Teaching Children Filmmaking –
I spent some time together with my daughter, Elsie, discovering how to make a Point of View documentary film, which she aptly named 'a day in the life of a third grader.' She has since entered her film into the Snowdance Film Festival at Holden Village, and is keeping her fingers crossed.
This is the third film Elise and I have worked on together. Our family has been invited to attend the past two Snowdance festivals (in 2014 and 2015) and each time she and I joined forces to make short films during the 24 hour contest, first on Home Tastes Like Love, in which Elsie acted and helped direct the myriad of child actors we enlisted for our entry. A shorter version of that film went on to be featured at a live showing of '3-minute-wonders' at the Seattle International Film Festival, where Elsie and I met the other award recipients and took questions from the audience. We also worked together on a mockumentary called 'The Knitted Life' in which she acted and helped write the script.
A day in the life of a third grader is the first film in which Elsie took on the camera operations as well as the editing. This was a big leap for both of us. These were things I could do in my sleep, but this needed to be her film if she wanted to enter it in the 'under 18' category. Which she did. So I gladly put myself in teacher mode much more than in our previous work together, and as the project rolled along, I found my thoughts to be primarily centered on these topics:
- Defining the most important skills of a documentary film maker
- Designing the learning outcomes, or, how does one teach those skills?
- How to tell a story worthy of your audience's time?
- Can we get this picture done on time?
Skills of the documentarian
The art of documentary filmmaking involves capturing the images and sounds of everyday life, and then weaving those raw materials into a story that is worthy of an audience's time and attention. It is a magical and maddening mix of creative story telling, actors who don't know what they're doing, and a myriad of technical challenges and options that change too fast to keep pace with. In teaching children the steps to creating their own documentaries, it is important to break apart the main areas of learning into understandable sections. In my mind those are: writing the script, recording the evidence, editing the story.
The most important aspect - the art of storytelling - is, naturally, the hardest to teach. Some students will grasp it effortlessly and others never come close, but it can be taught by rigorous focus on the subject. Pose the question: why would anyone want to watch this film? Good documentaries answer that question correctly, and all the actions leading to the creation of the film need to be filtered through the answer to this question. We'll examine this more later.
Once you've got a story figured out, it is time to go collect the images and sounds that make up the evidence of that story. Any smart phone's camera will do. For 'a day in the life of a third grader' Elsie mostly used a GoPro fastened to her bike helmet, or strapped to her chest for the Costco sequence. She also borrowed my phone to set up the shots at the park at Greenwood Elementary School.
Finally, the editing. Your story comes alive in post-production, assuming you've worked hard at defining that story, and that you've gone out and done the legwork of gathering plenty of footage and sound. There are so many technical hurdles intermixed in with the organic process of telling the story that the challenge for the teacher is to allow the student room to be challenged, or even fail, so that their story will emerge in their own voice, but to be close enough at hand to help with the heavy lifting of file management and software assistance.
- I can write a compelling story
- I can write a script and shot list
- I know how to shoot a great sequence
- I can define and understand my workflow between my camera(s), computer(s), files, and editing software, and I know where to turn for help with technical difficulties.
- I can edit my footage and tell the story I set out to tell, and output my finished tale to various targets (online, dvd, etc.)
Tell me a story
Do not just pose the question: why would anyone want to watch this film? But insist that your young filmmaker answer the question. Allow her the opportunity to think it through, even into the early shooting exercises. What is important? Why is it important? Challenge yourselves to refine this answer even as you begin to shoot and gather your evidence. Where is the story?
It is very helpful to understand the basic story before shooting begins. Then the day's shots can be reviewed to see if they'll actually work for the story as imagined. Adjustments can be made, either to the story itself, or to the way it is being shot. Once all the materials are gathered, the editing begins, and that is where the story is fully executed. It takes time to remove all the unnecessary elements, and rearrange the best into a cohesive whole. The student must feel free to experiment, and to fail, repeatedly, in order to achieve her vision.
Deadlines and bylines
Elsie got the idea to use the 2nd camera for the playground shots after our first shoot at the playground, during which she'd only used the helmet camera. The footage, while cool and fun, was so bouncy you couldn't watch very much of it without getting dizzy. So the 2nd camera needed to be very stable. We opted for an iPhone and small tripod, which were easy for her to learn how to use.
This exercise afforded us an opportunity to mix together footage from 2 cameras, which was a good learning opportunity for post production. It also posed the artistic problem that she didn't want people to see the helmet camera. A whole lot of learning happened by introducing the 2nd camera, and while not all of the material recored was a great success, enough of it was, and it added a layer of complexity that allowed for more professional skills to develop.
We reviewed each day's shots right away, and I taught some of the technical aspects of video file management along with the story-telling aspects of assembling a documentary film. Elsie had the great idea to record herself playing the fiddle with the GoPro helmet camera, and that of course became the soundtrack for much of the other point of view material. At times I would work ahead of her and put together a few quick samples of things that she might consider doing with her material, and she'd pick a direction. Then she would learn how to execute that direction and work with the final shots.
At some point the clock becomes the limiting factor. For this film, Elise had to have a DVD postmarked by December 12, so we finished shooting and made the editorial decisions to get the work submitted. That is an important lesson to learn for any young filmmaker. Perfection doesn't count if you don't deliver the film.