Notes from the VisCom Classroom: Teacher Goes Back to School, Part 2

Wow! Who knew there was so much to learn about teaching video? My wife and I just returned from a week at the Maine Media Workshops, where we attended a course called “Film and Video Teachers.” As the name suggests, this course is aimed at professional teachers –those who currently teach video and filmmaking, and those who may do so in the future.

“Intense” is not the word for this course. Under the tutelage of Bart Weiss, a Dallas-based filmmaker and educator, we worked 12- and 14-hour days to go over such nuts-and-bolts issues as camera use, audio recording, editing with Final Cut Pro, and critiquing. Along the way, we also touched on designing assignments, screenwriting, storyboarding, creating shot lists, working with actors, location scouting, and the future of video. As I said, wow!

Kid in a Candy Store

My favorite part of the course came on Wednesday, when I got to be the camera operator on a short film written and directed by one of the other students. At the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism, where I teach, our Visual Communications sequence incorporates video into many of the courses — so I have had some experience shooting and teaching video. However, I have never before had the opportunity to work on a film with a director, cast, and crew.

What a treat! I felt like a kid in a candy store. We had access to first-class equipment, including a Canon high-definition video camera, a variety of audio-recording gear, and studio lights. More importantly, we had a developed concept and a story to tell.

Although this was not a production class per se, everyone treated Wednesday’s efforts as more than just a role-playing exercise. The writer/director, David Kapferer, burned the midnight oil writing and revising his script and preparing a shot list. Two local acting students were recruited as the talent. Maggi Morehouse served as production coordinator and recorded sound. Ian Tiley also recorded sound and served as stunt driver for one of the action sequences. When we needed a tracking shot of the two actors running, Sally Oliver volunteered to drive — or, rather, coast downhill — with me and Ian filming and recording from her SUV.

Although the finished film lasted barely two minutes, the production lasted all day.

The Take-Away Message

What was the take-away message from this shooting exercise? There are probably as many ways to teach video as there are teachers, but I suspect they sort out into two basic methods: 1) send students off with a camera and see what they get, or 2) have them follow the time-honored process that we went through in our course — concept development, scriptwriting and revising, creating a shot list, location scouting, and working as a team to make the film.

Sure, with luck and autofocus, students can sometimes create interesting videos. These would be the moving equivalents, I suspect, of the snapshots I see in the beginning photography course I teach — the students are merely taking photographs. What I strive for is to get my students to “make” photographs. As I learned in Maine, the same is true with video. As Bart, our instructor, constantly reminded us, the goal is not merely to record what happens in front of the camera — the goal is to craft a meaningful story.

With video, of course, much of that crafting takes place in the editing process. Although I loved shooting, I knew that I needed to bite the bullet and begin to tackle Final Cut Pro. So this is where our attention turned on Thursday and Friday. The Workshops offers several week-long courses devoted to Final Cut Pro, but Bart gave us the basics in a couple of hours — a nearly impossible task.

Final Cut Pro, like Photoshop, is a seemingly infinite resource: whatever you want to do, there is probably a way to do it. What we wanted to do, of course, was edit our movies — download the footage and get to work! Wisely, Bart walked us through the various set-up menus that Final Cut Pro offers — something we will surely need to do with our students. He also made sure we understood the importance of “Log and Capture,” especially on a film of any length. So the take-away message from the editing sessions was this: with Final Cut Pro, preparation is key — the more you do in advance, the easier it is to edit your footage.

Student Films

We also spent some time viewing and critiquing student films — some that our students had shot and some that Bart provided. Most were too long, and many had too much setup at the start, the visual equivalent of burying the lead — people getting out of bed, people walking into buildings and down hallways, etc.

The most glaring fault — and one of Bart’s pet peeves — is the unauthorized use of copyrighted music. Why is this so bad? First and foremost, audio supports and sometimes carries the entire production, improving good filmmaking and even covering up for the visual flaws of bad filmmaking. When we watch a student production with a soundtrack lifted from Psycho or Rocky, whose work are we reacting to and, ultimately, grading — the student’s or the composer’s? If we watched with the sound on mute, would the student film seem as good?

Second, having unauthorized copyrighted music (or any other unauthorized element, for that matter) as part of a student film prevents that film from ever receiving distribution beyond the classroom. What if the film is really great, and the student wants to enter it in a contest or festival? Tough luck, unless the filmmaker wants to undertake the difficult process of getting permissions after the fact — and in time for the contest or festival deadline.

Finally, allowing students to simply download a soundtrack for their film means they will never learn one of the most vital filmmaking processes — collaboration. Forcing students to come up with an original soundtrack — written by a friend or a fellow student in the music department, or perhaps synthesized on the computer — means they will learn the art of working with others, which is so important in filmmaking (and in life).

Worth the Struggle

In addition to the lessons I’ve described, my experience being a student for a week taught me something else. At the University of South Carolina, we expect a lot from our students, and we sometimes forget the pressures they are working under — whether from school, work, family, or other causes. I see most of my students for only 2.5 hours of class time per week — and perhaps during office hours. But they are probably working 12- and 14-hour days, just like I did in Maine. They may be tired, hungry, stressed out, whatever.

So the next time one of my students seems demanding, listless, restless, or ready to give up, I hope I’ll be able to remember when I felt the same way during my week in Maine. And then I’ll be able to tell them that, yes, Virginia, learning really is worth the struggle.

[tags]videography, photography instruction[/tags]

One Response to “Notes from the VisCom Classroom: Teacher Goes Back to School, Part 2”

  1. Nice job, David. Sounds so good and I refer to it as Film Camp Hell, but no matter now. "Loss and Life" came out well!
    Best Wishes.

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