Shot from a film by Children in Care Council members

Behind the scenes with The Studio of the Fostered Heroes

How do you help a group of young people, whose ages range from eight to 21, work together to create a stop motion animation? Filmmaker Laura Degnan shares exactly how this happened in Redcar and Cleveland.

At the heart of everything Blue Cabin does, participants are empowered to have their say, to shape the opportunities offered to them and to be active agents of change.

As a community filmmaker, I’m driven by a desire to help people tell their stories.

This isn’t just about a connection between me as a filmmaker and the subject as storyteller: to really bring people’s stories to life in a way that feels authentic, you need a team of people working together, all bringing their ideas and expertise. To create meaningful results, it’s vitally important that everybody feels empowered. And that everybody involved – facilitators and participants – is listened to, supported and valued as an essential part of the whole.

All of this underpins The Studio of the Fostered Heroes: a project initiated by a young person from the Children in Care Council who wanted to tell a story that would help people really understand what it means to be in foster care.

Blue Cabin worked together with staff involved in the Redcar and Cleveland Children in Care Council to make this idea a reality. Visual artist Nicola Golightly supported the group across a number of weeks to establish a name, some key aims and an approach that worked for everyone involved. They created story maps to start exploring and communicating who they were, where they’d come from and what they wanted to say. They even made wooden spoon puppets of themselves! (These puppets made an appearance in our final piece of work – if an idea helped us to tell the story, we would strive to include it. Cross-discipline collaboration at its most creative!)

Because Nicola had worked so hard to ensure the participants felt comfortable with each other and the environment, it didn’t matter that participants spanned an age range of eight to 21 – they respected one another and understood that they were each an essential part of the team.

The project was all about what the young people wanted to say and how they wanted to say it. They decided they would like to make a film, and that’s when I joined the project as a filmmaker. In our first session together, we looked at a range of films and they quickly decided that a stop motion animation would be the most effective medium to tell their stories.

I came to the second session equipped with iPads and tripods and body paints and the participants made their first stop motion animations. It was chaos – brilliant chaos – as the young people expressed themselves by printing words and phrases across their hands and arms. There was skill-sharing too – they learned to direct and edit a stop motion animation.

As they recorded voiceovers for the animations, one young person spontaneously came out with the line ‘It can take lots of footsteps to work our way to love’ and another person agreed, proudly stating ‘But we are loved. That’s something that people don’t always get’. These messages came to sit at the heart of everything that came next.

Our next task was to map out in a visual way the stories and messages the young people wished to communicate. Blue Cabin Associate Artist, Ruth Mary Johnson, brought paper footprints to our next session, and we created a massive pathway, a map of where they’d been and where they hoped to go next, sweeping lines of colourful feet labelled with the highs and lows of their journeys so far, plus fragments and thoughts about where they hoped their journey would take them next and advice about what could make those journeys as smooth as possible. This was the map we would follow.

Ruth created an exploratory draft script using the words, phrases and sentiments expressed on this map, and then the young people were excited to flesh it out. A creative arena had been established; a safe space designed to allow and encouraged our team to tell their stories – their truths – with passion and confidence.

We switched microphones on and every member of the group left us reeling as they voiced so many thoughts and feelings that were important to them – in an environment where they knew people were really listening to them. They found the confidence to lead on the creative activities and soon they were creating storyboards, props and sound effects.

This was not a box ticking exercise. This was a team of adults from various professional backgrounds whose priority every step of the way was to find ways to enable a group of passionate and knowledgeable young people to communicate the lessons they’ve learned first-hand, in order to improve the lives of other care experienced individuals.

The young people were engaged and enthusiastic because this was an opportunity they’d never had before: to turn their lived experience into a valuable resource. And thus, at the February board meeting for the corporate parents – an environment that could have been very overwhelming, as the meeting was attended by many corporate representatives – our young people were straight out of their seats and over to the microphone, keen to speak about their journeys, and to introduce their film. A film by young people, about young people, for absolutely everyone. And, because of that – as it is shared within schools and in our communities – a film that has every chance of bringing about meaningful change.

Via projects like The Studio of the Fostered Heroes, Blue Cabin and its partners and associates are actively encouraging young people to have a say, listening to them, involving them, upskilling them and empowering them to react to and shape the world around them. All the young people involved exceeded our (and quite possibly their own) hopes and expectations every time we came together. They made something amazing.

Watch The Studio of the Fostered Heroes’ film here.