‘What is a Flame?’ by Benjamin Ames

The enthusiasm, charm and simplicity of Benjamin Ames’ approach to explaining combustion to school kids is thoroughly enjoyable.

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Ames, a physics doctorial candidate at the University of Innsbruck, created this cartoon for the 2012 Flame Challenge, a competition set up by the Centre for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. Alan Alda, Hollywood actor turned visiting professor, helped set up the competition based on recollections of an unsatisfying answer a teacher gave to his schoolboy question ‘what is a flame?’  Ames’ film won first prize after being judged by thousands of 11-years-olds in schools around the world.

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An aspect of Benjamin’s ability to make learning enjoyable is his humour. For instance the film’s premise gently mocks the protagonist’s plight; a disembodied chipper scientist insists on explaining how flames work to a dead man chained up in the fiery pits of hell, whilst failing to acknowledge the characters suffering.

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Ames’ talents are diverse. Remarkably he managed to write a catchy song for the finale, that summarised all the key points and included an effective chorus that goes: ‘Pyrolysis, Chemiluminesence, Oxidation, Incandescence’.

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It must be mentioned that the standard of animation on this project doesn’t compare with most of the films featured on this blog. Despite the obvious limitations, the ‘my-first-Flash-animation’ feel to the project doesn’t put me off.  The film manages to achieve greatness in spite of the aesthetic flaws.

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It is impressive how many of the Vimeo comments demand that Benjamin quits his day job to make more educational films. According to the Flame Challenge website Benjamin seems to have got the hint and is finishing up his PhD this summer and is busy working on producing a kids’ science show.

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