of street life.

During Thursday’s animation class, amid debate over the ideal color of the 3D kitchen tiles, several participants shared their eagerness to smoke weed that weekend and two men chatted about the thrill of handling guns.

But away from their peers, the animators insisted that just as they had transformed shapes on a screen into talking fruit, they could create new lives for themselves.

“The program has taught me that it’s not how you fall, it’s how you get up,” said Darius. “I’ve fell enough. And now I just feel like, I’m on my feet, and I’m going to stand.”

Or as William put it, describing his strategy as a budding animator, “It’s like, you got to mess up to learn.”