How do we, as filmmaking educators, keep our classes engaged and moving forward?
Written by William Donaruma
Production classes are inherently hands-on, team-based, work closely in a small circle to get your shots, and then, sit in a small room together or at adjacent edit stations to make it all come together. Not exactly the social distancing model we are now supposed to adhere to given the situation. How do we, as filmmaking educators, keep our classes engaged and moving forward? Having just spent two months working with RED Digital Cinema cameras, lighting scenarios, grip equipment and building scripts to shoot after spring break, what’s next? Just trying to move forward with our plan was impossible since no one had that kind of equipment nor did they have each other. My plan was relatively simple in that our goals now had to shift. No sense lamenting over where we were going, let’s take the knowledge base that we built and put it to use in another direction. We did learn lighting and exposure strategies, camera movement, composition and most importantly, an appreciation of how these elements work to make a film. Let’s use them differently.
My plan was to make a hard-left turn on the semester. I built a new syllabus for the second half with new goals and challenges. What I did not want to do is have them spend more time in front of a computer talking and listening to lectures just to fill class time in the day. They would have enough of that with the new online learning mandate. I wanted them out DOING something! Creating images. Appreciating their new skill set from the first eight weeks and putting them to use. First, I made sure they all had some kind of camera that was functional. A few had DSLR type cameras, but they ALL have phones. I deployed the FilmicPro app through our Apple license system, so they all had a better tool kit to work with. Sure, there was an Android in the bunch, so he got a Google gift card to acquire the app. They now had three “film challenges” to accomplish. The first one was to shoot, only on their phones, a one-minute piece on what “Home” means to them. They are all stuck there, so practice with the app, and tell us about where you come from. What does it mean to be home? It was amazing to see more about them and the different approaches to where they are from. I wish I could do it every semester, but I hope I don’t have to!
For the next challenge, I wrote a short script entitled, “Scissors,” that had purposeful gaps in the story they had to fill in. It was like film Madlibs, if any of you remember those. The variables were highlighted, but they all start and end with some character and a pair of scissors. They could use any medium as this point, and the films were about two to three minutes long. One student got so inventive he got some cheap lights at the hardware store, including a work light, and had his whole family involved to create a chiaroscuro effect with a film noir vibe. I should also note that while I had fortunately been using some online resources already as part of a FilmSkills.com subscription, I changed and added many video modules that included one on home-made light kits.
The last challenge, due next week, can be any film they want to make. They would run various ideas by me and they were all inventive and creative in some way, being narrative, documentary, video essay or poem, etc. I used examples of three- to four-minute films on the FilmicPro site so they could get a sense of the possibilities. We typically just tackle a narrative production in cinematic style. This gave them freedom and ownership in the class, especially since we all ran through this plan together when we knew we would not be back on campus. I wanted to open up their experience so it would be educational, beneficial, but mostly fun. They would have enough stress and mind-numbing online work to do. What I did NOT want is anything about this pandemic, sheltering in place that would facilitate a gloom and doom scenario.
Sure, we did meet every couple of weeks online, and I was open for any time they needed to meet for discussion, and it became a welcome to see each other rather than a burden to be back online wanting to mute their video and audio. The best part to come from this was when I had a student share her discoveries of using Filmic Pro and showing pictures and video of light coming into her house and fog rolling through the valley outside. A sheer appreciation of light and movement. Oh, and I should also mention that I was in it with them all the way. I have done each film challenge myself and share all of our work for input on a Vimeo showcase on my page. You can check out some of our work on the page below. The main goal I wanted to push in this hopefully unusual semester is to #KeepFilming!
William is currently a Teaching Professor in Filmmaking at the University of Notre Dame and also serves as Creative Director for the Office of Digital Learning. His courses involve narrative digital cinema production as well as visual research in anthropology stemming from his documentary work off the coast of Ireland. He forged careers in academia, cinematography and directing winning awards for both teaching and filmmaking. www.williamdonaruma.com