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Film festival's Family Day draws creatures great and small

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RYAN M. KELLY/THE DAILY PROGRESS

Cami Kielbasa (on floor) uses a "worm's-eye view" to film Sage Tanguay (from left) and Maisie Finley as they perform improvised movement during a workshop at Family Day, part of the Virginia Film Festival, at the University of Virginia on Saturday.

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A giant bug stomped through a field of toddlers. Kangaroos and kookaburras threatened to leap out of computer screens. Bassoons and oboes shrieked like wild animals.

It sounds like a chaotic scene from a movie. But the cacophony of children’s voices on the University of Virginia’s Arts Grounds on Saturday morning was anything but scripted. It was the sound of learning, discovery and creativity -- the sound of Family Day at the 26th annual Virginia Film Festival.

It was the first time a day of activities for children and families was incorporated into the festival, and it seemed to be well-received by volunteers, parents and curious little ones.

A giant ant-like creature immediately drew attention and mixed reactions, pulling people into the rest of the activities.

Winston, made of foam and PVC pipe during a two-semester class on creature creation last school year, spent most of the morning crouching unassumingly, letting children manipulate wires that moved his tentacles and eyelids.

Alex Kaplan, a fourth-year architecture major who helped to build Winston, showed visitors around the bug. Some children clung shyly to their parents, scared of Winston’s blue and pink skin. Others marched straight up and took over the puppeteering.

Kaplan said the creation of Winston and other creatures was an interdepartmental effort among drama, architecture and art students, teaching, among other things, the “big-scale mechanics” of technical theater. He said that just as the university students learned, he hoped the children would, too.

“It’s cool for them to see how the big mechanics works,” he said as another volunteer showed children and parents how levers and wires moved the creature. “It piques their curiosity. It’s hard not to be curious about it.”

It certainly piqued the curiosity of Josephine Tubbs, 8, and her brother Sam, 5. They had just finished watching a screening of “Peter Pan” with their mother, Amy Sarah Marshall, and were happily taking a break inside the drama building’s lobby -- until they noticed Winston beginning to walk outside, propelled by Kaplan and other volunteers. Sam and Josephine couldn’t wait to get their coats on to check it out.

Marshall said she was glad they decided to attend Family Day, which was advertised in a flier Josephine got at school.

“It was cool,” Marshall said, to see the classic children’s film on the big screen. “It’s neat that it’s free and there’s easy parking.”

As Winston lumbered between buildings, scattering screaming and laughing children and parents in his wake, other animals were coming to life in a computer lab in Campbell Hall.

“Dreaming in Animation” was one of several workshops that ranged in topic from improvisation, Shakespeare, movement and fight scene techniques. The animation workshop was an all-day affair that gave 15 middle school students hands-on experience with bringing 3-D animal characters to life using the animation software Maya.

Students learned about an aboriginal Australian “dreaming story” in which a frog drinks all the fresh water in the world and other animals try to make him laugh so that he will release the water.

Earl Mark, an associate professor of architecture at the architecture school with a background in animation, was one of the program’s coordinators. He matched some of his current and alumni students with middle-schoolers to create a one-to-one mentor ratio.

“It’s a real labor of love,” he said. “It pairs the intelligence and creative mind of a university student and the creativity of a middle school student with wild ideas. Putting them together as a team is interesting.”

Marieke Leliveld, 11, a sixth-grader at the Peabody School, worked with her mentor, Carter Tata, a recent architecture school graduate, on animating a kangaroo.

Marieke said she’d never used the software Maya before, but “she’s picking it up quickly,” said Tata, who now works as a motion capture consultant for the university’s digital media lab.

Marieke said she wanted to participate in the workshop because she likes drawing and animation and wanted to learn more. “It’s really fun and funny,” she said. She said her favorite part so far had been manipulating the animal’s body to do anything, even movements that were a little unrealistic.

Tata said she was enjoying looking at the animation from a different point of view. “It’s been a really great experience for everybody,” she said. “The kids learn a lot, but the mentors do, too. We’re really working together equally.”

Animation and theater props weren’t the only arts in the spotlight on Family Day. Musicians from the Charlottesville and University Symphony Orchestra brought representatives of the woodwind, strings and brass families to the Helms Theatre for a “petting zoo” that let children try out different instruments.

Elizabeth Rogers, director of youth education for the orchestra, said she was happy to partner with the film festival, as music plays such a large role in film. “It’s about getting kids excited about some type of expression,” she said, “whether that’s through film or an instrument. Hopefully, they’re going to find a thing that will speak to them.”

John Morton of Seattle, who was visiting family in Charlottesville, waited patiently with a smile while his 3- and 5-year-old grandchildren took turns with the instruments.

“It’s wonderful,” he said, looking around the full, noisy room. “It gives them exposure to music and the arts. They’re excited about it.”

Whether it was playing with giant bugs, giving life to digital animals or coaxing a tune from a cello, it seemed the day had a little something for everyone.

“The film festival Family Day has a wonderfully altruistic and public mission,” Mark said. “Kids get exposed to ideas and technology and people that expand on the idea of what is available to them.  It’s creative, imaginative and educational public service. The place is just alive with creativity.”

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RYAN M. KELLY/THE DAILY PROGRESS

Cami Kielbasa (on floor) uses a "worm's-eye view" to film Sage Tanguay (from left) and Maisie Finley as they perform improvised movement during a workshop at Family Day, part of the Virginia Film Festival, at the University of Virginia on Saturday.