Video and Writing in the Elementary Grades
INT. HALLWAY – AFTERNOON
We look down a long hallway, dark, empty. At the end are glass double doors and the late afternoon light shines in backlighting the scene. We hear some voices coming out of a room but we can’t make them out. Out of nowhere we hear a yell.
Then more quiet voices.
We move down the hallway. And see a door to a classroom ajar. Through a narrow crack we can see chairs turned upside down on desks, their legs in the air with tennis balls on the feet. We hear an undetermined number of girls. Occasionally we can briefly see one of them but what is it they’re focusing on?
The way you eat, you look like you’re from a zoo!
What did you say to me?!
You heard me, you monkey!
Cut. Yeah, that was good.
In the distance, we hear the boy yell again, his voice echoing through the hall.
STOP! You can’t go back!
We move further down the hallway and the door to the girls bathroom is open. There’s toilet paper all over the floor and there are both boys and girls standing around watching.
We see a boy, PETER, wrapped to a toilet with the paper like he’s a mummy. The PRINCIPAL walks into the bathroom.
Got yourself into a pickle, huh, Peter.
The principal chuckles and moves on. We hear a burst of laughter in the distance from the group of girls.
What on earth is going on in this school?! Mysterious conflict behind closed doors, yelling and threats, a seemingly indifferent principal, abandoned hallways, cryptic laughter. Have the public schools begun to crumble into an apocalyptic mess? Will this be the future of schools?
Well, hopefully it will be future as this is a typical day in the Zia Elementary After-School Video Club (see related link below). The program, currently in its fourth year, puts video cameras into the hands of young children, free to create the movies in their minds. In this non-conventional environment, students learn to write scripts, shoot them, and edit the video. An essential aspect of the program is everything is done by the kids– its their stories, they make the decisions and do the acting, they run the cameras and move the mouse. The final products are satisfying conclusions to a long collaborative writing process.
This resource is an invitation for teachers to look closely at the writing elements integrated in the video production classroom and appreciate the literacy involved when young children collaboratively work with different mediums including traditional print, photography, video, animation, sound, and other digital texts.
Indeed, if this is the future of schools, the future looks quite good.
A Focus on the Writing that Happens in Video Production
At first glance, it is possible to understate the writing that takes place in video production. Students are constantly contributing to the final product– whether it be revising the script or editing shot footage– but there is also a great amount of “downtime” where students must wait for crew members to prepare, setup, clarify, and so on. The crew can get noisy and they appear disorganized and even “out of control” by traditional school standards.
While the video club often looks and sounds like play, I argue that there is serious writing going on. Sometimes this writing is obvious as in a completed screenplay– an impressive document in its own right– but other times it takes a careful eye to see the brilliance of the students’ work. Evidence of solid writing happens when viewers watch 40 seconds of video, unconscious that the editor has carefully arranged 15 clips seamlessly pushing the story along or when we see a compelling sequence and we’re completely unaware of the camera. When the viewer forgets they’re watching video and are instead invested in a story, that’s when the students have done their best work.
Often with video in schools and classrooms, students are merely in front of the camera and adults do the technical work but this is not the case in our Video Club. Students do the jobs behind the camera as well– it is 100% kid work. They write the scripts, they operate the cameras, they move the mouse. Watching a student production, you will see all kinds of mistakes– flubbed lines, rough tracking shots, an accidental “cut” still left in– but there are also mistakes that only the kids see because they have trained their eyes and minds to see it. They recognize continuity issues, pacing problems, and misaligned audio while the viewers are often oblivious, engaged in stories, memorable scenes, and beautiful shots. Viewers may be impressed with the flashy parts of a film but the kids are more proud of the moves they make that viewers don’t see at all, the ones that matter to make a great video. Their favorite parts are almost invisible to the casual viewer.
Mastery over the technical tools of video production is desirable but not enough to produce a great video. Students also have to know how to construct a good narrative, how to develop interesting dialog, how to use rhythm, and a thousand other things that are no different than conventional print. The difference is that the video production crew can use sound and light to create mood while the novelist uses words alone. Its important to remember that video production has unique characteristics but it is ultimately writing, like any other.
After working with young children and video for nearly four years, I am beginning to see particular occasions in the video production process as critical reading/viewing moments. These moments are extremely important in the process because this is where students read/view the text in progress and give critical feedback that shapes the collaborative writing/rewriting to follow. It tends to happen through oral communication and as a result has an inherent social component to it.
In the next two sections I will highlight two specific examples of critical collaboration that occur in the video making process. One is while setting up a shot and the other involves executing a voice overdub.
Setting Up a Shot: Video Production
Setting up a shot takes place during the “production” stage of video production (see related links below). The crew– actors, director, camera person, “marker”, art directors, etc.– goes out to capture the shots indicated on the script. Setup takes a while as locations are arranged, camera placement is negotiated, and actors are situated.
In the example above, there is a small crew of four: actor, cameraperson, marker, and director (who also plays a small role and is offscreen during most of the clip). They are early into the filming of “Monkey Girl.” In fact, this is their first shot (though they are on “Shot 2”, crews often shoot out of sequence).
In this clip, we see two takes (6 and 7). While Take 7 is the one that is ultimately used in the movie, Takes 1-6 are very important steps towards the “perfect shot”. Each take is a refinement of the last where issues are discovered and solutions are created. Note how Take 6 is marred by a flubbed line but that is not what is discussed afterward. The cameraperson talks about a pole that is in the way while I (the “marker”– person who holds a slate in front of the camera and marks what shot and take it is) am concerned with being able to see the actor’s face. Both are important (as is the actor saying the correct line but that’s her concern). At the end of Take 7, I wondered if the pole divided the two characters and asked the camera person if that were the case. Metaphorically, it would work as these two characters are at odds with each other. The cameraperson instead decided to eliminate the pole through camera placement. My idea is a decent one but it was originally thought up to solve a problem. Now that the problem is gone, the solution is passed over. Take 7 corrects every issue that has been brought up.
Moving on to Shot 3, we see the director enter the shot near the end of the clip (she’s wearing a plaid shirt). She realizes that the crew needs to see the principal actor with her arms crossed but this action falls somewhere between Shot 2 and Shot 3. “Oh, we forgot this!” In one of many “decimal shots,” The crew will set up “Shot 2.1” to get this needed and important footage.
While out shooting, everyone is allowed to give suggestions but no one necessarily has to use them. The cameraperson solved her issue with her own solution (moving the camera). Only the director can truly override a decision and it is only done sparingly. I used to discourage this feedback in order to protect the power of the director and others from overbearing students but we’ve learned that small crews really benefit from everyone being engaged. The dialog between students can be very creative and even fun.
Executing a Voiceover: Video Post-Production
Post-production work includes video and sound editing (see related links below). Here, a trio of kids are executing voice overdubs for the student production “The Haunted School.” In this video, all of the sound had been done in post-production, our first production to pull off this feat.
In the clip, one of the main actors has been asked to come in for the second time to perform a few more lines that have been either missed or needed to be redone. He is antsy to return to other tasks and gets a bit silly. The editor, exercising her power, refocuses him to the task and is able to get three takes of him. Each take seems to be fairly similar but there are technical concerns that have to be addressed as well– recording levels (too loud, too soft), timing and synchronicity with the video, starting and stopping the recording. The editor plays back the sounds to verify they are recorded and makes a basic placement of the clip. Getting the actor to return (and settle down) proves to be a difficult job and the editor thinks its best to get all of his overdubs done now.
What makes sound editing so difficult is solving the myriad of problems that come up when negotiating between technological issues and human needs. The editor needs a quiet space to record, thus, she wheeled her computer to the classroom next door away from the other kids who are busily (and noisily) working. She needs to be able to quickly cue up the editing software to record actors while they wait patiently, or in this case, impatiently. The editor, like a director, needs to communicate what she needs from the actors– faster, louder, softer, more expression– and be able to identify quickly if she got it. She has to be ready when the actor is ready and be sensitive to the fact that no human wants to repeat the same phrase over and over endlessly.
Characteristics of Video Production Texts and Classrooms
Compared to conventional print orientated classrooms, the video production classroom and the texts produced in them are marked by three significant characteristics: they are multimodal, use different writing technologies, and the students write socially and collaboratively. While all writing has these characteristics to a certain degree, the video production classroom highlights them even more so.
In this section I will examine these three characteristics in relation to the student video production “The Haunted School” (seen above).
Video production offers students uncommon opportunities to express themselves in a variety of modalities– written print, speech, gesture, spatial arrangement, visuals, and sound. This is one of the reasons why video is so powerful– it engages the viewer in multiple ways. In some ways, students don’t just write these video texts, they design and produce them into existence. The videos have to be imagined, talked about, negotiated, put into different forms (script, enactment, digital video) and each of these transformations involve different modes (print, speech, video, sound, and more).
From my experiences in the after-school program, I have found that some students are quite talented at communicating a story visually where they might struggle using traditional print. One student, Peter (a pseudonym), has been in special education classes all through elementary school and has limited writing ability compared to his peers, yet, he has written two of the finest scripts– yes, text based scripts– that the video club has seen. For Peter, it is natural for him to visualize what he wants to see on the screen and when he writes his scripts he uses an economy of words in plain language to quickly describe a scene, action, and dialog. With scripts of such quality and interest there is no shortage of students wanting to participate and make the video. His work attracts the best actors and directors.
“The Haunted School” (above) was first written in an “A/V” format– audio and video listed side by side. It is a very basic format that describes, shot by shot, what will be seen and heard. The production grew much more complex when the crew decided that all of the audio and sounds were going to be done in post-production– after the shooting was done. The voices are all dubbed, the natural sounds such as footsteps, doors creaking, and even the “silence” of the room was painstakingly done afterwards. In this film you can clearly see the multiple modes in play: dialog, written text (script), visuals (objects, places, people), spatial arrangement (framing of shots), audio cues.
Different Writing Technologies
Like all forms of writing, video production involves the use of technologies as tools in the writing process– and lets face it– many teachers are scared to death of some of these technologies. In the design and creation a video, students will employ pencils, paper, video cameras, tripods, dry erase boards, still cameras, computers and software, speakers, microphones, digital sound recorders, and a variety of stage props and settings. Pencils, paper, and dry erase boards seem easy enough but what about video cameras?– video editing software?– digital sound recorders? For some teachers, this is an immediate deal-breaker. They feel they don’t have the time, energy, and background to learn how these tools work. This is unfortunate, however, it an obstacle that must be acknowledged and addressed.
Teachers can learn to master these tools the same way kids will– by using them in meaningful ways. Playing with the tools is a good start and there’s nothing wrong with reading the manual but using them to accomplish a task is a surefire path towards mastery.
In “The Haunted School,” students were exposed to portable digital sound recorders for the first time. There was definitely a learning curve and the greatest challenge was probably file management. The sound editors went out to record a gate rattling or a can being kicked and came back with multiple takes of each. When they imported the sounds into the computer, they all had arbitrary names such as “audiowav008.wav” and had to be heard again just to understand what it was and if it was usable. Files had to be renamed, deleted, moved, etc. During editing, students had to work with many files in multiple formats. As always, once a student learned how to do a task, they were expected to teach others to perform them.
Social and Collaborative Writing
The social nature of writing is clearly evident in video work. Video productions are completed through a fascinating system of cooperation, negotiation, and compromise. After watching the process, it is easy to recognize that no video is completed alone– the camera operator, director, and actors are a team. When writing scripts and even during video and sound editing, students rarely work alone preferring to write and edit in pairs. There are many opportunities for students to contribute something to a production and their contributions matter.
Video production naturally employs an overt master/apprentice model and the teacher is only one of many people in the process who instruct and give feedback. Within these social interactions are important moments where students give feedback, assistance, and criticism to each other and move the production in specific directions. These moments are where the writing happens.
“The Haunted School” set the bar high on video post-production work and soon students were routinely incorporating voice overdubs and sound effects into their productions. The editor of the film became the de facto instructor for these techniques. The Haunted School” was written in early October and was intended to be a Halloween movie, however, due to the complexities of the production (particularly sound) it wasn’t finished until Spring Break!
Video and Writing in the Elementary Grades Conclusion
Video production is an exciting writing genre that offers students new opportunities to express themselves in different modes. Even through the video production environment is technologically orientated, it is important to understand and appreciate the literacy involved when young children seamlessly work with multiple modes including traditional print, photography and cinematography, video, animation, sound, and other digital texts. Collaboration is integral to video work and we teachers need to teach students how to do it. Likewise, the use of technology needs to be addressed, not as “special” and coveted rewards for “advanced” students, but as basic tools of contemporary writing.
From the previous two examples, its is easy to see the main characteristics of video production: multimodality, advanced and extensive use of technologies, and social and collaborative writing. Setting up a shot is done collaboratively and socially. An actor might take gestural and linguistic modes into consideration while the cameraperson focus on the visual and spatial modes. Mastery over the technological elements has to be in place or nothing will be captured. The editor balances the technological and human demands, putting all the modes together to make a comprehensible and compelling story.
I have learned a great deal about writing through video production and am excited about the possibilities it creates. Video work naturally employs an overt master/apprentice model and the teacher is only one of many people in the process who gives advice, instruction, and feedback. Collaboration isn’t just about “getting along”– its also about how we interact. Video production has taught me to respect student ideas but also to respect the roles that students perform and trust their decisions.
I encourage teachers to take on this wonderful writing adventure.