Like to say how thrilled I was today at the launch of the Every Day Counts campaign at the Keighley Picture House. Fifteen schools in the central Keighley got together to form the campaign and I had the pleasure of producing the film.
The film was a collaborative affair with the schools and students providing much of the effort. I think making films with the schools – as opposed for the schools – is so much more rewarding. What has impressed me most has been the way the schools in the locality have been able to work together. Decisions are made quickly and without fuss and support can readily be found for good ideas. All the teachers, students and parents were a joy to work with.
The event at The Picture House was was the focus for much of the publicity. A number of newspapers turned up and BBC Look North reported on the event.
Yorkshire was recently recorded as having the highest level of truancy from secondary school and the second highest overall truancy rate behind only inner London. And within Yorkshire Keighley is not performing at all well overall.
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.
You may have heard me mention that audio is a vital ingredient in video production. I've lost count of the number of video conversations with sound that you can barely hear. Here's a solution.
The ability to use an external microphone to record sound is essential – a clip on microphone for interviews or a directional microphone on a lead. But it's astonishing that an external microphone connection is a rare feature. There are hardly any video camera with this facility.
In the schools work I have been doing, video interviewing practice is proving very popular. Interviewing hones the children's listening and questioning skills and also provides good content for the school web sites and blogs. Clear recorded audio makes it a lot more rewarding. Flip cameras are very limited.
Thanks to Phil Marshall of KPMS I now know that the Canon M31 Camcorder does have an external mic socket and is available for around £600. It's costly, I know.
The other two issue to go with camerawork are, wobbly shots and flat batteries. The batteries supplied usually last no time at all. A big long life battery will enable you able to shoot for hours and maybe work after a few days in the bag.
Along the camera and battery I'd recommend spending £30 or £40 on a simple video tripod and a cheap lapel microphone on a lead. I'd resist spending lots on the microphone without trying ones that cost only a few pounds. Amazon have a few.
It may seem like a lot of money to spend but with the increasing popularity of school blogs with embedded video, the clarity of the spoken words will be important. Good speaking, good listening, good impression.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
A mind mapping session to unlock all the facts the children had learned about life on the Mary Rose
Using Garage Band create a rap backing track
Listen to the backing track and practice writing and performing words to the rhythm of the track.
The children in their own time (and with the rhythm in their heads) all write their own rap songs
We select the best ideas from each of the songs to create a single rap to be used in the film
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Story telling is such an important aspect of our lives and learning, and is certainly at the heart of good film making. The process of constructing a story – deciding on what are the key moments, understanding the characters and context - is an invaluable skill.
Photographs can help act as 'key frames' in our own stories. Maybe a photograph doesn't tell the whole story but it can jog the memory. You fill in the gaps – "in-betweening" as animators might say.
Supposing you were to describe your own story with the help of the photos you happen to have at home? You might spread the photos out on the table, select the ones that best capture the special times and then fill in the gaps using your own recollections.
This is the old fashioned experience of the photo album with its page by page narrative which forces us to record and recall our lives in a linear fashion – ideally suited to story telling. Perhaps the way we share and view electronic photographs now is in danger of losing order of time – or perhaps not!
Blogs and photo websites like Flickr stack up your memories in order of time so we can look back in chronological order. But more than that, we can examine the places and characters of our story through gps tagging and face recognition.
A school I was working with had the idea that we could record interviews about the history of the school. These audio clips could then be attached to old photographs in an album.
The process of constructing the album involved carefully deciding on the order of the events and finding key images.
Once the images has been found and put in order in the album, an interviewee would be found to tell the story (or part of a story) using the photographs as a prompt. The story would be recorded in sound only as the interviewee turned the pages of the album.
The audio is edited into chunks to be attached to each of the photographs in the album. Each chunk of the story is saved as a sequentially numbered MP3 file
The school purchased a special "talking photo album" from talkingproducts.co.uk. These albums have about twenty pages designed for 7×5 photos. They also include a slot for a flash drive for the recordings. As you turn the pages you can look at the photo and press a button for each bit of the story.
I like the combination of the physical album and the recorded story. The process of constructing the album really makes you think about the structure of the events and how they are represented in pictures. And more than that, it helps you to understand the relationship between the image and the spoken word in the telling of the story. For the listener browsing the album it can be an intensely personal one-to-one experience.
As an exercise in multimedia story telling I can recommend this as an engaging project which is simpler that making a film but can be just as powerful.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.