Video Basics and Production Projects for the Classroom

A veteran filmmaker shares some secrets to success.

Film has proven its power to engage us for over 100 years; radio for over 70 years, television for 50, and computer media, the new kid on the block, is proliferating faster than its predecessors. Students watch it all. Integrating media production in your curriculum can help you find new access to students and help them find new access to the material. Media production engages and excites; it leads to unexpected discoveries, increased self-awareness and esteem, sharpened critical thinking, analytical skills, group work skills, and ability to communicate ideas. Media production demands writing and rewriting, research, group effort, and clarity of thought. Media production offers a means for students to talk to whomever they think is an important audience. It does all this because students want to say things that have meaning to them - authentic production comes from authentic learning.

Here are is an abbreviated list of activities for your classroom . Whatever you do not know about the equipment can probably be figured out by your students. Experiment and invent new activities. Exchange ideas with other interested teachers and students. But first, there are two commandments to engrave in your mind:

First Commandment for Using Any Gear
Be gentle with the equipment. Do not force anything together or apart. They are just tools, but rather pricey tools.
Second Commandment
If you don't know, ask someone. Life offers special bonus points for asking questions and not pretending knowledge.

Learning the Basics

Media are built things. Understanding that media pieces are constructions enables students to understand what a particular piece is trying to say, who the audience is, and why the piece has been made the way it is. Understanding that movies and television are built, one step at a time, enables students to imagine their own pieces.

Shots and Scenes. The simplest element in video and film is the shot, an image resulting from a single continuous running of a camera. Turn it on, turn it off; you have a shot. Though a scene can be done in one shot, usually shots are juxtaposed (edited) to make a scene.

Define a "shot." Watch any film or tape with your class and ask them to identify where the shots begin and end - the edit points. Ask them to raise hands and call out "edit" every time they see an edit point.

What's In, What's Out? If a scene is made of a series of shots, what happened before the start of the shot? Imagine what happened in the world of the story (which may be explained by the scene) and what happened where the filming was done in order to make the shot-i.e., the actors, the camera crew etc. In the case of news or documentary footage - what was going on before the camera started rolling? What was going on after it stopped?

What's In, What's Out of the Frame? Television and movies, says the old cliché, provide a window on the world. As with any window, there is a wider world beyond the edges of the frame. Use toilet paper tubes or frames made of construction paper for viewfinders. Students should look around them and choose an image through their frames. Ask them to draw a simple stick figure picture of what they have chosen. What was their image about? What story can you tell with it? What is most important in their frame? Where is that important thing in the frame? What other things are in the frame? What do those other things tell about the main subject of the frame.? Everything in a frame becomes related by being in that frame.

But what is outside of the frame? Is there a bigger or different story going on outside the frame? Look at a tape or television show and ask the same things. Why are the things in the frame chosen to be there? What message do they connote?

Storyboards. Movie makers draw simple schematics of frames (as the students did above) but use them to plan how they want to tell a story. This is called a storyboard. The frames in a storyboard show relative positions of significant objects or actors and the camera's position - close-ups, wide shots, high angle, low angle, and point-of-view" shots. How does changing these things change the message of the frame? You can find examples of storyboards on the Internet. Use keyword "storyboard" with your search engine.

Comic Books as Storyboards. Comic book frames share many elements with movies and storyboards; point-of-view, camera angle, relative proximity to the subject, proximity of the elements in the frame, etc. Find a comic book with a whole scene, or whole story, told on two to three pages. "White-out" all dialog and text and copy these pages for each student or group of students. Cut the frames of the story apart and give a complete set to each group. Their assignment is to order the frames to tell a story, writing their own dialog. They can leave out frames and they can copy frames, but they cannot draw new ones.

Beginning Video Exercises

These first exercises are designed to familiarize students with the gear, to stimulate creative thinking and group cooperation. All the editing on these first two assignments happens in the camera-shots are taped in the order in which they will finally be shown.

Video Alphabet: Students work in groups of two to four. Illustrate the alphabet with individual shots or whole scenes. Be literal, be poetical, or be metaphorical. "A-Apple," or "A-Awkward Moment." This can become a game-the production crew sprinkles clues for the letters in their shot and the other groups compete to identify the correct letter.

Video Metaphor: Provide an enigmatic or provocative phrase that student production groups must translate into video. You can make up something for the occasion, use a line of poetry, a crossword puzzle clue, a phrase from a song, or a phrase from the daily paper.

Treasure Hunt: Bring back a visual jewel from the everyday world. Picking a particular point of view, moment in time, and unusual proximity can allow us to see something extraordinary in something ordinary. Students have one hour (or overnight if more convenient) to bring back an image they have discovered.

Advanced Video Projects

Have students provide a project proposal before doing any of these assignments. The proposal should include who is doing the work, what the jobs will be, a one to two page description of what the program will actually be, who the audience will be, and why this project should be done. You may also ask them to write guidelines by which their project can be evaluated. You can tell them that these guidelines will be the actual rubric by which their grade is determined.

A New Ending: Students, in groups, write a new ending or a scene to follow the last scene of a story, novel or event. Act it out until they feel they have it right. One student can record the acted out version as a script. Storyboard the script. Shoot the script.

Portrait: A video portrait of a person the production group decides upon together. The subject can be a family member, a community member, a peer. Encourage students to show the subject's everyday activities as well as interviews. What other elements in that subject's life might tell us more about the person?

Adapt a Scene or Story: Similar to writing a new ending, Students do their version of a scene from an existing book, story or movie.

Alien at the Mall: Most of documentary filmmaking is based on watching what people do from a different perspective - finding the startling or revealing within the life around us. Ask students to spend half a day at a shopping center or other place where many people gather. Ask them to pretend they are from another planet and have no idea why people do what they do. Ask them to take notes, make observations about what people are doing and to write their notes up as a report. The report could become a narrated video documentary. It may be helpful to try this first in your classroom.

The above examples tend to focus on video. There are several very good and relatively inexpensive editing programs now available for computers. But there are many other ways to use and produce media as part of your teaching.

Non-Video Exercises

Audio Illustration: A group of students write a one-page story together. Have them go back through the story and mark all of the actions in the story. Let them choose a sound effect for each of theses actions. Record a reading of the story with the sound effects added, performed in the classroom or prepared outside of class. If you find a cooperative radio production studio you may also be able to get a field trip to the studio and have an engineer record the story with your students picking out sound effects from an effects library.

Family Photos: Ask students to use 3 to 5 family photos in sequence to tell a story. The subject of the story should relate to material you are now studying in class. For example, vacation pictures might tell a surreal story related to "Moby Dick."

How Would You Shoot This?: A version of the idea of translating a scene from literature into a tableau. Take a scene from literature you are currently studying. Assign a student to be the director and other students to play the story characters. How would the director block the scene? Where would the characters be, how would they be standing in relation to each other? Where would the camera be? Would the shot be close or wide? Why? Since framing connotes emotional content, why do they choose the shots they do?


Posted with permission from Media Matters, a newsletter of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), Winter 1999 issue.

Author Bio: 

Andrew Garrison is an independent filmmaker who works in both fiction and non-fiction. He is a recipient of fellowhips from the J. Simon Guggenheim Foundations, the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Film Institute and the Rockefeller Foundation. His work has premiered at Sundance and at the New York Film Festival and has been selected for festivals worldwide. He teaches production at the University of Texas at Austin and is a longtime advocate of youth media production and media literacy. His students' community-based documentaries can be viewed at Information about his current project is available at