How Do You Solve A Problem Like Cigotie?

YouTube user cigotie attends my feeder middle school. In spite of his age and our rural setting, he has amassed a portfolio of digital special effects on par with people twice his age and half his distance to Hollywood.

He is an auto-didact, having taught himself with online tutorials (like Video Copilot, which is the best of the best) to use tools which others attend brick-and-mortar schools to learn. He publishes his videos on a YouTube channel to a global audience. One of my freshmen fully expects to see him on the shortlist for an Academy Award in 2015. Your poster digital immigrant, in other words.

I’m impressed. I’m worried.

Here are a few comparisons between cigotie’s work and the Video Copilot tutorial, which, well, I guess “inspired” it is the right word.

The vision of education that promotes digital nativism seems very effective to me at equipping the natives with tools and technique, with hammers, nails, screwdrivers, glue, and a birdhouse tutorial from which they can build an identical birdhouse. But if there is a plan for moving the natives past raw technique, for bridging the gulf between technique and art, I have yet to see it widely articulated.

It’s just too easy to plunder Delicious for tags like “digitalstorytelling,” “aftereffects,” or “tutorial” and pass them off to natives like cigotie. But this kid doesn’t need more links, more web apps, or more resource sites lousy with textures, tutorials, and embeddable 3D objects. He needs someone to help him tell his own stories. Someone to interpret his interests and direct him to fiction and nonfiction that will drive his thinking to the point where he can create and not simply mimic.

I worry. Probably needlessly, but I worry that we are building schools that put students in a place to care about artistic expression while only equipping them with technique.

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. The problem may be that many teachers have mastered only the technique and not the artistic expression themselves.

    However, it seems to me that making good art does start with replicating other people’s work before developing a personal vision.

  2. I’ve completed a number of the VCP and Creative Cow tutorials myself, and while I wouldn’t be tempted to post them online, I can see how a student who’s gone through them might be tempted to show off what he can now do. I don’t see too much harm, unless these are the end point of the process. Now that he knows how to construct and composite these effects, he can tell a story that uses some or all of them. I know that the completed projects can be a touchstone to go back to and remember how to do some part of it.

    As to the focus on technical aspects over the art, I fear you’re right, but this is a conversation you’ve had here before. As the tools become democratized, Sturgeon’s Law becomes ever more applicable. If Hollywood is putting out crap like MVP (to which I say, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should), and if Youtube stars are getting their 15 minutes without having to put in the hard work that elevates something from good to great, why would students put in the effort.

    Part of the problem (in my opinion) is that our continued emphasis on making kids feel good about anything they do (gold stars all around!) has led to the devaluation of quality work. I mean, if you’re going to get rewarded the same regardless of the effort involved, why would you do more than necessary? When that translates to the arts, we’ve got big problems: fan-fiction as literature, garage bands as international sensations, and Youtube remakes of Jackass as cinema…

  3. This situation is common in teaching the arts to high school students. The kid who can draw a perfect reproduction of a photo from a magazine or can play a Led Zeppelin solo note for note. You just have to teach them, you know, the arts and humanities. With computers would be nice.

    But that’s what those disciplines are about.

  4. I think what he needs is someone to help him create meaning out of all of this. Ok, so he can watch the videos and duplicate the effects. In essence, he can follow directions.

    Yes, by the way, I am quite impressed. I couldn’t do that.

    What he needs is someone to help him move to the learning of a superordinate concept that can unite all of these skills. Once he gets there, this kid will be unstoppable.

    I’d see math as fitting nicely, since you can relate to him. I recall your second video discussing angles and such. I’d love to see an analysis of bullet speed at normal speed, then slowed down, and maybe the students could try to figure out how fast the bullet appeared to travel based on how slow the video went. You get the idea.

    Either way, for this kid, it’s got to be about bringing this to a higher level of conceptual thinking instead of just learning more after effects skillz.


  5. Honestly, this is where the ideas come in. Technique is great, but the more we can dare kids to think for themselves… to question… to discover… to challenge… not just to mimic… then you combine that with the skills and some really cool stuff can happen.

  6. I’m not worried at all, just impressed!

    Before we create for ourselves, we learn from the masters who came before us.

    How often does a math teacher have a student publish a brand new theorem?

    cigotie is right where a talented middle schooler should be

  7. I think he is doing great. Art is impossible without technique. It is just another language and he must learn to speak it before he can be expressive in it. The same way every singer has learned Do Re Mi, and every artist has painted a bowl of fruit. Until he is comfortable with the medium of choice he will be hindered in his art.

    I am more interested in how a middle school Kid has after effects which is a $1000 dollar program to play and learn on. Which brings into question the how much our current intellectual property laws actually encourages progress.

  8. Not every talented kid/person is ready to express themselves. Some need time to figure out if they are good enough (in their own minds or others) and feel comfortable with it. What we might not see in his Youtube channel are the works in progress or the original videos that aren’t quite as good as the tutorial ones – because his is taking his own route through them. Plus, he is only a middle schooler.

    There is also a line between being able to do things technically and artistically. For some that line doesn’t exist for others it becomes a wall. Last year I taught web design. Most of the students could do great recreations of tutorials I had them do, but when it came to creating their own site at the end of the year – the artists shined through. Most of the others were good, but there was a distinction. I also saw some incredible designs that were technically a disaster.

    Seems like he is on the right road, as he gets older he will figure himself out – maybe as a technical guy who can do anything he is told to do or as a true designer/artist or both.

  9. 2 thoughts…

    1. Perhaps teaching him to be artistic and original in his work would be to discourage him from having a career in Hollywood.

    2. To be truly original, perhaps you have to develop a style on your own without someone telling you, “No, do it this way…”

  10. I can’t seem to quantify my unease with any precision here. I don’t know why I feel so pessimistic for kids like cigotie trying to create meaningful art in 2009.

    If this kid were mimicking cutting-edge effects a decade ago, I’d feel more hopeful he’d produce an original masterpiece. Because, then, the tools were more difficult and more expensive than the story creation, which cost then and costs now nothing and was/is available to everyone.

    I realize I’m channeling Andrew Keen here but you have so many educators in 2009 who really believe that Animoto constitutes meaningful artistic expression, who flit from technique to technique, Web 2.0 tool to Web 2.0 tool.

    Cigotie’s in middle school and way ahead of the curve. He’ll be alright, I imagine, but when he succeeds, will it have been with the help of or in spite of these teachers?

  11. @Mathew, I’m not saying that cigotie needs someone to tell him what to write. And I’m not ashamed to admit I’m out of my element here trying to teach this kid to tell his own original stories, but at the very least he needs someone to interpret his interests and recommend texts that will expand them, adding more weight to the intellectual bar.

    He needs that, at the very least. He doesn’t need someone to refer him to Trapcode’s new plugin.

  12. Isn’t this part of the process? Parrot what we see and then hopefully allow this new skill or tool to become a means to a new end rather than the end in and of itself? These teachers that you fear may stifle Cigotie’s potential…are they the same ones who think teaching is simply modeling and then having students copy what they see? Or are they the coaches who define themselves by wins and losses. Some kids think that because they get an A in a class that they really learned something. Who is to blame for this? The teacher? Parents? Society?

    I think that the question you are asking is an important one, but I don’t think that it is unique to 2009 and web 2.0. If we want to focus on what we as educators can do, then I submit we teach kids that education isn’t about finding the answers; it is about learning to ask the questions. The beauty of it is that every question that gets answered unwraps more new questions. If Cigotie can learn that, then he will be fine.

  13. Great site! Thanks for the link!

    Let the kid learn how to play guitar first before making him write songs. He has plenty of time. While I did say, “Learn the things that don’t change,” there is that time in JR high when a kid can become obsessed with technology and we should let that happen. By the time he is ready for college, he will have all the tools on his belt, and he can focus on actually building something new.

    Even if he doesn’t want to tell his own stories, there are plenty of jobs for technically proficient compositors and GFX artists. We don’t all have to be directors.

  14. Dan’s example student is a perfect example of student motivation. If a student is motivated, they can do anything they put their mind to. Furthermore, I think that Dan is advocating that if the motivated student has the tools they need, they can put their mind to. Finally, if the motivated student also has the education of theory, skill, technique, and creative expression applied to problem solving, . . . then there can be no celing for such a student.

    However, what if this motivated student is not motivated at all in academics like Math, English, Science, or Social Science? How do we meet their needs? Clearly there is evidence of motivation and ability to learn. Traditional education simply does not necessarily meet their need.

    Now, what if the student is not motivated at all. How do we meet their needs using or not using technology. What if a student cares less about the use of technology in class? What if a student cares less about school, period?

    I can do lots of things with a motivated student as long as I can identify what motivates him/her. The question is how do I quickly and effectively identify that motivation? I have yet to find an adequate answer, for me.

  15. I saw Christopher Paolini after his book Eragon was published. He was 15 when he wrote it. He commented that by being homeschooled his parents gave him the ‘gift of time’.

    Gladwell discusses ‘time’ as a huge factor in why Asians are better at math than Americans in his latest book Outliers.

    How can we expect kids to make monumental videos, write 800 page books, or compete at the top in math competitions if we only give them 45 minute class periods?

  16. I wonder how often cigotie’s YouTube channel comes up in conversations in his classes at school? That’s assuming YouTube isn’t blocked in his district. I’m guessing not very often. Most likely, never.

    I had an 8th grade student last year that waited until the end of the school year to share her Anime YouTube channel with me in class. Turns out she was an accomplished anime creator, and had a very large following of subscribers to her YouTube channel.

    It’s remarkable the amount of time and effort cigotie has devoted to his video efforts OUTSIDE of school. Why can’t we figure out how to allow this to happen INSIDE the school as well?

    You Wrote: “I worry that we are building schools that put students in a place to care about artistic expression while only equipping them with technique.”

    Here’s what I worry about: that we are building school’s that force our students to pursue their real interests and passions on their own time, outside of our buildings, after the school day ends. I wonder how often cigotie gets to apply some of his video editing skills in the classroom?

  17. I have little doubt that cigotie will make his way out of this developmental stage. My worry is that his teachers have consigned themselves to irrelevance to that process by obsessing themselves with new and shiny tools – the latest digital storytelling web app – while letting their older tools rust – story, character, theme – the ones which cigotie will need.

  18. I concur. Of course I also wonder if his teachers ever had those ‘older tools’ to begin with. Thinking about the vast numbers of educators that I’ve worked with, I’m guessing most teachers never have. Why would they? It’s only in the past few years that these tools really have been available to the masses. Who would have trained them to use these tools professionally, productively, and/or powerfully? School districts? Universities? Nope.

  19. I am reminded of a quote I heard once from a famous film director whose name currently escapes me: “If you want to make movies don’t major in film in college, major in what you want to make films about.”

  20. Honestly, Dan, speaking as an elem ed person, I think the problem goes WAY back to the kid’s first writing experiences in the lower grades.

    Too many kids are NOT allowed to write for themselves/”tell their own stories” in elementary schools, but instead are taught how to RESPOND to a prompt from the very EARLY ages.

    Seriously, there are BOOKS full of writing “prompts” at the teacher stores. Scary, I know! Teachers buy them because THEY don’t understand how to teach kids to WRITE, so they end up just teaching kids how to RESPOND.

    If this kiddo is in middle school, he probably is still looking for the teacher to tell him what he should write about/create next.

    Too many people spend their lives waiting for someone to TELL them what to do next. Think about how many educators just RESPOND instead of create.

    ANYWAY, looks like THIS kiddo will find a way to create his own story. At least he’s TRYING to create now. He’ll get bored and move on to his OWN imagination next.

  21. Cigotie's Mom

    May 23, 2009 - 7:47 am -

    I’m Cigotie’s mom. Interesting article I ran across about my son.

    I think most artists need to learn the basics before they can move on to free expression. As I listen to him creating songs on the piano or self-teaching himself the guitar, I know that the artistic side of him is there. Whether he ends up applying it to his visual effects, who knows? He’s only 14 and he may be on to something else by the end of the week. I think he’s into website development now and teaching himself programming languages. What were you doing when you were 14?

    I’m not worried about Cigotie. Sometimes he’s a problem though :).

  22. Hello Dan Meyer!

    I agree in everything you said. And I also see many kids online doing the same exact thing, as inspirations like Video CoPilot, Creative Cow, etc. And I also agree on how people are getting too sucked into a world, full of copying and project file manipulation, that they have lost all creativity themselves.

    It’s a hard thing to change but it can be done :)

    Maybe I am not the best example to use. If you check some of the dates of my stuff from 2007, I was the origins of the ideas. Where people like Andrew Kramer make a tutorial about a year or so later. Such as Head Explosion Test, Hit by Car, etc.

    I am not proud of those works haha, but I’m just trying to say, that we have inspired each other.

    I think Andrew Kramer is a marketing genius. By making a user/website interaction that people LIKE to use. And it provides results to show friends and family. But I wouldn’t call yourself a Artist till you take the initiative for original work.

    If you would like to see my original work check out these:

    -Matthew Helms

    PS: The secret to getting applications, is a student discount. I email every company I purchase one, to make a deal if ones not already available. I got all of my applications for less than $300 each.

  23. Hi Matthew, Matthew’s mom,

    Thanks, first of all, for being cool with a bunch of strangers analyzing your work. As you can see from the comments, everyone agrees you have a strong technical baseline, good instincts, etc., and as Mom mentions, Matthew is only fourteen. I don’t know if I could claim the kind of focus at age fourteen that I’m looking for in Matthew’s work.

    That said, to Matthew, if I were your video production teacher (and, by the time you hit your sophomore year at SLVHS, it’s possible I will be) I’d love to see your strong SFX work integrated into a story. It’s one thing to shoot a lightsaber fight and post it to YouTube. It’s another thing to see that fight in the context of some Jedi fanfiction with interesting characters and a driving storyline. Have you tried any of that? Can you link something up?

    Also, if I were your video production teacher, I’d ask you every month (1) what was the last movie you saw, (2) did you like it or dislike it, and (3) specifically, why.

    Thanks, again, for adding to the commentary.

  24. Cigotie's Mom

    May 25, 2009 - 4:57 pm -

    No problem. You do sound like a great teacher that is really striving to teach our children. That being said…Cigotie won’t be going to SLVHS. He has been in the Private school sector and will continue with that path. I would love to place him in public school, but I don’t see enough teachers like you who really, really have a passion to teach. We have a Principle and teacher in our family and debated many a family dinner the pros and cons of senority vs. merit. There’s another topic for your blog. Oh and yes, I do think quality teachers are underpaid.

    The other interesting thing I got from the Cigotie blog is “assumptions.” When you put yourself out on the public domain, you’re fair game. Cigotie’s downfall hasn’t been bad English teachers, we didn’t pay 1k for his software and teachers at his school are well aware of his talents. In fact, the Principle created a web design and HTML class with him in mind. Cigotie even taught some classes in his Photo Shop class last year.
    Besides his techno side, he’s a fablous piano player, just won “longest drive” at the Middle School golf tourney and “Player of the Year” for his team. He gets great grades and is really looking forward to High School. Maybe you can invite him to SLVHS some time and share some technique with your students.