by Lou Mancinelli

The imagination is free from limitations, and animation is free to look like almost anything. Combine the two, and you form something like the state of mind that induced Chestnut Hill resident John Serpentelli to dedicate himself to the art form of animated filmmaking.

Serpentelli’s film, “Animating Autism,” won “Best Documentary” at the 2011 Greater Lehigh Valley Filmmaker Festival.

His films have been featured on HBO, Nickelodeon, PBS and at festivals from New York to Tokyo and been reviewed in The New York Times and Variety magazine. This summer he’ll teach three animation classes for youths ages eight through 16 at Woodmere Art Museum.

Throughout his career, Serpentelli has taught and given lectures on the subject at institutions like Drexel University, Amherst College, the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Museum of Art and various art centers and schools. His independent films have won awards at festivals including The American Motion Picture Society, UNICA Festival (Warsaw), and the New York Expo of Short Film.

“In animation, anything is possible,” said Serpentelli. “I think that is the reason that animation transcends age because adults still enjoy that freedom, that suspension of disbelief that they had as children.”

At the Woodmere classes, kids will learn the basics of traditional hand-drawn animation by animating their name and transferring it to a collaborative film. Each student will receive a DVD of the work. No experience is required to succeed, according to the acclaimed animator.

“People would tell me kids won’t have the patience,” Serpentelli said about comments he received when he first started teaching animation to kids in the early 1990s. “But I have found children will focus on what they find interesting.”

Serpentelli, 47, raised in Toms River, N.J., first came to Philadelphia after high school in 1983 to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He stayed for three years, then transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied film studies and art history and developed a passion for animation.

His Penn education introduced him to various disciplines of fine arts. Woodblock printing stood out to him, but “I realized I was 200 years too late for that,” he said.

Still, he figured animation and woodblock printing shared similar techniques. Each woodblock print in an edition of maybe 20 had to be the same, but Serpentelli’s attempts at prints varied. Each one had a small difference. He realized that was much like creating an animated scene, where to make a character wave, an animator might have to draw a dozen almost identical images. That’s when he first started to dive into animation.

Serpentelli completed his studies at Penn in 1988 and went on to graduate school at the University of the Arts, where he is now a professor. He earned his bachelor’s degree in fine arts in art and film in 1991, followed by a master’s degree in the art of teaching in 1993. He has been teaching art and animation to kids ever since.

His teaching career has served to supplement his artistic career. Serpentelli has directed more than 100 films. In 1997, his quit his day job as a middle school teacher after a Sesame Street producer viewed one of Serpentelli’s films at a New York City festival.

The film moved the producer to the extent that he offered Serpentelli a commission to make a film. That’s when he opened Animation Stewdio (it closed in 2001 due to a slumping economy) in Chestnut Hill with his brother Mike, and focused his energy on making films.

Serpentelli’s animated films are almost like documentaries. They often explore a theme and give a voice to members of society whose voices are generally not heard. He made his first film in 1993, a situation buttressed by the fortuitous hand of coincidence.

At the time he had just finished his higher education, an almost nine-year process, and worked at a movie theater selling popcorn, aware that his kernel work failed to represent a real job within the film industry. He flirted with the idea of moving to California. He knew he loved kids and knew he loved animation. But how could he unite two of his passions? “If kids love watching it,” he thought, “they’ll probably love making it.”

And so, in search for work, he called the now-defunct Philadelphia-based nonprofit agency, Prints in Progress. The group specialized in introducing kids to print-making. It turned out he called at the right time, as one of the group’s employees had left only days before. They hired Serpentelli, and he received a grant to direct his first documentary-style animated film, “Some Girls in the Hood.” It documented the stories of girls at the now-defunct Allegheny School for Girls in North Philadelphia, a school that catered to young girls who had committed weapons offenses.

After that Serpentelli continued to direct animated films. He’s made commissioned films for HBO Family about smoking and Nickelodian Jr. about broccoli. His film “Animating Autism” won “Best Documentary” at the 2011 Greater Lehigh Valley Filmmaker Festival.

“Animating Autism” depicts a group of autistic children as they learn how to animate. Before that, Serpentelli had worked with blind children and those suffering from conditions like Down syndrome.

His hope is that “Animating Autism” can become a traveling workshop. That means Serpentelli and the filmmakers would travel to various schools and work with autistic children to teach them with animation and to help the children express their creative energy, a technique doctors and teachers in the field claim is a therapeutic and productive way of working with children with autism and helping them feel more human.

He’s also heading to HBO this summer to pitch an animated idea for a series about children’s folklore tales from around the world.

“It gives them that freedom to be more honest,” said Serpentelli, who also recently started to teach at Philadelphia University, about the people and kids he portrays in his films. “They are telling their stories, but they aren’t being shown and judged.”

Serpentelli’s classes at Woodmere will take place: Wed-Fri, July 25-27, 3:30-5:30 p.m.; and Tuesdays, July 10-August 14, 6-8 p.m. For more information, visit www.woodmereartmuseum.org/childrenteenclasses.html. For more information about Serpentelli’s films, visit www.serpentelli.com.