Beginning A Documentary

In a stack of papers called Instruction.

  • May
  • 25
  • 2009

About a month ago, Speech announced that they wanted to make a video. We quickly went to work on the AFI curriculum and watched several versions of The Door Scene that we shot. We did one where we just walked around campus, one where we walked up to the door without going through it, another where we actually opened the door, and a final version that brought all those elements together. It was probably overkill and could have been done with as much success using only three renditions, but I know that for next time.

We broke each one down. Is the mood appropriate? How does it achieve that mood? What angles worked? Did it have the five required? What problems were there? What worked well? A lot of silence, mostly me pointing out what works according to my limited and self-taught film critique skills. But this helped build a language for students to use. Without me pointing out things in a shot that work, the way the composition draws the eye in or has too much going on for us to focus, they had nothing to say. They still tend toward silence, but even parroting what I’d said about earlier videos is a step toward them drawing their own conclusions. The revelation that things work better without music was almost entirely theirs.

What We Watched

  • Who’s In Residence? – Good use of POV shots, this is an interesting take on the whole Door Scene
  • Locke High School AFI Door Scene – Several angles to discuss, this piece shows an actor not smiling, an important lesson my students took and applied to their Door Scene the following day.
  • Claim To Fame: Union, New Jersey – The entire videos seeks to answer a single question and that gives the filmmakers a focus, which surely helped them make editing decisions. Ongoing establishing shots give a good idea what the town is like.
  • Four Generations (Part One) (Part Two) – At the spot where the family receives the water buffalo (the opening minute or so of part two of this project), we decided it would have been an even more powerful scene without the music. The grandmother is speechless and that is overpowered by the sugary, though well-performed, string soundtrack. The music just so obviously manipulates your emotions that it detracts from how emotional that moment is. Nice observation, class!
  • Global Depot Materials Manager – This one was the template for a lot of my students. The way the piece is framed in a single day via the opening and closing shots of the car she drives gave students ideas about what they could do. The way this video handles doors is key, something we spent time in deliberate observation of, using our experience with the Door Scene as a contrast.
  • Growing Up Online intro clip (from 2:19 to 5:13) – Another study in establishing shots, this helped set the idea of showing examples of the video’s topic and using interviews.
  • Storyboarding – Several basic shots are discussed quickly, giving at least a rudimentary vocabulary to press forward with.

And with that, we dove into making our own videos.

For Your Consideration

I thought about using Roger & Me, Is Wal-Mart Good For America, Murderball, and Wordplay. Almost anything from Frontline would work; using opening credits from TV shows to examine tone and mood is a possibility; one of the extras on About Schmidt demonstrates interesting work with establishing shots.

Speaking strictly of camera technique as storytelling device, how else could you set students up for success when basically the assignment is to take a camera out and investigate the topic you chose? What other examples would you show? How would you frame the discussion? Which resources would you make available?

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