Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Narrative Assignment: (500) Days of Summer Scene

(The components of my lesson plan can all be found here)

In an attempt to illustrate the constructed nature of narrative dialogue, my plan is to begin by introducing students to this clip.

Following which, we watch it again, with a shot-analysis to pull us out of our suture, and to help us see how many different camera set-ups are contributing to this scene. 

At which point, the students are each given a copy of the script for the scene, and are taught how to bracket a script.  After bracketing to suit their own direction, and creating a shot-list, they are (equipment allowing) to shoot the scene in groups of 3-4.  If they have access to and knowledge of editing software, they can edit their own scenes together.  If not, the teacher could edit together a sequence using shots from each of the groups (showing a purposeful break in continuity).  

As an advanced option, the students can intentionally break continuity by inserting something visible into each separate shot (different object for each shot).  I would recommend using something larger and more visible than the heart stickers used in my example video.  The initial plan was to use different colored ties on Tom, and different hats on Summer, but my intended bucket of props fell victim to a short person who felt that every bucket should be filled with a garden hose.  This was our improvised backup.  Ideally this process would both illustrate how narrative dialogue scenes are constructive, and help students deconstruct them while watching them, and also heighten their awareness of continuity issues in production, and the planning and attention required to maintain continuity in a completed scene.

It's kind of difficult to differentiate the importance of recognizing these concepts in a student's experience as a viewer/spectator and the importance of learning about these concepts by attempting to enact them.  It feels like there is almost a chicken and egg cycle of primacy there.  After having tried to do this, a student is far better equipped to recognize these processes in action in the media they consume, but it is conversely helpful to try to identify the processes in existing works before trying to recreate them.  In that sense, it is kind of difficult to nail down the primary learning outcomes for an activity or even a curriculum like this.  Whether the purpose is to increase media literacy, or to build skills for media production makes a difference in where focus will be spent, (and the two outcomes are not necessarily contradictory, but a focus on one over the other would change the way a unit was taught).    

Continuity Editing

(Scene from 10 Things I Hate About You)

This (^) Is the equivalent of a quick and sloppy exercise in shooting and maintaining continuity with a dialogue scene in narrative filmmaking.  By going through the process of editing it, we were all able to recognize (loud and clear) how many precautions need to be taken prior to and during shooting in order to maintain a continuity between shots that allows for fluid cuts between them.  We would have benefitted tremendously from a more concrete bracketing of the script, as well as more detailed and time-specific blocking.  We ran into trouble with inconsistent hair-twirling, and for the second half of the scene we had only 1 shot/take of Mindy to work with.  All of which could have been prevented with better pre-production, and more attentive continuity monitoring during shooting.  However, there is no better way to learn the value of watching for continuity than to have to confront the way it can ruin a scene in post-production!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Media Production Experience: Fictional Narrative Production

Cramming an "introduction" to shooting a scripted narrative into even one term would feel crazy to me.  Trying to cover it in just a couple of weeks, while necessary, has felt largely inadequate.  There's just such a lot of elements that have to come together with reasonable proficiency in order for a finished product to begin to look even moderately polished. We briefly covered a few of these: scripting, shot-lists and shooting scripts, 3/4 point lighting, continuity, 180 degree rule, and dialogue editing.  I felt that an overview of on-set and pre-production roles would have been beneficial, as well as possibly a more thorough introduction to on-set-protocols.

We've all had a difficult time trying to assess the best ways to choose the best concepts to teach in a youth classroom setting in order to provide the best value to students.  The narrative unit could easily fill an entire course, though it's highly unlikely that a non-CTE teacher would have access to cameras, lighting, editing, and sound equipment needed to really illustrate these processes to a class. (Especially a large class, where hands-on-experiences with equipment and software become more problematic).

Allowing for these limitations, I've found that most of the lesson-plan material I come up with is not best suited for a public secondary-school setting.  I'm not familiar with those environments and I am a poor judge of what would work well in them.  However, a lot of what I am able to devise would probably work well in a private or charter-school setting with a smaller class size and access to resources, or in a home-school/co-op environment.  It would also be well-suited to extra-curricular environments where the rubric becomes less of a focus and it is easier to assume that students are motivated to engage with the material.  Any of these conditions would allow for a more favorable teacher to student ratio, as well as better likelihood of being able to access the equipment and software needed to do this kind of material justice.

While I've tried to foster media-creation in my home, I'm finding that the processes involved in narrative production are too complex and require too much simultaneous enactment for me to teach with any brevity to the ages of children I have ready access to (1-8 years).  I'm not yet confident judging at what point a child would be ready to recognize all of the elements of narrative production in action at the same time.  But the impossibility of illustrating shooting for continuity without also going through the editing process is a good illustration of how complex it becomes to try to teach a single concept.  Continuity shooting requires involvement in pre-production, shooting, and post-production in order to be quite clear.  Trying to illustrate this in a hands-on-way requires some forecasting skills from a student that even many high-schoolers may find evasive.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Composition assignment for 8-13 year-olds

Our most recent assignment has been to create a lesson plan for teaching elements of screen composition. Mine can be found here, and it incorporates an activity, where students are asked to capture different shot types using a ball as a subject.

I will confess that I was only able to test this lesson plan in a one-on-one class with my eight-year-old, Oliver.  Being at the younger end of the intended age spectrum for this assignment, and with tentative willingness to participate, I left out all optional portions from the description of activities, however, I think with an older or more invested group of kids, those optional portions might be a good enhancement to the lesson and activity.

Oliver was very quickly able to catch on to the rule of thirds in viewing examples, and was able to identify shot types when I paused them for him. I felt that encouraging this type of aesthetic awareness will lead to recognitions and skills that will improve his ability to create good images over time.  However, this assignment is (necessarily) structured for the shots to be captured shortly after the discussion, so while I felt that the material learned made it possible for him to complete the assignment, I did not feel that it captured the full value of what was taught or it's potential for helping him create strong images over time.  Thus the evaluation and rubric are tricky.

The shot list I created for Oliver included:
  1. Pan
  2. Tilt
  3. Dolly
  4. Trucking
  5. High Angle
  6. Low Angle
We found it difficult to incorporate potentially more static concepts (closeup, rule-of-thirds) when we were shooting a moving object, and with the size and speed of that object, I had to give up the idea of being a stickler for lead room.  After shooting this exercise with Oliver, I edited the lesson plan to change "bouncy ball" to "ball,"  thinking that a larger, less kinetic one might be easier to keep in the frame.

Despite these hiccups, I still felt that the entire experience was positive and valuable for Oliver, and would hopefully translate into a small group setting as well. 

Oliver's shots (captured using my iPhone):

My own example/rendering of this assignment (Using Canon Rebel T2i and a Canon zoom lens: EF 24-105mm f/4L IS):

Monday, July 14, 2014

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Media Production Experience: Composition

Snow Falling on Cedars (1999)
There are some aspects of film production knowledge that completely transform the learner's film viewing experience.  At the top of my list (based on my experience) are composition (placement of objects and environments in the image, but also including lighting, exposure, and color balance), editing (juxtaposition), and sound editing (especially foley and dialogue editing). After learning about and trying one's hand at these stages of production, there is simply more to see, notice, and look for when viewing a film.

Dog Star Man (1962-64)

 I've become increasingly attuned to how much narrative exposition is performed in film via cinematography and framing choices.  Almost everything I need to know narratively about how characters, locations, objects and relationships should or will fit into the narrative is explained by the way the camera portrays them.

The Piano (1993)

Having a rudimentary understanding of the psychology of framing and of color, the intention behind a lot of composition decisions becomes easier to read (and easier to critique). Understanding, for instance, the state of rest promoted by adherence to the rule of thirds and the unease generated by more perfect symmetry, or the way that Western Audiences read lateral action in one direction (left to right) differently than in another (right to left), or the eyeline assumptions made by a shot-reverse-shot sequence, or the way filters and color balance are used to evoke very specific color-associated emotions intended to be applied to the diegetic world of the film.  All of these understandings combine to make it more enjoyable to watch impeccable work, and easier to distinguish the distinct differences between amateur and professional level camera work.  In that sense, it's a fair equivalent to basic studies of composition in art and art history, and shares some of the same value.

The Tree Of Life (2011)

Because I feel that it is safe to assume that there is value in teaching these concepts and skills to students who are not necessarily bound for a career centered around them, I can feel called upon to defend the value of that knowledge, that developing a critical eye is valuable for both producers and consumers of visual mediums.  But in the digital era of the present, it is not only professionals who are producing media as a part of their day-to-day lives.  In an age where every business and most individuals are maintaining an online presence, the need for the creation of engaging, reasonably polished original content is indefatigable.  The democratization of media-creating-technologies has turned every citizen into a potential content producer.  Having the tools to communicate a visual idea efficiently becomes then a literacy akin to being able to write and communicate clearly verbally. And having that literacy promotes a similarly heightened standard of taste as it's verbal counterpart.

A Hard Day's Night (1964)

So, reviewing some basic elements of composition and camera operation, I've been impressed at how a little knowledge (introduced early on) can go a long way in reframing a students' relationship with film and video from that point on.  It seems to me a potent element of media literacy, and I'm tucking it into my arsenal as such.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Media Production Experience: Storytelling and Screenwriting

My relationship with story has evolved significantly over the last ten years.  I used to feel like stories were things you had to find, and now I view them more as a facet of reality that you have to see. Everything and everyone has a story (or many), and the trick is to draw it out, and to craft it into something emotionally compelling.  The drama in fictional stories is always informed by the stakes of lived experience.

Fun date night with this boy last night to see Shrek the musical at Lehi High. Mindy, they are lucky to have you there! #sir_o #lehipioneers

Certainly one useful method of drawing out and crafting a story is to follow a traditional plot arc, and if you allow for a variety of stakes to be still worth telling a story about, then most stories with an "end" can easily land here. But a story arc and its components are not enough to explain what makes a story "work."

While I think I'm reasonably proficient at enjoying well told stories in a variety of mediums, I don't consider myself a proficient storyteller.  I blame my tendency to rush things, which can in turn be blamed on my very demanding life.  I tell a lot of stories - largely to my kids or on my languishing personal blog, but not with the sort of captivation that I recognize in stories that I love to consume.

I recognize that in my typical rushes, a large part of what I'm missing is appropriate pacing and illustrative detail. If I can draw out suspense, increase the stakes, and reveal character and do more foreshadowing through specific, sensory details, it'd go a long way.

I actually find screenwriting to be a relieved way of telling a story for me, largely because the pressure of executing visual details and of pacing would both fall to someone else in telling the actual story. But, conversely, there is a difficulty in screenwriting, in that the creator of a screenplay is not at liberty to realize their vision, and what a director perceives, followed by what is actually produced are both bound to differ by degrees from a writer's original thought.  The decrease in ownership of the story is potentially complicated.

However, for the purposes of this class, nobody but myself is likely to have a desire to execute anything I write, so I can write as though I am creating an outline for myself, in an effort to organize a conceptual story into an executable project.  There is certainly a danger of including too little information in the screenplay under these conditions, but it seems that that would be a lesser evil than including too much.