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Why do school media departments buy poor video camcorders?

I've been helping three schools in the Leeds area record interviews for a Leeds Council project.  The schools have enthusiastic and able ICT teachers and the children are engaged with the project.  Among the interviewees are some high profile political figures including Peter Hain MP. The process of researching, preparing and conducting these intyerviews is a superb learning experience.

One of the schools is even equipped with nine Final Cut edit workstations so you'd think that they were well placed to capitalise on this opportunity.  But there's just one problem – there's been little or no investment in decent video cameras that can capture sound via an external microphone.

So if you are a school wanting to go out and conduct video interviews can I recommend a video camera with an external microphone input and a microphone on a long lead.  Google these suggestions:

Sony XR550V Hard Disk Drive camcorder

JVC Memory Camcorder GZ-HM1SEK

Canon LEGRIA FS200

For higher end semi-professional, The Sony HVE AE1 is probably too expensive.

Microphones Audio Technica   The high quality boundary mic is an interesting option for table interviews.

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How to do green screen movies in school

The interest in Green Screen seems to be gathering momentum.  I think it's one of those techniques which is a mystery to many people but once you know how it works is really simple.  The coloured background is replaced by another image using software; dead simple.

Raynville-greenscreen

Below is a little test video we made with the media team at a local school.  It became clear during this exercise that the process was exciting for the children and well within their capability.  Using the software to replace the background and edit the sequence was within the grasp of some year five children. 

The technique can not only help with ICT skills but potentially address teamwork, speaking and listening, writing, drama, storytelling, artwork.  The next project will be a journey to the moon.

The recipe

  • Bought 3 yards by 1 yard of green felt from Leeds Market and used Velcro to attach it to a wall between the photocopier and a desk. £20.  
  • The school already had a MacBook which we upgraded to iLife9 -  iMovie in iLife 9 is capable of green-screen overlay – earlier versions aren't.  £40
  • Came up with the idea of a hiker who couldn't tell his left from his right and ended up in unexpected places  download the script
  • Put the camera on a tripod and connected it directly to the MacBook using a firewire cable.
  • We recorded the action directly into iMovie.
  • Children sourced background images and imported them to the MacBook via a memory stick.
  • Edited the sequence in iMovie – green screen is a simple drag and drop.
  • Imported the music track to enhance.

I shall be setting up green-screen areas in a few local schools.  If you'd like to have one and would like help please drop me an email.

 

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The Brown Cow – a ghost story

This is one of my favorite films from the recent Keighley Creative Partnerships project.  I like this one for a number of reasons but mainly because I didn't have much work to do.  

The children came up with all the ideas, did practically all the filming and editing. In fact the basic editing was done in Windows Movie Maker and Audacity by one of the year four children.  I helped a bit with the special effects under strict direction.

I also like it because it has some stories in it – and spooky ones at that. Whether you actually believe in them or not doesn't really matter. Frankly, I don't.

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Creative Project – order or chaos?

I've been reviewing some of the projects I have been involved with recently and thinking about how they could have been improved.

The conclusion I have come to is that most creative projects are to some degree chaotic and uncertain; You can't always predict how they are going to run. You have to be flexible and responsive to new ideas and directions as they come up.

That said, there is possibly value in at least attempting to structure the management of creative projects around tried and tested ideas. A creative project, like any other, has process steps and milestones. One reason why creative projects often fail is because not enough time is spent understanding the purpose of the project and refining the ideas around that purpose.  Sadly is is all to easy to forge ahead with half baked ideas with no idea of why we're doing it!

Step 1: The brief

Be sure about the purpose of the project and why it has come about. You might call this the creative challenge.

Get down on paper a description of what you hope to achieve, who it is for and why it is important.  For example –  Encourage year four children to take pride in their town by revealing its glorious history. We're doing this because ……

Set out what you want to achieve, how you are going to approach it,  who it is for and  why it is important.  

Step 2:  Ideas

Once we have a brief we can set about coming up with ideas (in the above case for revealing the town's glorious history).  Not enough time is ever spent coming up with ideas or evaluating them.  I would say that this is one of the biggest reason for the failure of creative projects.   The temptation is to settle on the first and most obvious idea you come up with. Often the crazy ideas are sidelined at the outset, and yet these are often the most interesting.

Make plenty time for coming up with as many ideas as possible, even the crazy ones, and evaluate them according to the brief.

There are many techniques for coming up with ideas – here are some.  Thinking Hats for evaluating ideas, Mind Mapping with which I'm sure you are familiar, and a favorite of mine, The Creative Whack Pack

Product_image

Step 3: Planning

Do you decide on the team and resources before you have an idea or after?  I would say that it's sometimes better to come up with the idea first with a small core team and then pitch for people and resources once you have the idea.  That way you'll get what you need rather than having to put up with what you have got.

Careful planning of the resources and the timetable, setting of realistic deadlines and getting agreements.

Step 4: Action

Well planned activity with a great idea behind it should be exciting. Any problems will be quickly resolved because of a solid commitment to the purpose of the project.

Step 5: Celebration

The positive outcome should be shared and celebrated beyond the immediate team. The more external praise and feedback the better. A public film screening, a party for those who contributed, a commemorative web page.  The legacy of successful projects should be preserved so that the benefits can be made available to the greatest number of people for the longest amount of time.

Step 6: Review

A constructive examination of the project should always be part of its legacy.  Did it meet the brief? What were the points of learning and so on.

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This may all seem obvious – in which case I apologies – but I need to remind myself just how important these project steps really are and that to skimp on any of them will weaken the outcome.

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Badges, belonging and responsibility

Iconic filmmaking tools – meaningful objects –  become the badges of the children's responsibility, and seeing them all together they actually look like a professional film crew.  I think this is an important visual way of giving them a sense of their individual responsibility and belonging to the team. 

I have been struck by how important is to have the cool looking pieces of kit in the schools I have been working with. Of course if you take a camera or a clapper board into a school the children are going to swarm around them and want to play. But there's much more to these pieces of equipment.

We have been taking small groups of children and training them to be a film crew.  The specialisms break down something like – camera, sound, director, assistant, performer.  One of the things we have to do is to determine which children are best suited to which task.  At first they really don't know, but usually want to have a go with the camera.

After working together on a few small projects preferences begin to emerge. This is usually through  a process of observing and encouraging.  

An interesting strategy (once they've had a bit of experience) is not to allocate the roles myself but to let the children themselves decide. I tell them that I will not be making the decision, but they must decide among themselves who will be director, camera operator and so on.  I give them 10 minutes on their own to negotiate.  Once they have decided there may be one individual who has been sidelined; to the one who is sidelined I give the desirable task of being production stills photographer.  

Camera-small 
Clapper-small 

Light-small 
Sound-small

Once the team is assembled they take ownership of their specialist equipment – camera, fluffy microphone, clapperboard, tripod, clipboard etc.  

I was very proud when a child who lacked confidence identified that using the clapper board was something he could do very well and announced this to the whole class.

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Henry and the magic wallpaper

The grizzly  times of the Tudors and Henry's willy nilly habit of chopping off heads has a natural appeal for year four children. 

At this school we wanted to combine music, writing, film, animation and the wonderful technique known as green-screen – or perhaps blue-screen; Chroma Separation Overlay, CSO if you want to show off. 

This film takes some of the more unsavory facts about life on the Mary Rose as a starting point. We also wanted to involve the children in a variety of interesting ways – particularly to include some of the less confident and disruptive children.  For example, some of the drawings we included may be very simple and not hugely demanding to create  but we found a place for them in the finished piece.  

There is a natural tendency for the professional film maker to be concerned about maintaining a high standard but this must not be at the expense of including less confident children. This should not just be a showcase for the most talented children but  a way of unlocking talent and confidence in the least confident ones.  Otherwise why are we doing this?

Step 1

A mind mapping session to unlock all the facts the children had learned about life on the Mary Rose

Step 2

Using Garage Band create a rap backing track

Step 3

Listen to the backing track and practice writing and performing words to the rhythm of the track.

Step 4

The children in their own time (and with the rhythm in their heads) all write their own rap songs

Step 5

We select the best ideas from each of the songs to create a single rap to be used in the film

Step 6

Tasks are introduced and allocated to the team – animating the ship, drawing pictures, operating the camera and lights, recording the sound, performing, setting up the green screen, finding images, directing etc.

Step 7

Animating session.  We filmed the ship against a coloured screen and created the sea out of rolled up coloured paper which we animated manually. Pictures were drawn, biscuits were filmed, flames and rats were scanned.  The scurvy ridden faces were drawn.

Step 8

The green-screen session. The screen was set up facing a large area of windows so we had a lot of soft natural light. This was a hugely popular activity. The children decided to call this set-up the magic wallpaper.

The backing track was played from a CD player. Jobs included director, camera operator, sound and performers.

Step 9

Editing.  The editing for this was too complex for the the schools own software so most of it was carried out off-site.  However I think there is scope in future for sections of these films to be edited by the children.

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Learning

I liked the wide range of tasks and skills that this project involved, it was very inclusive. It didn't just use traditional animation techniques but required a range of solutions.  There was a high degree of problem solving particularly making the ship and water move – the children were fully engaged in finding their own way of doing this. 

Some of the less confident children appeared in front of the camera and some of the more modest drawing attempts were used in the film – this was obviously appreciated by the children concerned.

We had some positive discussion about making mistakes – if something didn't work we called it learning and improving. A mistake in the filming could be an entertaining out-take.

The green-screen was such a success that I am helping the school set up its own permanent green-screen (magic wallpaper).

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Learning to debate using video

At one of the schools I've been working with, we had a team debate about project ideas but it was chaotic. Everyone spoke at once, there was no chair-person and no idea about what we hoped to get out of the meeting  So, we came up with the idea of making the debate itself the focus for a film project. 

Step 1

To begin, we spent some time discussing debating styles and approaches – the role and skills of the chair-person, using your voice clearly, listening and picking up on points, including a wide range of contributions, sticking to the agenda and so on. 

Debate 06
 

Step 2

Next after a bit of rehearsal we filmed a wide master shot of the whole debate. During the debate we took notes of who spoke, what they spoke about, observations of performance, anything that could be improved.

Step 3

We looked back at the video and and had a conversation about how it went and anything that could be improved.

Debate-02  Debate-01 
Debate-03 
 
Step 4

A re-run of sections of the debate to improve the behaviour. The camera position was changed to focus on an individual's contribution to the debate. This was scary for the individual but gave a real chance to iron out any performance or communication issues.  We did this re-framing about four or five times.

Debate-05
 

Step 5

The debate was edited together using the improved sections to look like a really slick and well chaired debate. Someone said it looked like a scene from "young apprentice" – hope that was a complement!

This was a very exciting and memorable process which gave the children a lot of new skills and confidence. They looked terrific on camera and everyone was very proud of how professionally they performed. Of course it was an edited sequence, but it demonstrated what was possible to achieve.  

This is a great way to use video in school because it provides a little bit of fear, excitement and theatre into the learning. With instant playback you can address issues simply by showing them the video – often the facilitator need not say anything; show rather than tell. It's also a resource to show other children with some ready made role models.

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Free software for viewing and editing your videos

There's a lot of frustration over the compatibility of small popular video cameras and some basic editing software packages, as far as I can see.  For example the popular Flip cameras produce excellent results but MP4 is not a great editing format and may not even be viewable on some laptops running Microsoft Movie Maker.

VideoPad

Main_s 

I've been having a look at VideoPad which includes a free video editing software version for Windows.  I have not tried it in earnest yet but it looks quite neat and can handle a number of file types – probably more flexible than Moviemaker in this respect. It might be a good companion for the Flip cameras, but let's see.

Audacity

A big weakness with many free video editing packages is the limited number of audio tracks. Generally you can cut the audio with the pictures and add a commentary layer but that's about it. The number of audio tracks is a difference between amateur and professional editing packages. Great audio can have a huge impact for your video.

Audacity-linux-small
 

A lot of fun can be had preparing an exciting audio track so think about using another free programme Audacity to create muti-track audio for your video. You can usually open the video file directly in Audacity, edit the audio and then re-import the finished audio back into the video editing software.

VLC Media Player

Vlc
 

Finally, if you have difficulty viewing some video files  you might have a look at the free VLC Media Player. It plays many file types and can do some media conversion as well.

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Wall of Secrets

The idea:
One of the schools in Keighley wanted to take the theme of "lots of hidden things" for their film. They didn't want to take a single person, place or event but to encourage the children to look at their environment for signs of history. The emphasis was on walking about and looking.  They came up with the idea of a wall of secrets which worked well since most of the historical clues seemed to be embedded in walls of one sort or another. Amy Heild helped the children make a puzzle made of numbered bricks. When the bricks were constructed in the right way they made a victorian street scene.

The cinema film used this puzzle – the wall of secrets – as a theme, out of which would come the information about the town's history. 

Technology:
The children used Flip cameras to record the information.  The opening sequence of the film involved pretty much the whole school and involved the camera being pulled backwards on a chair with wheels. We used a Canon 5D MK high definition camera for the playground sequence and employed some of the children as crew. The idea for the special effects came from the class and was beyond the capability of Widows Move Maker! – so Final Cut Pro was used for this effect.  Although some of these techniques were beyond the school to achieve themselves, I felt that by making these tools available I was able to put no restrictions on their imagination – if they wanted a magical wall then they could have one.

Learning:
The teacher set the creative bar very high and didn't settle on the first idea that came along. He was open to ideas as they came along and imagined that anything was possible. There was a high level of risk taking and a willingness to experiment with new or seemingly impossible ideas. The children were highly motivated by the large amount of visual media generated by this project – there was a high volume of photography and video used not only in the film but in the course of the everyday teaching. 

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Art

Hidden Keighley discovery day

We completed the Hidden Keighley discovery day yesterday. Six schools trekking around the town in search of boxes which had been transformed by the children. My role has been to organise the film making element in collaboration with artist Amy Heild.

The process of making a film is a fantastic way for the children to learn so many skills and build their confidence, even a simple interview has so many elements to it. Deciding on the most relevant location to film the story, observing  & planning the shots, managing the equipment, problem solving, engaging with the interviewee are only a few skills needed.  It's particularly rewarding to pick shy children to work in front of the camera or take a leadership role and see them rise to the challenge. 

The brilliant thing about video is that you can re-take if things go wrong.  We've had some wonderful conversations about the value of being able to learn from mistakes. At first the children get embarrassed when they make a mistake but soon they're able to have a laugh about it and move on to an improved attempt.

Bringing professionalism to the way the video is filmed and edited can be a huge boost to many children. They imagine that professional film makers have none of the problems they face  – being nervous, tripping over their lines, wobbly shots and so on.  Once they realise that there are some simple techniques to achieving impressive results they begin to feel so much more confident.

We've had a lot of discussion about whether the process is more important than the outcome – i.e. that a poor quality film is OK provided that the children learn something in the process.  I'm sure that the end product is vitally important – especially for a product designed for public showing.  The buzz the children get from achieving a film that looks like something they would see on TV or at the cinema is something they can be proud of and will remember for a long time.

HK2 

This is  the model of Keighley Picture House. Inside is a screen on
which interviews about of the old cinema play. Next week all the films
will be shown at the real cinema at a red carpet event  for 300 children.

HK3

This is from the film Box of Sounds in which we take this animated Victorian girl to re-visit one of the local mills.

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