As many of you know, my daughter Eva is a seasoned author, writing and self-publishing one book each year for the past six. This week, she released her new holiday-themed picture book featuring her beloved character Kinzy, “the charming koala with the huge ego.” Entitled The Christmas CAT-astrophe, the story follows Kinzy and his platypus duck friend Mark as they go on an adventure to help Santa deliver a lost basket of kittens. I won’t lie: the book is for sale, and I hope you’ll buy it and share this post and her book with everyone you know! But I also want to unpack this project-based learning experience and explain how and why we explore education this way.
First, though, the book trailer, created and produced entirely by Eva, with theme music composed by her brother Ian.
Now that you understand the feel of the project, let’s unpack it. And by the way, I’m unpacking Eva’s specific project, but I hope this process will help you plan and report your own project-based learning units.
Eva wrote this story a year ago as a part of a larger series of Kinzy stories. She loves working in Kinzy’s world, and has explored comedy, narrative, voice, dialog, and theme through dozens of films and short stories. She knows what each character is like, and she’s learned how to share that with others through their expressions and conversation. This fall, we took the story back out and edited it brutally, cutting, cleaning, and bringing out the parts that needed more focus. Because she knew she was going to offer this story for public sale, she was motivated to make it the best she could, and learned a lot in the process.
If you’re interested in filmmaking or story-telling at all, you’ve probably heard of story-boarding – a process in which the author maps out the story visually in a rough draft form, planning out each shot or page as its own product. This is the first book that Eva has created a story-board for, because she needed to use both her text and photos to advance the tale. She had to keep everything smoothly paced, divide the text up naturally, and use the images to emphasize the more important pieces of her narrative. When it’s done right, the reader doesn’t even notice. But it’s a subtle and tricky process to get right.
Exploring Visual Arts
For this book, Eva decided to try her hand a a full-bleed, total picture book, unlike her previous works that alternated between pictures and text. (“Full-bleed” means the images go all the way to the edge of the page.) This is lot trickier than it sounds, because you have to build each set, understand that the images will fill the book, and incorporate the planned text as part of the photograph, even though it’s not there when you’re taking the picture.
Set Building: The set building took more thought than you might imagine. Eva wanted a use a combination of real-life objects and cartoony-type imagery to give the feeling of a world that’s almost real, but not quite. In other words, she wanted her sets to be convincing, but not too much so. Keeping all this in mind, she built some 3-D props (always using obvious crafting material) and some 2-D props, like a paper Christmas tree. Again, these are subtle elements to the book, but each was an intentional decision.
Photography: The use of full-bleed, two-page spread photos offered additional challenges to this book, as Eva had to think about:
- Depth of field: She needed to put the subject of the photo in sharp focus, blurring out backgrounds, as this guides the reader eye and provides a three-dimensional visual effect.
- Lighting: Eva wanted to give the effect of being indoors at night, as the story largely takes place at Mark’s house in the evening. She experimented with various lightbulbs for different color effects, and physically moved the lamps in different positions to get the angles like she wanted.
- Perspective: Some shots use the same set, so she had to think about how to continue the story without simply using the same photo. I coached her to move her body with her camera all around the set, standing above, crouching below, angling left and right, zooming in and zooming out. She took literally hundreds of photos.
- Imagining invisible elements: The text is built in as part of each two-page spread, and as such, Eva had to imagine where it would be in the final product. This takes great imagination and a bit of experimentation. In addition, the gutter (the area where the pages meet in the spine) can’t eat up important parts of your photo. She had to remember to keep key images out of the center of the picture. It’s a lot to keep in mind as you set up your shot.
Page Design: For this project, Eva used Pixlr, a free online photo editing tool, and Microsoft Publisher to lay out the pages. When uploading to her self-publishing site, lulu.com, she has to use their exact page dimensions. Once she created the Publisher template, she then had to crop each photo to those exact measurements, adding a tiny amount that would be cut off to make the full-bleed work and more at the top that would later be cropped to fit lulu’s dimensions. This is more information she had to keep in her mind when setting up her photos! She knew what she saw in her camera viewfinder was not what she would need in the end, so she had to use her imagination as she set up and took each shot.
Text Design: As she added the text to each photo, we found that sometimes the background image needed to be softened further so you could more clearly see the words. To compensate for that, Eva added soft color text boxes as backgrounds for certain pages. In a couple of images, she had to soften individual stars that were too bright. Review, revise, review, revise. There’s a lot of work that goes into font choice as well. We spent an entire morning font shopping, looking for something that felt like Christmas and Kinzy – something easy to read, a bit uncommon, with a touch of whimsy. We tried several before Eva settled on the aptly named “Mountains of Christmas.”
Image Design: And finally, there are several images that appear to fly in this book: Santa’s sleigh, Kinzy and Mark’s airplane, Santa’s reindeer. I’m actually a part of some of these photos, holding up the props while Eva photographed them. Once the photos were completed, she then went back and used photo editing tools to remove my hands and the sticks I was holding. Again, this is a subtle process, because if you don’t get the colors exactly right, and you don’t soften the fixes, they’ll show up in the final product.
All of this work had to be completed in time for the holidays to allow Eva to sell her book during its best season: Christmas! Together we mapped the project out on the calendar and set up smaller benchmarks to keep her moving.
Eva knew from the beginning that she wanted to create a book trailer to advertise the release of The Christmas CAT-astrophe. She started by watching tons of other author book trailers, from huge budget films to small homemade videos, taking notes on structure, imagery, and message.
But how to write a trailer? She knew she had to introduce the book, give a summary, and include purchase information. But she also wanted it to entertain as a film itself, separate from the book. She decided that since the book featured Kinzy and Mark, she would use the film to explore their personalities further, allowing the audience to get to know the protagonists before they ever open the book’s cover. Therefore, the script and film have a story within a story. She starts with conversation between Kinzy and Mark as they squabble over how best to tell the summary, Mark wins and tells the story, and then the two of them come back together and critique Mark’s review, enjoying a friendly plate of cookies.
To make the actual film, Eva used the program Final Cut Pro and taught herself how to use the “Ken Burns” effect, which is the pan and scan movement she uses to explore the finished pages of the book. Once the images were up with movement effects, she added further animation with text and transitions. There is so much learning packed just into this one piece!
Marketing and Promotion
After the book went to press and the film was completed, I sat down with Eva to discuss a marketing plan. We decided to boost a Facebook ad featuring her trailer and set up a public reading and release party at a local coffee shop. We’re also pursuing traditional media outlets like newspaper and television news. I help her with this portion of the project, but if she gets interviews, she’ll get some great opportunities to further hone her public speaking.
And though this project is all about Eva, the music in the book trailer was composed by Ian. The three of us met together to talk about the film’s music needs. Kinzy has his own theme song, which Eva and Ian wrote together years ago. Eva and I suggested a mash-up of this song with “Jingle Bells,” but Ian had an idea to do a third layer, adding a feeling of adventurous chaos in the mix to reflect the narrative. He used the program Finale to write the music and create the recording. As he wrote, he had to meet the changing needs of the film, becoming more subtle during dialog, changing the feel as Mark tells the actual summary, and closing out as he opened, with the Kinzy theme proud and strong. It’s worth listening to split from the film so that you can hear all the layers better.
So Much Beneath the Surface
Most project-based units run this way – deeper than what they first appear. Eva does this because she loves it. And it gets easier for her each year, because she’s building on past experience; she’s becoming an expert. It doesn’t feel like school, or practice; it’s simply a natural extension of her life. Because of this, at one point during this process, she fretted that she was “doing enough school.” Because she’s taking a traditional school math class, she’s already begun making assumptions that education shouldn’t be this fun! To relieve her anxiety, I actually had to unpack this project for her, just like I’ve done for you today.
Now it’s your turn: how do you relate to project-based learning? Do you make note of what all you’re learning together? And do you find that it’s packed much more fully than you at first expected? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments. And don’t forget – you can buy Eva’s book here!
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