MADISON, N.J. — Ironically, what Jan and Eliza Dawson would most like to do with their children's fairy-tale movie project is encourage parents to turn off the screens in their children's lives.
They're hoping their series of stories featuring youngsters with simple costumes and everyday props will prompt parents to sit down and create art of all kind with their kids.
"We want them to turn off the screen and jump over to the activities," said Eliza Dawson, who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "What we really care about, what we really want to see happen is so much more than cute.
"The end goal is to create a creative community where children feel safe to create and share."
The Dawsons, Mormon parents who have three young children, have felt for a while that media are becoming places where families separate when they want to watch something. They decided to do something about it and create movies that appeal to a range of ages and genres, movies that respect the dignity of children and empower them to do their own.
So they wrote, shot and ultimately shared "Clara Tale," which is online at www.claratales.com, at the 2012 LDS Film Festival in Orem, a story featuring their daughter Clara as the Cinderella-type character, a friend's daughter as the haughty stepmother and their baby son as the Magical Owl.
The narration was done one night during a family home evening on a iPhone with their oldest daughter Millie reading and revising as she went, Eliza Dawson said.
Now they're working, as a family, on five more original tales to release by the end of this summer — films that will be available at no cost from their website, on YouTube and on the iPhone.
Those films will include a story about two brothers who compete to build the best house, a boy who smells horrible and has to deal with his situation, a follow-up to "Clara Tale," where Clara has to fight off trolls to save her stepmother, a story based on Eliza Dawson's great-great-grandmother's experiences and a boy confronting his fears.
Each is an original and will be narrated and star children. At least one will be shot in Provo.
Courtney Russell, who also had a film at the film festival (“Redemption”), said she loved "Clara Tale" and is impressed with the Dawsons' creativity and use of simple props and tools.
"They're terrific storytellers," Russell said. "They are a great example of what you can do on your own. They used their own playhouse. They shot it on an iPhone."
"We made this film on a shoestring budget," Jan Dawson said. "We used props and costumes that we had on hand" or could easily pull together at almost no expense.
"We used camera, lighting and sound equipment we or family members owned or could borrow. And the kids in the movie are our own kids or those of friends or family members. Editing, coloring and other post-production stuff was also done by us. And of course, we wrote the story and subsequently the script too," he said.
"The point is that, although we want to provide meaningful, wholesome entertainment, we also want to provide a starting point for parents or other caregivers to have meaningful conversations with their kids, and also want to stimulate kids to be creative in a variety of ways," he added.
The simple art-based activities were designed by the Dawsons' sister-in-law, Samantha Kelly, an art therapist, and can be done with almost no prep time or special art supplies. Some of the ideas involve just discussing story points, like "What would you do if the magical owl came to you? What would you ask for?"
"We're interested in the moral lives of children. We want to really try to reinforce morals and values," Eliza Dawson said. "Really what we're after are these moments that connect."
Ultimately the Dawsons want to provide an online film academy and start a children's film festival that would feature films created by children.
To accomplish their goals, the Dawsons are looking for financial help.
They've been advised they will need about $10,000 per film for their costs: equipment, sets, props, costumes, professional direction, filming and editing. Eliza Dawson estimates they can produce all six for $30,000.
The films are the core of their ambitious plans.
If they don't raise the seed money, they'll still pursue their vision. It will just take longer to launch, she said. "If we don't get the $30,000, it won't stop us," Dawson said.
"I think they have something really special. I think corporate sponsors ought to step up and help out," Russell said.
To get more information about participating in their Kickstarter campaign, go to http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/48383514/795691734?token=9802c280
Sharon Haddock is a professional writer with 35 years experience, 17 at the Deseret News. Her personal blog is at sharonhaddock.blogspot.com.