Movies with class: Making quality movies at school
Thomas Gough, teacher at Glenwood Public School, provides a thorough, user-friendly introduction to filmmaking in the classroom. This year, his students’ short film, Chocolypse!, screened at the Cannes Short Film Festival and won gold at the International Schools Film Festival.
Historically, filmmaking has been an expensive and laborious pastime. Each movie, however simple, had to pass through an army of expert hands – from editors to colour graders to optical printers – before ever reaching a screen. No more! Today any child can pick up a phone or iPad and (given imagination and some technical guidance) make a cinema quality movie. They can upload it and have it seen across the globe instantly. However, your young Spielbergs will enjoy the best possible start if equipped with some solid basics. Here’s how to get them started!
Plenty good enough
iPad (it’s got iMovie and GarageBand too)
White foam core board
Yellow foam core board
Work lamps and stand
HD camcorder with zoom
External, unidirectional microphone
White foam core board
Yellow foam core board
Adobe Premiere Elements (available on DoE computers)
iPad or iMac (for GarageBand)
Work lamps and stand
HDV prosumer camera with 3 pin microphone and mini equalizer
3 pin external unidirectional microphone plus extension cord
Boom for microphone (could be a broom handle or a proper boom)
White foam core board
Yellow foam core board
Adobe Premiere Elements and/or Adobe Premiere Pro
Adobe After Effects (comes with Premiere Pro)
Green screen kit (about $500 – comes with everything, including soft box lights)
iPad or iMac (for GarageBand)
Steady cam rig
Location sound recording suite
Dedicated sound stage
Green screen stage
Edit suite with Sony Avid
Cost: $1047 (including iPad)
Cost: about $2000
Cost: about $4000
Cost: too much!
I’m going to proceed as if you’re beginning with the basics. You’ve got an iPad (with iMovie and GarageBand), some foam core, a stand and lots of enthusiasm! Most of the following advice can be carried over into the ‘Cool!’ setup too. If you want to take it further, great effects like rack focus and long lens shots can be achieved with a HD/HDV camcorder or prosumer camera. These are powerful tools for creating mood in certain scenes.
Where do the ideas and inspiration for the storyline come from? At Glenwood Public School, our movies can be divided into roughly two categories: play-built and documentaries.
The play-built movies are dramas or comedies that emerge from dedicated drama lessons. For younger classes, I just brainstorm title ideas and we whittle them down by a process of voting and elimination until we land on the final title, which is usually pretty descriptive (for example, Hippies Save the Trees). For older classes, we might brainstorm a theme to explore. With the same process of elimination, we settle on an idea from which a rough story can be discussed. We then take a term or two of drama lessons (about an hour a week) to build the play or movie scene by scene.
The documentaries are usually based on a class theme which we research. We then think of ways of conveying this information in interesting, entertaining and visual ways. (For example, Heat it Up: Global Warming has location interviews, puppets, a song and a cartoon.) For both types of movies, every inclusion must serve the story and be interesting, entertaining and visually strong.
Sound is the single most important thing in a movie. If your sound is good, all visual sins will be forgiven! Indeed, it will make all your mistakes seem deliberate and ‘arty’.
The basic mistakes with sound include:
- wind on the microphone (beware!)
- voices too loud/soft
- hands rubbing the microphone
- subject too far from the microphone
- inconsistent volume from shot to shot.
Record the sound cleanly and then check for consistency in the final edit. iMovie or Adobe Premiere Elements display a ‘heart rate monitor’ on the sound track which visually indicates the volume of each scene. ‘Sweeten’ the sound at this stage by evening out the highs and lows.
Some tips for producing good sound when filming with different devices:
iPads have a limited, omnidirectional microphone that records everything. Record in a quiet environment with the iPad as close as possible to the subject. For interviews, shoot the subject in close-up so that the microphone is near. For drama, shoot at least one close-up of each character saying their lines so that you can use this sound for all the shots.
Hopefully your camera has a unidirectional microphone which will pick up only the sound directly in front of it. If so, continue to follow the iPad instructions. However, you will enjoy greater flexibility with the distance between the subject and the camera and a better tolerance for a noisier environment.
Hooray! You have near complete freedom! In general, follow the instructions for the iPad (get close, find a quiet place). However, you should be able to disconnect your microphone and use an extension cord and boom to get great shots with a zoom while someone discretely holds the boom above the actors.
Remember that you can always re-record sound later. When we shot Old Sydney Town Adventures on the Endeavour at Darling Harbour, there were helicopters constantly overhead due to the Papal visit. Consequently, all the sound was ‘looped’ (aka ‘dubbed’) later by the students.
Scripts and screenplays
If you have a very long or complicated project with lots of shots, a script with numbered scenes can be very useful. A script can also help structure documentaries, by planning and sequencing the important linking messages. A sample script template is available from Screen Australia.
Tips – if your script is typed in 12 point Courier with the dialogue indented, each page will equate to about one minute of movie. This provides a good indication of how long your finished project will be. Also, while shooting, give a student a clapperboard to call the scene and take number. This is a fun job – and proves very useful during editing!
The basic lighting set up is called three point lighting. This involves using three sources of light, although you can get away with only two. There will be a key light, fill light and a back light. The key light is the main source of light on your subject. It will usually be on one side of the subject. The fill light is not as strong and fills in the other side. The back light illuminates the back of the subject and sets it off from whatever is behind.
Indoors, the normal classroom lighting sometimes makes your movie look flat, grainy and cheap. You could use porta flood lamps (on a stand) from the hardware shop to boost and control the lighting.
Three point lighting
Outdoors, use some foam core boards (available from Officeworks, for example) to reflect the sun. Outside, the sun is the backlight or side light and the reflector is the fill light. If you can afford it, a diffusion kit is fantastic! This is a circle of white plastic that is translucent and softens the sunlight shining through on the subject. The pictures below give you some ideas as to the setup. Something I’ve noticed: iPads do not like certain kinds of lights, such as fluorescent lights, and if one is seen in a shot it might flicker. Try to avoid these kinds of lights being visible in the shot.
Figure 1. A halogen work lamp for the main light and a matte white board to reflect the light
Figure 2. The main light is above and behind the action, and the board will be used to reflect and diffuse the fill light. Notice how the letter in the actor’s hand also works as a beautiful reflector/diffuser!
Figure 3. The final composition (freeze frame from the movie)
Camera angles and coverage
Capture at least these two types of shot: wide angle and close-up. The close-up is important for both visual variety and for securing clear sound, as mentioned previously. It is also essential to capture a variety of angles. This provides flexibility to cover up mistakes.
For example, if a scene involves two characters talking (such as an interview), you should shoot a wide shot (all the action together in one shot, like a play), a close-up of person A, and then a close-up of person B. Now the editor can control both the pace of the scene and cover up mistakes. Different shots can be stitched together by cutting away to the other character reacting.
The following definitions outline some additional shot types, camera techniques and transitions:
- wide shot: takes in the whole scene (looks like a stage play)
- medium shot: closer than a wide shot (you tend to see people from the waist up)
- close-up: shows the character’s head and shoulders
- pan: moving the camera sideways (such as taking in a landscape)
- tilt: moving the camera up or down (such as looking up to the sky)
- tracking shot: the cameras moves to stay with the action (can be from the front, side or back)
- rack focus: the camera’s focus changes from one object in a shot, to another, often in front or behind, without the camera moving
- insert: a quick, close shot of something else, often an object that the characters are looking at
- cutaway: a quick cut to something else and then back again (highlights something important for the audience to see)
- dissolve: one picture disappears as another appears
- iris in/out: starts with a black screen, then a circle expands to reveal the scene (or the reverse, going from the scene to black).
To ensure good coverage, shoot the whole scene each time. This allows you to capture not only the bits that person A says for the close-up, but also their reactionsto what person B is saying. You then have plenty of video available to create a varied, seamless and apparently perfect take. (See the photographers’ introduction in The Weirdest Jungle Ever for great examples of cutaways to other characters’ reactions.)
Also, for fun, keep the camera running after the scene is done. You never know what you might pick up, especially with very young actors. In Chocolypse! there is a moment where the main actor, waiting for the director to yell cut, looks to the camera – this turned out to be the perfect capper to one of the shots. Similarly, an important reaction shot in The Sorrow of War had nothing to do with the script but was the result of just keeping the camera running and mining reactions to other things.
Filming with iPads
iPads are the most awesome starter kit in the history of cinema. Working in a school with an iPad or two means you have the equivalent of the whole of Columbia Pictures circa. 1930, barring actual soundstages. You have camera/s, the sound department, editing labs, an optical effects lab, composers and orchestra, and unlimited supplies of 35 mm technicolour film (you have one up on Columbia there). You can do things in five minutes that would have taken any major film studio a week to do fifty years ago. The limitations of the iPad are more than compensated for by their compact might. You can shoot the movie, edit it, compose an original score, add special effects, screen the movie for a live audience (via Apple TV or Reflector) and broadcast it to the world via an upload to YouTube.
Sound and steadiness are the iPad’s major drawbacks. I have addressed the sound issue already. With regard to steadiness, you can purchase an iPad stand for shots that require no camera movement. For shots that require movement, just make sure to capture both wide shots and close-ups. Don’t use the iPad’s zoom! If you’re close to a subject, a bit of movement is not that noticeable. To hold the iPad steady, ask students to lock their upper arms tight to their sides and hold the iPad out with their forearms, like a robot. To pan and tilt, they move their whole body.
The hardest part of filling out the form for competitions is when I have to record who was the director, who was the editor, and so on. The truth is, in a class movie, everyone is everything – that’s multi-rolling. The teacher typically starts off as the director. That is, you work with the class during the playbuilding stage to help structure the story and to refine or develop performances. At a certain point, if it’s all working, the students will warm to the story, be free-flowing with their ideas, and add their own quirky value to the characters.
At that point, you can step back from directing, becoming simply the proxy audience. Keep the story on the rails and make sure its meaning is clear. Keep it tight too: a maximum of 20 minutes. Film festivals have time limits for short movies, as do audiences! Keep it under 5-10 minutes if you can.
With the students directing, they can take turns overseeing processes such as ‘lights, camera, action’ and ‘cut’:
- lights: check the lights. Does the scene look good on camera?
- camera: press record. (Check that the camera is recording!)
- action: perform the scene
- cut: press stop.
The first few times, you will need to step in at this point and, having watched the scene being filmed, make a judgement as to whether it achieved its aim. Carefully explain what worked and what didn’t, and what should happen in the next take. With this modelling, students will gain confidence in making judgements about the shot, and will eventually take on this aspect of the director’s role.
To support this, ensure the camera operator watches the movie (through the camera), rather than the performance. Having someone’s eyes glued to the camera ensures glitches will be picked up. Who walked into the shot? Could you see the action properly? Do you need to stand a bit further over? Have students take turns doing this job.
What’s likely to happen is that one or two students will emerge as having a real eye for operating the camera. This will become apparent as you play back the shots. You can then decide whether you want those students to take over the bulk of that role or give everyone a turn.
Meanwhile, other students can be busy taking photos or video for the behind-the-scenes package. You might also have a script supervisor (who follows the script off camera to ensure the actors say all their lines), set dressers (who restore the set between takes if things get moved), a make-up person/team, and a continuity supervisor (to ensure scenes and costumes match when they’re supposed to follow on, since scenes are often not filmed in order).
Green screens are handy for quick projects or news style programs where you want to swap out the background or do some ‘flying’ effects. However, it is very hard to achieve the standard of a green screen epic like the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. This means you need to think about the ‘flavour’ you want your final movie to have. For something light and fun, you could use a green screen. Avoid this, though, for serious projects, unless you’re prepared to really go all out on the lighting and have quality green screen facilities.
If you’re a novice editor, iMovie is a good starting point. The boundaries are pretty strongly defined but that doesn’t mean you can’t shoot something that looks slick, professional and entertaining. iMovie is quite intuitive and there are lots of online tutorials. Or simply click everything and see what it does. One tip – avoid using the built-in iMovie music, which has become pretty grating.
Edit in your mind first
Think of the scenes you’ve shot and imagine the final movie on a screen with an audience. How do the scenes progress? What do we need to see to understand the moment? What interesting things did the actors do that you want the audience to see? What problems do you need to solve? What is the pacing and rhythm of the scene?
A transition is the way one scene moves into another. In iMovie and all other video editing software, you will find a variety of built-in transitions. Stick to straight cuts, fade-in, fade-out and dissolves. Almost every other transition will weaken your project, although there are exceptions, depending on the nature of your project. Chocolypse! uses iris-in and iris out most of the time as that was a standard transition of the silent era, which the movie attempts to emulate.
This is a feature of iMovie and most other editing software. It’s where the sound from the original can be separated from the shot. Use this! In both narratives and drama there will be times when you want to hear one character but see another. In a narrative, for example, you might want to see a reaction. In a documentary, you might want to cut to an interviewer nodding as a way of disguising a cut you have made to an answer in the interests of time or concision (without distorting the answer). That’s why it’s so important to have coverage of a scene from lots of angles.
At a more sophisticated level, you can also do what’s called L-cutting. For example, you are looking at one character and then another starts to speak. You hold on the first character for just a moment before cutting to the new character speaking. It’s kind-of what you might do if you were watching a conversation. You don’t know when the second person is going to start speaking and it takes you a moment to look at the new speaker. Sprinkle these throughout your scene and it’s surprising how professional they suddenly look!
Again, lots of editing programs come with filters: black and white, old time movie, blur and so on. You can easily try them and then delete them in they don’t work. You should have a clear ideabefore you make the movie of the kind of look you want though – and why you want it. Don’t use a filter just because it looks cool.
iMovie filters are fixed – you can’t adjust them. However, in Adobe Premiere Elements or Final Cut, you can fine-tune the effects.
In GarageBand for iPad, explore the Smart Instruments to see the great music you can make with minimal effort. There are other sources too, but these are problematic. For instance, everyone has heard those five iMovie theme tracks a zillion times; don’t use them. You can also buy great royalty free tracks from places like MusicLoops or Partners in Rhyme. The problem with these is that, on several occasions, the Glenwood Public School movies that use them have been hit with copyright claims which are a pain to have released. How does this happen if they’re royalty free? Like this: an artist buys one of these tracks for use in their work, such as a commercial audio book. They then engage the services of a bot company to scour the internet for unauthorised uses of their work (audio book) or for revenue. We happen to have used the same track (under licence) but get pinged for monetisation as the bots can’t recognise that we’re both legitimate users. Because YouTube assumes guilt until innocence is proven, I’ve had to formally challenge the ping, emailing the rights companies with our licence agreement. This can be time consuming. Teaching your students GarageBand avoids all of this, while giving them a great introduction to music composition.
It is also worth noting that you can’t necessarily use classical music. Contrary to popular belief, most classical music is not out of copyright, at least not in the form that most people access it. Although Beethoven is long dead, that recording of the Fifth Symphony you want is subject to a recording copyright for the artists of that particular performance.
Final thoughts: achieving cohesion
The first aesthetic is yours. By that I mean, you’re the teacher, so one way to kick start a project or to ensure its coherence is to begin with a definite idea of what you want to explore and what you want your students to learn. You can draw on the visual arts outcomes on the forms and mediums to create a set of aesthetic rules or boundaries which are then used to inspire, to help solve problems and to make choices.
Draw this from your own interest, and therefore your own enthusiasm, which is almost certainly going to be infectious.
To some extent, it helps to enjoy film. When you watch movies and television what do you notice about the way the scenes are put together? Start looking at them. How do the cuts progress? What do they tell you about the scene, about the characters’ points of view, about what the writers or the director need you to notice? There’s a language there that you need to learn, in order to teach it. For example, pick an episode of a show you like and watch it sped up. You will really see how the shots progress, what you get to glimpse as determined by the makers. You may be surprised just how many cuts there are. Count how many different angles cover the scene. You probably won’t have the time or technical freedom to be quite so thorough, but you will at least need a blend of wide shots and close-ups.
The chosen aesthetic also helps you and your students make decisions about how the film is shot. For Chocolypse! it was silent horror films of the 1920s: shadows, contrast, Dutch angles, static camera, lots of close-ups, slow movements, mime and so on. You know that going in so you know the kinds of shots you need. Betrayal was quite different. It was contemporary, urban reality, so plenty of hand-held shots, deep focus (shot with an HD camera rather than an iPad), and multiple cameras shooting all at once to capture intense moments that should only be performed once.
So think of your (and your students’!) favourite genre – science fiction, horror, action – and do your research. Then start training your students. Provide good, honest feedback when they’re learning, and you will get great results. Your first movie might be something of an imitation. So what? You’re learning too. Besides, your students, having not yet developed their own aesthetic, are able accomplices as you explore movie-making together. Work with them in their playbuilding to encourage twists that haven’t been tried before and, by the time you’re ready to shoot, you’ll have enough originality to rightfully call your movie your own. Think about Hollywood: how many movies are twists on something that’s been done before? Pretty much all of them!
Above all, have fun!
References and further reading
Glenwood Public School. (2018). Channel Glenwood [YouTube channel]. (Contains examples of students’ movies – view ‘Videos’ and ‘Playlists’.)
Partners in Rhyme Inc. (2011). Partners in Rhyme
Partners in Rhyme Inc. (2012). MusicLoops
Screen Australia. (2018). Suggested script template
How to cite this article – Gough, T. (2018). Movies with class: Making quality movies at school. Scan 37(10).