Creative chemistry through video
Student works on stop motion video

With COVID-19, the end of the 2020-21 year brought opportunity for unique assignments and creative projects. In Beverly Sivaslian's honors chemistry class, students were challenged to learn about and explain a disaster with applicable chemistry principles. In this Q&A, James Moncur ’23 talks about the stop-motion video he created, which explores the Lake Nyos disaster that killed more than 1700 people in Cameroon in 1986.

Why did you choose the Lake Nyos event for your project?

Ms. Sivaslian’s assignment was to focus on a chemical disaster. She suggested many options, and I also had a few other ideas. I actually considered covering some other events first but those all were already chosen, and Lake Nyos was one of my last options. But it worked out really well. I enjoyed learning about something I didn’t know much about.

Why did you choose to make a stop-motion video?

I made one last year for a biology project. I hadn’t seen anyone do it before, and I wanted to present my topic in a format different than what other students may have chosen. Stop-motion video is a unique medium, and it’s always special to be able to have your work stand out. Plus, it conveys information really well.

How did it come together?

It was definitely harder than I imagined. Stop-motion takes a lot of effort to make all the pieces and take all the pictures. I spent five days making it, including a lot of long nights, but I feel the finished product is worth it. [Ms. Sivaslian would agree. She called James’ project “an absolute gem” and “spectacular!”]

First, I did a lot of research on the topic. Then, I formed my notes into a script covering everything I wanted to say, and while writing the script, I jotted down ideas on the side of how I could display the words visually. I also shaped my words in the script based on what would be easy to display visually. Next I cut out of paper all the various props, and got to work animating.

Video of chemistry project

The script is as good as the film!

Thanks. I always enjoy reading books and writing essays, and we did a lot of writing in English this year. I also used to write short stories in my free time, but haven’t had the time as much lately to do that. I hope to get back to it sometime.

How did you film the stop-motion animation?

I used a black poster board for the backdrop, which I placed on the floor. On top of the poster board, I set up two towers of boxes on either end and balanced a glass cabinet door across the two box towers on which I set my phone, facing down. Then I would set up the props for each shot, shooting frame by frame and moving the props as I needed.

Do you think you might like to be a filmmaker someday?

Maybe, but I have a lot of interests. This summer, I’m interning for an architecture firm to learn more about that. Next year I’m taking AP Biology, partly because my dad is a doctor, and I’d like to learn more about medicine to see if it is something I might want to go into.

What advice do you have for other students who might want to try a similar approach for their next project?

Don’t hesitate to think big. One thing that has limited me in the past is I might stay away from a project that might be a lot of work, but all that work always pays off in the end. You can be proud of what you’ve accomplished.

Watch the entire video of James's project


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