My Filmmaking Year Begins

Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie, I can live somebody else’s life for a while. I can walk in somebody else’s shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief.

This is a liberalizing influence on me. It gives me a broader mind. It helps me to join my family of men and women on this planet. It helps me to identify with them, so I’m not just stuck being myself, day after day.

The great movies enlarge us, they civilize us, they make us more decent people.

  • Roger Ebert, remarks when receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (June 23, 2005)

I have memories of films that go back to the early 1980s. I can remember my parents renting a VCR and watching Ghostbusters. I had to be around three or four years old. I think I saw The Goonies in the theater when I was four. The first vivid memory I have of being in a theater and watching a film was Alvin & the Chipmunks: The Movie, based on the Saturday morning cartoon. Seeing Superman as the ABC Sunday Night movie was an experience that stuck with me. I started writing down ideas, imagining worlds when I was six. I started filling up notebooks with pictures and stories, something that went on and on into college. Eventually, that moved from notebooks to computers.

I bought a camcorder with birthday money when I was a teenager. Sadly, I never realized any great potential with it. I just loved the idea of recording these things, but I’ve never had the follow-through to make something of this technology. In college, I took a class on film editing, where I got some brief experience with Avid, learning how to cut and paste things. Again, I was too much of slacker in those years to realize what a fantastic opportunity I had. Now, a couple of years shy of forty, that’s going to change. With the advancement in smartphones, there is really no reason to not be making movies. Sean Baker showed us with Tangerine what can be done with our phones. 

Starting next school year (2020-21), I will be breaking from doing an afterschool coding class and beginning a filmmaking class. Before I can teach the kids, though, I need to prepare myself, relearning some skills long forgotten and building my toolbox of cinematography and editing. I don’t want to make the sort of cheesy, sloppy things from my childhood. I want to help students who are interested to see how they can create beautiful works of art. We won’t be focusing on the screenwriting portion of filmmaking, that could be a whole year’s afterschool class unto itself. Instead, we’ll be using royalty-free scripts and simple one-acts, learning how to storyboard and shoot them. We’ll learn how to edit what they shoot, adding music, and figuring out how to make the best movies possible.

My pedagogy behind this is that kids deserve great art just as much as adults. A lot of media towards kids is pandering, but some of it is standout (Adventure Time, Steven Universe, etc.). I think kids can handle complex characters and emotions, understand how to convey tone, and get what makes a shot in cinema good or bad. Not every student will want to do this, but I know some will have the dedication and put in the work to make something good because they have stories to tell and exciting points of view. While coding has been something I’ve enjoyed and learned a lot from, it’s not something I am as passionate about as film, and this feels like a venture that could be incredibly special.

This began a month ago when I started making a checklist of things I would need to do in the next year before this class starts. First was learning how to shoot, which encompasses using an iPhone as a film camera and getting down some cinematography basics. This will primarily be like studying photography by lighting, picking interesting angles & perspectives, and learning how to white balance for different types of lighting in a setting. This led me to Filmic Pro, the app most professionals point to when asked about shooting movies on an iPhone. Thankfully there are a plethora of YouTube channels where filmmakers talk about setting Filmic Pro up and then give plenty of examples of it in use.

Second, I would need to learn how to edit footage. For this, I’m using Lightworks, a free film editing software that has brought back a lot of memories of editing on Avid in college. The learning curve here is picking up the intricacies of the interface, knowing how to use the software to do the thing I want to do, and learning how to have a sense of what flows well in editing depending on the mood and story I’m trying to convey. 

I know for a long while my attempts will be amateurish, but I am an amateur, so I’m comfortable with that. The plan is to keep studying great examples of film and take notes on the cinematography and editing. As with Filmic and shooting on an iPhone, YouTube has lots of channels that dissect scenes from movies and talk about them from a craft perspective. 

The goal is to get good enough that I can transfer some techniques and knowledge to the fourth and fifth graders I work with next school year. I plan on spending a couple of weeks just setting up shots and lighting as if it were a photography class and giving lots of good examples to help guide them. Then have them work in rotations as the crew on a short film we’ll shoot together. After we’re done shooting, we’ll spend some class sessions editing what we shot. From there, it will be the students pouring through a selection of script I provide, choosing what they want to make, and going back through the steps we followed in the first short film. This is all very basic at the moment, and this summer, I’ll really pin down the beat by beat lesson plans of it all.

Here’s where you come in. I know the internet is rife with resources for this sort of thing and I have found some of them. However, I know crowdsourcing is a great way to discover what you might never come across. If you know of any of the following and can point in the right direction, I would be so appreciative.

  1. Examples of what other schools have done with an afterschool filmmaking class (i.e., lesson plans, example footage, etc.)
  2. Great filmmaking exercises that are kid-friendly (think 9-11-year-olds) that our class could do to mastery specific skills.
  3. YouTube channels or other resources for teaching cinematography.

I’ll be making updates as I go, nothing on too regular a schedule. I’ll share what I shoot and edit to get feedback. I have already noticed that lighting and white balance are an area I need to read up on, study, and practice. Here’s to a year of learning and hopefully a lifetime of me and some talented kids adding beauty to the world.

3 thoughts on “My Filmmaking Year Begins”

  1. The Jacob Burns film institute is a non profit cinema that has lots of programs including a youth filmmaking program. There are probably other non profit film institutes that do things like that.

    Cinematography can be really technical and hard to pull off well when you start incorporating blocking and you’re not working on a set (not sure if you are going to go with only stationary shots in your curriculum, so I think it’s a decent point to bring up). I think you can find plenty on basic 3 point lighting techniques on youtube. Cooke Optics TV on youtube has a lot of interviews with cinematographers, you might be able to pull from some of their advice and turn it into practical lessons. like using practical lights for dramatic effect or some clothe to diffuse light.

    Good Luck. I’m really interested in seeing what your classroom comes up with.

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