How Animoto Gets Animoto Wrong

Jason, one of the Animoto guys, responds to my criticism, admitting his utility’s limitations as a storytelling mediumwhich, of course, is the box most K-12 educators are forcing Animoto into, even though it makes VoiceThread look awesome. but then noting its “great pedagogical usages,” the most interesting of which is:

… the Animoto presentation is in a style that many students are familiar with (MTV-style videos), I think it adds a great juxtaposition of using an aesthetic with which kids are already familiar, along with learning material than [sic] they are being exposed to for the first time.

Animoto is a staggeringly cool tool which almost everyone – even its creators, off Jason’s comment – appreciates for the wrong reason.

Specifically, Animoto creates photo montages better and faster than any other Internet utility but, over the long run, the fact that the montages jitter and bob with the music – its most celebrated and distinctive feature – does nothing for me as a media consumer and less than nothing for me as a educatorwatch a dozen in a row and let me know how quickly your returns diminish..

This isn’t because I like taking shots at the high-flying School 2.0 balloon or even because this is a matter of opinion. It isn’t. Nor do I take some old-fashioned exception to the MTV aesthetic.

But the MTV aesthetic, even at its most arresting, spasmodic, and hypnotizingly awful, gives content some considerationeg. the lyrics of a dark, dreary song inform the visuals at least a little.. Animoto has no such capability. It will adjust the speed of your video to match your song but it does not care even a little about your photographic content.

Its z-axis transitions look great but they are selected wholly apart from your content and, several times per slideshow, they obscure it – cropping out your Auntie’s face and strobing several shots over the rest of your family – simply because Animoto doesn’t know any bettercf. the Ken Burns effect, which, stale and tired as it is, zooms, pans, and crops photos all to enhance content..

“No two videos are the same,” claims Animoto’s main page but each slideshow shares in common a complete, 100%, de facto disregard for the relationship between form and content. Maybe it’s unfair of me to suggest that educators oughtta know better but I’m astonished that this same crowd which dumped all over MTV in the ’90s has missed this, that it has endorsed a tool good only for spackling enthusiasm across a crowd as meaningful learning, as meaningful assessment, as meaningful self-expression.

If you’re going to teach this at all, you owe your kids to teach it right. Yet my colleagues’ enthusiasm for visual expression has outpaced their understanding of it by several orders of magnitude.

What efforts are you making to get this right?

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. I think it probably comes down to time. A lot of teachers don’t want to invest the time in learning how to put images together to make a film. Or they don’t think they have the visual knowledge and would rather hand it over to a web site and let the site do the work.

    As someone who has spent hours physically syncing slide machines to play to narration on an audio tape and several years pressing and unpressing the pause and record buttons on my camcorder and VCR to edit movies in the 90’s, this is frustrating to me too…but I’m trying not to be bitter or elitist.

    My worry is that reliance on one touch web sites disempowers the user who comes to depend on those sites rather than learning and practicing some simple film techniques. I tried to illustrate a few of them in my post Design and Storytelling in Film.

    So I guess there’s no harm in Animoto (I might even say it’s kind of cool) but I would hope it’s only a starting point that leads users to try putting clips together to construct meaning themselves.

  2. As off base as Keen was in his specifics, I think that the cult of the amateur is an enduring meme. To me it has less to do with the internet, and more to do with technology replacing 80% of what it took to be talented many years ago, and at the same time eliminating the impetus to develop a skill when you could let a computer do a good enough job for you, be it music, writing, print production, architecture, or any other sort of creative endeavor.

  3. I’m with Dan.

    Consider if Microsoft had made Powerpoint even more pointless by choosing all your transitions and animations wantonly, bringing in bullet points only so they sync to canned music, and indiscriminately zooming in on random words from your slide that only it could choose.

    … wait a minute: I’ve seen some presentations which seemed to do all these things.

    Does Microsoft already have this feature?

  4. I’m not going to defend Animoto, even though I was impressed with it enough to lay out $30 for a year’s subscription. Instead, I want to come back to Mathew’s point about time.

    We all know how much time and effort you put into your lessons, Dan. I wore myself out during my NQT/probation/call-it-whatever-you-like year which led to health problems. Why? Because I have perfectionist tendencies. Many teachers are the same. The reason for this is because we see an immediate impact of what we do on the engagement and progress of learners.

    So, Animoto has its uses. It’s in my toolbox. But it certainly doesn’t replace storytelling – with or without educational technology. It merely complements it. :-)

  5. But…but…

    I like Animoto. Not for school, and certainly not to say “Look what I did!” It is just a nifty little way to preserve some memories and optimize them for a web presentation. Take it for what it is.

  6. Sure sure and I don’t want to say – and I’m not saying – that Animoto ain’t without uses. Just that, damn, we’ve got teachers running around lately spraying motor oil on windows, drinking it from glasses, showerin’ in it, calling it water, and I’m just standing here feeling like the crazy one.

  7. At some point, don’t we also want our students to be thoughtful creators of content? I say this not in an Dan Pink-ish “design is important” kind of way, but in an “ownership is important” kind of way.
    If I can dump and choose on Animoto, then I haven’t really created anything. I’m teaching my students to craft thoughtful, effective, compelling sentences. When we move to multi-media content creation, I want the same thought and craft in their creations.
    An initial temptation was to suggest Animoto provides a good jumping-off point for media design in the classroom, but it’s really not much better than the slew of slideshow tools in Myspace and Facebook.
    Thanks for making me think.

  8. I have not yet implemented Animoto into my lessons but it did serve as a nice visual for my parents on “Back to School Night” (Thank you Ken Rodoff!). There were several “oooos” and “aaaahs” in the room and I think they appreciated the short snippet of film.

    I agree with Matthew and Doug. Time is a major issue with taking a theme – say from hamlet (SEE – and evolving that theme from storyboard to final cut. However, we want to focus on the process of the storytelling. Do students understand how they arrived at the final product? At this point, does it really matter whether their video is previewed via Animoto or Final Cut Pro? Can students sit back, watch the videos of their peers and simply understand thematic elements within a novel or play? And at the same time, make connections between the text and the video.

    Animoto is by no means the pinnacle of video editing, but it does save time and assists students with comprehension.

  9. Andrew, judging by the comments here and there, “wowing the parents on back-to-school night” seems to be Animoto’s highest calling. Which is a fine calling but I don’t want to pretend I or my students are doing much creatively when we use Animoto. We aren’t. The Animoto designers are.

    The problem, though, is that, because the pictures are so pretty and flashy, teachers – otherwise critical teachers – are tricked into thinking they and their kids have exercised creativity.

    And I can’t embrace the rationale, tacitly put out there by so many, that “I don’t have enough time to teach the real thing so I’ll just teach this cheap substitution and call it the real thing.” I can’t see any benefit there.

    I’m not saying everyone gotta work against the same clock I do (since it’s wearing me down right now) but if you aren’t gonna teach it well, is it even fun to teach it at all? To play a role in further confusing your students between flash and substance.

    Has anyone watched thirty of these in a row? Thirty jittery slideshows detailing tourism in thirty different states, for instance? Even the no-two-videos-alike aesthetic has gotta get numbing by the fifth or sixth. Anyone want to report back from the dark side?

    Mr. Chase, exactly right.

  10. I wouldn’t advise watching 30 of those Animoto productions in a row, but then again, our students watch us for 45 minutes a day for 180 days.

    Talk about tiring.

  11. Hey Dan,

    This is Becky. I work at Animoto.

    Thanks for your points. We’ll definitely take them into consideration.

    As for your observation about Animoto cutting off faces or obscuring pictures, we are actually adding (hopefully in the not too distant future) a component to our A.I. which will have face recognition. We’ll also be adding a crop feature, internal to our site, so that if we do indeed need to cut off a picture, you get to choose what gets cut off.

    We also have a design team that regularly creates new riffs. An underlying objective for all their designs is to find a way to showcase a picture without upstaging the picture. Ultimately, people use Animoto to show-off their images. They don’t use their images to show-off Animoto. We get this.

    Never did Jason say Animoto isn’t a good storytelling device. I think he said it wasn’t “in a traditional sense.” Which it is not. Animoto is not a documentary. It’s not PBS. It takes pictures and showcases them in a way that’s more compelling than a slideshow, and hopefully more emotionally compelling. It most definitely can tell a story.

    I made one of my sister’s wedding, which was 2 weeks ago, and it most definitely was a story. It started off with the chaos of the bride-to-be getting ready at our parent’s house and ended with her radiating true happiness as she left the banquet hall with my now brother-in-law. It was 4 minutes long and perfectly summed up the day.

    Thanks for your points though. We actively seek out critiques of our service, as we are constantly trying to better it. If you have anymore, never hesitate to reach us at:

    Take care,

  12. Becky, these comments all hover around what I imagine is one of your smaller markets. I’m sure you’ll consider that as you weigh my criticism.

    Animoto is strikingly easy to use and ideal for the user you describe – someone with little time or ability on her hands who wants to energize some photos – but that same ease of use makes Animoto poor for education.

    The students select a photoset and a soundtrack and you guys do the heavy lifting. What skills do they learn? What skills does Animoto assess? Why should you care about these queries?

    The answers are none, none, and you shouldn’t. I’m only here to cudgel the teachers who are too seduced by the output slideshow to realize how little effort the user puts into it.

    Maybe this is a fun diversion for the students, but past that my people have gotta pull their jaws off the floor over here.

  13. I used an animoto video to punch up a vocabulary lesson. The novelty of it got the students very excited. I can’t imagine it as anything I would use often in the classroom but it is cool for an occasional way to create a lesson that is remembered.

  14. Dan: Part of me realizes that I should just head back to my hole and wait for a new topic that strikes my disjointed fancy, but I keep finding myself asking, what’s wrong if something is easy? What’s wrong if the uploading of photos to Animoto is easy? Isn’t it possible (and I apologize in advance for not having a substantive example to support this) that what goes on before can mean something?

    I’ve had students make podcasts. They are not polished recording artists and their voices surely are not the stuff of fireside chats, but they scripted, researched, revised, rehearsed, considered audience, and the did all of those thing again. I assessed research, writing, quote integration, and so on down the English teacher line of grading, but their constant awareness of an audience greater than a little Rodoff made one hell of difference in their attitude, approach, energy, and output.

    If only I could get students to write the bland essay with as much vim and vigor.

    I wish my comments here could resonate with the power of your posts and your subsequent follow-up comments, but I write in the moment (see sloppy blog!) and then keep my brain churning long after I’ve hit the ‘submit comment’ button.

    Does everything have to be ‘value-added’?

    If you’ve read Pirsig, then I’m sure you’ve wrestled with the question, ‘what is quality’?

    Animoto, Scrapblog, and dozens of other drag-and-drop apps may not demonstrate thinking and all that other fun, assessable stuff, but does it have to?

    Thanks for keeping us all on our mental toes.

  15. Ken–

    Please consider this in the “I really like reading your comments” tone in which is it intended:

    YES, dammit. EVERYTHING in a classroom must be value-added. Every single little thing. That’s the whole point.

    Podcasts add massive value because of audience awareness, as you say so eloquently– and I’m coming to realize that this is the most powerful added value of all Web 2.0 tools.

    But Animoto? Sure, if you scaffolded the hell out of it, as some commentors have suggested. But then, who is adding value? The tech– or you?

    I don’t know about you, but I’ve got enough to do. I demand all the added value from my tech that it can give. And if it ain’t adding more value than I am myself as the educator using it, then screw it.

  16. Mrs. Martinez, no one can get it right every time, but my reaction to your comment is that if flashy form was the only way to lodge content into their memories, the content needed enlivening – not the form.

    It’s the same when someone has a boring slide in PPT and tries to liven it up with some “cool” text effects. Form rarely rarely saves boring content. Good content is remembered regardless of form.

    Ken, the difference between your students’ podcasts & their (hypothetical) Animoto presentations couldn’t be more obvious to me. One required crushing mental exertion both pre-, during, and post-production, deploying old skills and learning new ones, with a hundred assessable shades of gray between a strong project and a weak one. The other is Animoto.

  17. Hey Dan,

    Perhaps I shouldn’t care, but I wasn’t being the least bit facetious when I said we do value comments from people who actually care enough to make a comment… good or bad.

    I think this was a really interesting debate. My sister is a teacher and I sent it to her. She, like you, laboriously devises lesson plans and assignments. She takes her profession very seriously, as all educators should. I find that commendable.

    Until next time you end up on our Google Alerts…

    — Becky

  18. Whew! Interesting conversation in the comment section, huh?

    I’m siding with Dan on this one….even though I hear consensus growing in the conversation. Animoto is a limited “instructional” tool at best. While it has some “whiz-bang” value and is incredibly easy to use, I don’t even consider it in the same category as tools like Voicethread or our classroom blog.

    And the whiz-bang value gets old quick. My kids liked Animoto for about 10 presentations. Now it’s old. We use it to add some new content to our blog every now and then, but it’s just interesting filler for readers.

    Here’s the interesting question running through my mind: Are the teachers who are embracing Animoto as a “digital storytelling tool” the same kinds of people who struggle to piece together a good lesson in any format?

    In my experience, it is that crop of educators that latch on to tools for all the wrong reasons.


  19. Jason, co-founder of Animoto

    February 10, 2008 - 8:19 am -

    Wow, these are all really great thoughts! Never thought Animoto would be the center of such a great discussion. Since you’ve included me in the discussion, I guess I should weigh in.

    I’ll just be honest… I totally agree that Animoto has its limitations as something to be presented in schools. When we originally built Animoto we never thought students and teachers would be part of our user base. But we’ve been surprised (and honored) to learn how popular it has in fact become with schools. Thus, we’re just now starting to think about how to incorporate some of the more specific needs and priorities teachers have as they send us feedback.

    Regarding how well Animoto presents photos… I’d say right now, it does a better job presenting a series/story of photos versus trying to showcase any one particular photo. When starting to build Animoto, we had in mind the people are starting to use their cameras less like photographers and more like producers/directors… taking dozens, if not hundreds of photos to capture an event. For those who use their cameras to capture that one perfect photo…. we concede… Animoto probably isn’t the best. It’s not meant to be used for carefully viewing photos one by one. But, we may soon offer a feature to accommodate the spectrum of needs.

    We’re actually still working on our photo analysis technology so we can better determine where the subjects are in a photo and out how to serve them better with the right motion design, effects, and energy. Obviously we agree certain subjects shouldn’t have flashy MTV style effects. (I’d be pretty offended if photos of my dog that just passed away where treated with crazy high energy effects.) Some should be much more soft, elegant, and purposeful. As you can imagine, the analysis behind this isn’t simple. And we have a long way to go. But we’re excited by what we’ve accomplished so far.

    As we develop our technology, we definitely take into consideration everything we hear from you, so please continue to let us know your thoughts.

  20. Hey,
    Why not stir the hornets nest? So, Animoto has an educator site now, I’m sure this was created in the year since this discussion. So, I was wondering if people had looked at the educator side of it yet to see what it does, and if it does address the issues mentioned here. I’d love it to be more “podcasty,” but they haven’t approved my registration yet.