SHADY HILLS — Antonio Mendonca loves video games: FlatOut 2 and Halo are his favorites.
The 12-year-old sixth-grader hopes to be a game programmer.
Who knew he'd get started down that path while attending Crews Lake Middle School?
"When I heard 'animation,' I thought pictures," Antonio said about the school's animation club, as he punched his iMac keyboard to make a Pac-Man style ghost run across the screen. "I didn't think we were going to make them move."
That's not all.
The club is making a movie using some of the most advanced animation software around. Its sponsors are Kevin Naples, an artist trained at Ringling College of Art and Design, and Joe Groppe, an animator who runs a private graphic arts company when not serving as the school's technology specialist.
"I'm very excited about this because it is absolutely cutting edge," said Groppe, who created the club for nearly 40 interested students. "We are preparing kids for what is out there."
Indeed, even as the economy struggles, demand is strong for people who can use Flash, 3D Studio Max and other programs that help Web sites, cartoons and movies like Shrek come alive. It's practically college-level material, something rarely offered in high schools, much less middle schools.
Principal Chris Christoff sees possibilities in eventually turning the club into a class, while superintendent Heather Fiorentino suggested that it could evolve into a career academy linked to a nearby high school.
"This is the kind of thing that hooks kids," Christoff said.
No doubt. All you have to do is visit the Crews Lake media center on a Tuesday or Thursday afternoon to see for yourself.
This past Tuesday found sixth-grader Chad Ballew creating a head out of modeling clay — a project designed to have kids understand the dimensions and perspective of a character before creating a three-dimensional computer version.
"I'm making the nostrils for the nose using two spheres we created," Chad explained as he worked the clay with his fingertips. "I'm smoothing it out to make sure there are no bumps or ridges, because skin is pretty much smooth."
Beside him, eighth-grader Faith Pope showed how she used a tutorial to create a 3-D graphic of a pedestal.
"It's what I want to do when I get older for a job," said Faith, who looks to comic books for inspiration. "It's just really cool. You take stuff and draw it, put it on the computer and make it move."
In another room, one group of students practiced filming scenes for the club's movie in advance of adding digital effects later in the process. Nearby, Antonio and a half-dozen other kids worked on their Pac-Man project.
Groppe demonstrated how to get the characters to roll their eyes and express surprise before running off.
"That's so cool!" one boy said. "That's awesome," a girl chimed in.
After a few minutes, Groppe told the kids to "go to your computers and start messing around."
They gladly did so.
"You get to play around and mess around with the different things like Adobe Flash," said sixth-grader Cassondra McIntyre, who hopes to become a video game designer. "It's really fun. And when you mess up, it's really funny."
"It's better than sitting down and watching TV," added sixth- grader Carlos Labusta, who wants to design animated television programs.
Next year, Groppe plans to expand the curriculum to give this year's participants even more skills while allowing a new group to come in and get the introductory lessons. Christoff already has given the green light.
"This," Christoff said, "is really where it's at for these kids."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.