Tuesday, June 16, 2009

My First Class

This week International Polytechnic High School in Pomona graduates it's class of 2009 and with it, the students of I-Poly Video. This year was my first year as a classroom teacher, these were my first students!

The California state sponsored career-track outreach called ROP gave me opportunity to pilot a video class at a high school, which was a big change from the professional development training I was doing at AFI. Piloting a program in this case also meant designing a curriculum with engaging projects. I was lucky in that my class was motivated, adaptable and creative. Qualities any career counselor will tell you are critical keys to success. So, I had that going for me...which was nice.

So, the kids were learning to be filmmakers and I was learning to be a teacher. We had a lot of fun this year. Here's what we came up with.

Filmmaking is part of the curriculum at I-Poly, every student makes a movie as part of their study of Mary Shelly's Frankenstein. So, I wanted to start by building on basic skills. Learning the different shots what they look like and how they are composed is key and I used a project called Shooting Gallery to get the students working as a crew filming a series of storyboards and then right into editing.

Good lighting is a most often overlooked aspect of production. Because the human eye does such a good job adjusting to different light levels we don't think about it when we shoot and then wonder why our video looks so bad. I introduced the concept of 3-Point Lighting to the group with a video project to shoot a simple lighting set-up and then deconstruct each of the elements, Key, Fill and Back Light. The challenge going forward was getting the students to continue to use the techniques in their future projects. As an assignment in isolation I still think they did fine and did see better looking videos after.

I've written on this blog before about the 'Thousand Words Project', which builds better editing skills by using transitions and the Ken Burns Effect for maximum storytelling effect. If you've ever seen someone using and overusing flashy effects and transitions you know how distracting they can be. I'm sure there is a valid narrative use for the exploding star wipe, I've just not seen it yet. We did two rounds of Thousand Words at I-Poly this year and I could see a marked difference in skills between projects, the students seemed to really enjoy the creative aspect of essentially a technical assignment.

Building basic production skills was only a part of a ROP program. Employment skills like resume building and industry specific entry level job skills are also mandated by the state. The students have to know how to handle themselves on the set and in the office. Since the first job any of them is likely to have would be with a local production house or reviewing hours of raw tape for a reality show I wanted a project that would model the most realistic, tedious and thus marketable skills. The class created syndication promos using episodes of the Discovery Channel series PLANET EARTH. First they got to know their assigned episode by building a byte-log of interesting clips from their episode complete with time-code, then they wrote three scripts for the promo; 30, 20 & 10 seconds each. Finally, they assembled each version. I think these projects will be the most impressive in their portfolios.

They later went on to script, storyboard and produce original local market commercial spots.

These kinds of career/technical classes benefit from the voices and experiences of people working in the industry. Beyond the experience of the instructor, guest speakers are common. I had the problem of convincing a professional to make the 50 mile drive out to Pomona for a late afternoon class. I knew there had to be an easier way to bring some of real Hollywood into my class. I found the solution in my own DVD collection and an activity called Annotated Screening. I chose a number of movies to screen with the directors commentary track for the class. Then I would use the class discussion board to post general questions about what the class learned about the filmmaking process from listening to the filmmakers. Presto! Filmmaker in the classroom minus the mileage reimbursement! We did annotated screenings of Pirates of the Caribbean, The Matrix, Edward Scissorhands and 2001:A Space Odyssey. The online discussions were lively and fit nicely into the student's social networking routine. One of my favorite moments was during the discussion 2001 when a student commented "From this movie, I now get a bunch of jokes on The Simpsons."

Eventually, the students started to work individually and in teams to document various school activities and to produce PSAs on important topics. This week the producers of I-Poly video walk the stage with their High School diplomas and ROP certificates of completion.

George Lucas is often quoted saying 'Films are never completed, they are merely abandoned', I kind of feel the same way about this work-in-progress pilot course at I-Poly. Only time will tell if any of my students will find careers in an uncertain economy and a swiftly changing entertainment industry, regardless they've made me proud.

As for me, I had the life-changing experience of being a teacher and developed a deeper respect for those who do this job everyday! Pray for a miracle in education funding this year...I'm just getting the hang of this!


Mathew said...

Thanks Frank for sharing your process and your students' work. You're a great teacher and I look forward to reading more.

Mister Sill said...

Wish I was back in high school with you, Frank. Thanks for sharing your great lessons. Hope you don't mind if I "borrow" a few. ;) Congratulations on a great year.

Frank Guttler said...

Thanks for the support, Gents!
Share and share alike! Were all in this together, right?

Jenn August C.H., C.L.S.C. said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jenn August C.H., C.L.S.C. said...

Great articles, it makes me want to make a film right now!!!

Barbara said...

Your workshops have materialized at Lakewood High. Paul C and I are having our first student film festival next week, May 19. Mock Docs, drama, suspense, animation, music videos. Woot! Woot!
Barbara Barkemeyer