Mark Hofer of the College of William & Mary and Kathy Swan of the University of Kentucky continue to provide leadership in the field of student-created documentaries. One can see some of their work at Digital Directors Guild and Digital Docs in a Box. Kathy and Mark are now writing a book on how to support students as they produce documentaries. They reached out to practitioners in the field to give them some tips on what doing documentaries and videos in general look like in the classroom.
I put together some of my experiences which you can find listed below. I also reached out to Sean Moran, the Director of Technology for Washington International School (WIS), to share his insights. Sean’s background is in media creation and he helps manage the WIS Global Issues Film Festival. Thanks to Sean for giving me permission to post his response to Mark and Kathy.
As someone trained years ago in production at a time when film was a physical strip of frames on a reel and video was recorded on a cassette magnetically, before YouTube and streaming video and phones that double as cameras, I brought a set of assumptions to the task of teaching children about documentary film making that I quickly learned I needed to abandon.
I assumed the ease of consumption of digital video (films, television, internet memes) prepared students to be smarter viewers by the mere exposure to enormous volumes of content. I learned that the reality is just the opposite. The majority of digital video viewed by the average adolescent succeeds in capturing attention in spite of poor production values, a lack of understanding of film grammar, and a complete disregard for story structure. Because of this, students never learn a vocabulary of composition or structure that can help them create their own documentaries.
I also assumed that the ubiquity of inexpensive, high quality cameras and editing software would predispose students to crafting technically competent products. Again, I was disappointed. I found students are so surrounded by technology that they’ve become adept at discovering shortcuts in coping with that technology. They often never learn why they are doing the things that they are doing — they just know that it works. This kind of cursory knowledge works against the complete kind of understanding that it takes to shoot and edit an effective documentary piece.
So, I was left with little foundation and lots of bad habits that I felt I needed to break. I concentrated on the following concepts:
1. It’s all about the story. Without story, a documentary is just a collection of facts. And, while that somehow worked for Al Gore in making An Inconvenient Truth, it’s not the best strategy for the rest of us to use in conceptualizing a film. To this end, the script is key. Starting with a well researched premise and continuing through diligently transcribed interviews, making sure the building blocks of the script are solid will position any student filmmaker in creating a documentary that resonates with its audience. This is incredibly detailed work and requires patience — all way before most of the art of the documentary actually happens.
2. Be prepared. It’s not just for the Boy Scouts. My college television production professor used to say, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” Whether Ben Franklin or Winston Churchill gets the first credit on this aphorism, it’s good advice for the student digital filmmaker. Location documents, equipment lists, scripts, storyboards, shot sheets — these are the things that separate real documentaries from funny cat videos. The shooting of b-roll and the editing of the film should almost be mechanical tasks in realizing the vision of the film. So often with students, the planning happens after they’ve checked out the equipment and are about to shoot. Aside from being inefficient, it also never leads to good decision-making.
3. Understand basic film vocabulary. Just a simple explanation of the types of shots (long shot, medium shot, close up), basic editing principals (edit on an angle, an action, or cut to a different size), and camera and lighting techniques (avoiding zooms, maintaining headroom and eye line, three point lighting) will help pull everything together. A student can have detailed documentation for locations and shots and interview questions, but, unless that student understands the aesthetic tradition in a really basic way, the final film will look like a home video.
4. Learn from the pros. Deconstructing good documentary films is the best way to model good technique. From analyzing specific shots and editing choices, to looking at narrative arc and depictions of specific characters, pulling apart good films is essential before allowing students to pick up cameras.
5. It’s about the process. At the end of the day, student films can be wildly successful projects without looking particularly polished. Student internalization of the lessons of the production process (planning, teamwork, the manipulation of the film’s message to communicate an idea to an audience) is the ultimate goal. Generally, good product follows good process, but ‘good product’ is a squishier concept and, especially in the hands of a novice filmmaker, can be more elusive.
-Have a clear listing of technical and content criteria in the form of a rubric. It really helps to start teaching good design skills early in the elementary school curriculum. Give students the opportunity to analyze good and poorly designed presentations as a way to build their foundation knowledge. As the students progress through the elementary school moving from basic presentation tools like PowerPoint to screencasting to video, they need to develop their critical eye to the point that they can help develop rubrics for video projects. We know that multimedia production leads to huge buy in and ownership from students. Look to go the next step to let them use their developing expertise to devise how to evaluate their work. One could say this is one way to help “TPACK” our young videographers.
-Make sure the students always have the project rubric in hand as they prepare and shoot their video. The rubric should contain the normal listing of criteria but also could contain questions to get the students to think about their audience, their intent, how are they introducing and building characters as well as technical criteria. These questions should all be fully answered in the script writing phase of the process but it doesn’t hurt to keep reminding the students as they look to shoot the video that connects to their storyboard.
-It is valuable to immerse the students in documentaries to view on their own with questions to help them develop their documentary analysis skills. Class time can be better utilized for discussions as opposed to watching videos unless of course the videos cannot be shared via the Web. Using a blended approach via a threaded discussion through one’s learning management system is one way to have the students discuss documentaries. The virtual sharing of ideas can carry over to the classroom where the teacher can further use questions to help the students better understand the structure, strengths and weaknesses of the videos they watched.
-It is helpful to build the students’ technical vocabulary regarding the nuts and bolts of videography as well as terms specific for documentaries. We give students a way to talk about their writing by using the 6+1 traits. We need to try and do the same for videography and documentary production.
-Look to put students in the position to analyze their work as they proceed through the video recording phase of the production process. We often start the documentary production process by having teams pitch ideas for their video. Look to continue this process to have teams watch their multiple takes using their vocabulary to analyze their work. This formative self-assessment helps the students internalize their work with a critical eye. One can go a step further to have teams pitch (i.e., show) a few takes of a scene to the class as a whole where they first offer their constructive criticisms but then ask for responses from the other teams. This could be done in blended fashion as well. The ultimate goal is to choose the best take for each scene. Students are often more open to feedback from their peers than from their teacher. The bottom line is that the less experienced students need technical and content feedback as they shoot their scenes. It is difficult to wait until the editing stage if the video content needs to be re-shot. This again is where a clear listing of criteria in the form of a rubric really puts the students into self reflection mode. For example, one can simply point to say the lighting or sound section of the rubric to ask the students how they would score themselves. The same goes for the content as in connecting the video to the storyline, character development, etc. which should be easily connected by comparing the storyboard and script to the video scene.
-It is helpful to use a collaborative app/website like Mindmeister to create the team’s storyboard. Everyone has access to it as they move through the shooting phase of the production process. Changes can be made, notes for specific takes and scenes recorded after shooting, etc. The storyboard can be shared with the teacher who can then give ongoing formative feedback.
-Logistics and adult supervision come into play especially with elementary and middle school students. Look to work with the students to write up a code of conduct for when they are out in the school shooting their scenes. It is helpful to work with administration to get their take on how much freedom students can have in shooting in the cafeteria, classrooms, etc. when an adult might not always be present. Clearly the older the students, the more one wants to give them the opportunity to be responsible and self-sufficient. Finding spaces to record videos in one’s school is not an easy task. Even if a space is open, students and adults walking through the area can be a problem. Background noise especially in hallways is another obstacle that they student videographers must problem solve around.