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An After-School Video Club for Elementary Students

Summary:

Chuck Jurich explains how an elementary after school video club of 20 students creates an average of a dozen short films every year through peer instruction. Here he lists the stages of production, shows an example of an AV-style student script, and links to the software used.

The Zia Elementary School Video Club was started by me, the club sponsor, in the 2006-2007 school year. That first year, we had approximately 8 kids, interestingly all girls. Since then, the club has grown each year in numbers of students as well as the quantity and quality of videos. This year we have 20 students and we’ve had to turn children away due to a lack of adults available to supervise the students.

The club meets directly after school twice a week for approximately 90 minutes each session. Students at the school in grades 4 and 5 are eligible to participate. There is an application to join that addresses student interest, motivation to make videos, as well as commitment and ability to work with others. Many of the fourth graders reapply in fifth grade becoming knowledgeable experts to help newcomers along.

The students meet in the school computer lab and each have access to their own computer. A unique log-in account allows students to use multimedia orientated software including iMovie (video editing), Scratch and Pencil (animation), Celtx (multimedia production and scriptwriting), Comic Life (comic making), Photo Booth (image capture), and others. In addition, students have access to multiple camcorders, tripods, digital still cameras, LCD projectors, a portable digital sound recorder and other technological tools.

There is no curriculum. Really. Students learn “on the job” and once they know how to do a task such as camera operation or specific video editing moves, they are expected to teach their classmates. As a testament to this, at the beginning of the year two kids knew the password to get into the “Video Club” computer login. This vital information was spread around quickly and remembered on the first day. I rarely have to repeat myself because information is learned in a “just in time” and “need to know” basis. In addition, there are 21 “instructors” in the class and we all know different things.

There is no fee for the students to participate in the program and neither the club sponsor nor any school volunteers are paid. The club is a partnership between the club sponsor and the school. Any consumables (paper and printing, DV tapes, DVDrs, etc.) are donated by the school.

As of date, the club has produced, on average, a dozen videos a school year. Of note, this is roughly the same number a large film studio produces in a year.


Three Stages of Video Production

How Young Students Produce Video Texts

So, maybe you want to get students involved in making videos but you don’t know where to start. Its not an easy task but, then again, no writing is. In this section I will take you through the major steps of the video making process. No video production is the same so please remember that flexibility is important.

Students in the after-school program produce video texts in a three stage process similar to the one used in major motion pictures. In the process, the “text” is substantially transformed, revised, and re-authored along the way. The students work with a variety of text modes including speech, print, image, sound, video, real world objects (often as symbols), and digital texts. Video making involves multiple authors– scriptwriters, director, cameraperson, actors, editors, and more– and the final composition is arguably more collaborative than any other text students write in classrooms.


Video “Pre-Production”

Nearly all of our student productions are narratives so they all start with a script. The script is written using one of two styles, an “Audio-Visual” (AV) format or a standard screenplay format.

Beginning scriptwriters often start with handwritten scripts using the AV format (above) and a few films are even shot from these documents. The shot by shot, “what-you-see” and “what-you-hear” format is very clear and works well for short videos (less than seven shots total). While not frowned upon, AV scripts aren’t very good for longer narratives. They are difficult to follow and shooting video from them can be restrictive for a director since the shots are already spelled out for them.

Students quickly discover that writing scripts in standard screenplay format is not only more efficient and flexible but more fun. Writing in pairs and trios on the computer, students use an open source media production and word processing program called “Celtx” http://celtx.com [a screen capture of Celtx can be viewed above]. Celtx is surprisingly kid friendly but some knowledge of scriptwriting is beneficial.

[Note: One night on the internet should get any writing teacher properly prepped on screenwriting. Go to http://www.simplyscripts.com and search for a movie you’ve seen or enjoyed. You will quickly see how the script is an efficient plan for the film.]

Celtx incorporates pull down menus that automatically format text to standard scriptwriting categories such as “Scene Heading,” “Action,” “Character,” “Dialog” and more. Students quickly learn to use the program to efficiently construct a script that any director– from a pro like Steven Spielberg to one of our fourth graders with a scab on her knee– can make sense of and shoot.

Once a script is complete, there are other pre-production tasks that need to be completed. The scriptwriters are encouraged by me to first find a director and let this person carefully put together their crew. Sometimes they follow this procedure but I’ve discovered that students, especially at the beginning, prefer to go about assembling their crew in a much more loose manner: “Who wants to be camera?” “I do!” Ability is rarely factored into these decisions and I personally find it both alarming and refreshing. As the club gets more experience and the stakes rise (ex. dealing with a long, interesting script), the kids do begin to fill roles such as director and principle actors more carefully.

Next, the script must be scanned for any necessary props; they need to be brought from home or made on the spot. All kinds of questions need to be answered: How exactly will that driving scene be shot? Do we need an actual car? Locations for filming need to be secured, permissions granted. Will the school library be free or will there be a meeting there? Pre-production usually ends when the urge to actually film gets too great. The “low hanging fruit” philosophy– lets get these easy shots first and we’ll worry about the rest later– propels the students into action.

When all the positions are filled and pre-production tasks are nearing completion, a critical detail must be done: the director has to make a plan on how to shoot the script. The club has gradually developed a process for approaching this task. In the beginning kids “winged it” and needless to say, it is not recommended. The director would go out with the crew and pretty much start shooting from the beginning of the script. Overwhelmed and confused, crews would come back without much to show for their time. In addition, it was impossible to shoot anything out of order of the script so any obstacles (and there are LOTS of them in video production) grounded the crew.

A new technique developed which we call “blocking”– carving out and marking specific shots from “blocks” of text from the actual screenplay [Script Blocking.pdf]. Directors usually block one scene and then shoot it, returning to the script to block the next logical one to shoot. Blocking helps kids focus on one task at a time and to create an efficient shooting schedule– if a needed actor is absent, the crew can still shoot a different scene. Even after the script is blocked, the realities of the location often require additional changes on the fly (so clips like “Shot 6.1”– between shot 6 and 7– are common).

Our next step in the evolution of script preparation is the creation of a “shooting script”– a script with shot numbers listed on the side. As you might image, this is how it is done in the “big leagues” and it was only a matter of time that we got to this stage.


Video “Production”

In production, students go out and shoot the script. A production crew consists of a director, camera person, one or more actors, and a “marker”– a person who documents on a dry erase board what scene, shot, and take the crew is on and displays it in front of the camera before each shot.Image originally uploaded on 2010-11-03 14:44

After a location is settled on, the director positions the actors and gives them direction as well as their lines. Too often this is the first time the actors have seen the script but this trend is changing as directors, tired of acting that sounds like reading, are now giving scripts to the actors to take home and study. Meanwhile, the camera person gets in position and deals with any issues that might come up such as backlighting or awkward actor positioning.

There is a lot of negotiating that happens in this stage. It can look quite chaotic– actors goof off while waiting, everyone’s got a suggestion, lots of laughing happens after people mess up. Setting up a shot disproportionately takes up a great deal of time. A take that lasts 10 seconds often requires 10 minutes of setup time. As a result, multiple takes are encouraged, even for takes that seem quite good. “One more time, just in case.”

Technically, the director is in charge of the direction of the shooting as well as the crew but everyone contributes often outside their designated roles. An actor may have co-written the script and is in a good position to comment on the direction. In the first two years of the club, I would discourage this feedback thinking that it was a kind of “micromanagement” by scriptwriters or “back seat driving” by actors but I’ve started to see the importance of this dialogue. Its critical feedback, real input that changes the outcome of the final product. Some directors are quite firm in what they want while others are more wishy-washy. Their directing style ultimately doesn’t matter as long as the shooting goes smooth (socially) and the crew stays productive. Directors should definitely have focus or a sense of direction but how they communicate with their crew is exceptionally important and may be the biggest determinant of how productive, creative, and happy the production team is.


Video “Post-Production”

“It’s in the can!”

With shooting done, the crew moves to post-production. Working with digital video, many of the terms of filmmaking make little sense and “it’s in the can” is one definitely lost on the children. Living in a decidedly non-linear world, students often don’t know you have to rewind the tape in the camera in order to see the takes. (In fact, many kids didn’t even know that the footage they shot was located on a piece of magnetic tape.) After rewinding the camera, the shots are “dumped” into the computer using a video editing program, in our case “iMovie.” Aside from the camera person, this is the first time students get to see any of the video footage. Many heads huddle around the computer monitor to see the video being imported into the computer in real time. They laugh at the mistakes, comment on interesting camera angles, and give approval to certain shots. It is an interesting moment because the movie is still being figured out and everything they see is generally out of sequence. Usually only a few people (scriptwriter, director, camera person) know how these clips all fit together.

The “magic” happens in the editing and I’ve often been floored by the transformation these raw takes go through. At this stage the editor– sometimes its the director or scriptwriter, sometimes someone brand new comes in– starts to sequence the best clips of each shot into a narrative. They metaphorically chop up the takes, removing the “heads” (loosely everything before “action!) and “tails” (more or less everything after “cut!”) of the clips and a story starts to emerge.

Editing involves a methodical work flow. The best editors are students who can work step by step while keeping an eye on the big picture. Working with the script, editors place one clip in front of the other in a sequence that fits the story. Next, they cut the heads and tails mentioned earlier, then they start “refined editing” looking for continuity and rhythm. The video should feel smooth and transparent and their most powerful tool is “cutting,” making clips into smaller and smaller pieces like a sculptor. Refined editing can mean cutting ten more frames– a mere third of a second– and noticing that it actually seems to make a big difference. The editor may choose to work alone with headphones on silently immersed in her work while others prefer to work with a partner, taking turns controlling the computer and constantly discussing each editing move.

Lots of problems come up: a voice is too soft, a clip seems to be missing, all the takes of a particular shot are flawed or, the atomic bomb of problems, “Mr. Jurich, we got a BIG problem– the whole thing doesn’t make sense!” This is when those working alone seek out feedback and solutions from others. Post-production solutions can include voice overdubs, creatively using parts of two poor takes, or temporarily abandoning the script in order to resurrect the larger story. At times, the easiest solution is to get out the camera and reshoot or add a shot, stepping back into production momentarily. Another student may come in and do the credits or even take over and refine a rough cut. Sound effects and music (surprisingly time intensive) are sometimes added and the whole film is watched countless times. Fresh eyes are sought out to see if “it makes sense.” Finally the video is done, or as done as its going to be because another production awaits. The video will be polished once more before it is shown to kids, parents, and the community in a culminating event at the end of the year– premiere night.