April 22nd, 2010
HAPPY EARTH DAY!
For the past five years I’ve been conducting videomaking workshops with the graduate students at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. All five year classes of films can be viewed here. In the past year my producer, Ty Carlisle, and I have conducted the workshops with undergraduates at University of California, Merced, and University of Southern California. I mentioned the workshops in my book. Seems like it’s a good time to lay out the details of how we run these events which are both fun as well as a major “awakening” experience for students who have never taken part in video production before. We’re available to run the workshops ourselves (contact us at info AT randyolsonproductions DOT com), or you might just want to use some of what I lay out below for your own workshop. There aren’t any great trade secrets here, so feel free to set up a phone call just to ask our advice. No big deal. At this point our process is the result of five years of fine tuning, with the most recent one being just last week at Catalina Island with 28 USC undergrads.
THE USC CINEMA SCHOOL MODEL
I based our 3 day workshop on the experience we went through in film school at USC where all 50 students in your entering class, in their third semester, were given the chance to “pitch” their concept for a 20 minute film during a single grueling day. The pitches were judged by a committee of professors who selected the four best pitches. These films were given a budget of $50,000 and the other students served as crew members when the films were produced the following semester. I was lucky enough to be selected and got to direct my crazy musical comedy, “You Ruined My Career.”
It was a brutal process that was actually a fairly accurate slice of Hollywood; most people got their dreams crushed, then the “lucky” ones got thrown into a meat grinder where their visions were beaten and battered for months. My film, which I cast with African American actors and had a “climax” scene of a castration musical dance number (complete with giant scissors in a Busby Berkeley dance number), of course, proved to be hugely controversial (moi? controversy?). The rough cut screening, where the class of 100 students got to see the first completed assembly of the entire film, ended up with an emotional hour of shouting, screaming and crying as the film was called racist and even misogynistic (a female professor said, “I can’t put my finger on it, but there is a distinct misogynistic tone to the castration scene,” followed by a male professor, with one hand on his crotch, saying, ”Are you kidding?”). I had to assure my crew that as soon as we got it out of the contorted hyper-p.c. world of film school and into film festivals, the controversy would evaporate, which it did when we premiered at Telluride.
So I shrunk this whole approach down into 3 minute pitches with the students themselves making the selections and it turns out to work really, really well. There’s a slight disappointment among the students who don’t get chosen, but they quickly go to work as crew members and it turns out to be a good team building experience.
THE OVERALL CONCEPT
In three days we take students who have had absolutely no experience with filming or editing all the way from initial concept to the finished product of a one minute Public Service Announcement (PSA). The finished product is never ready for prime time (what can you expect for untrained students in just three days) but we have yet to have a video that was unwatchable. From the very first round we’ve been surprised how quickly the students take to the language of film. And for many, it literally ends up being a “life altering experience,” as they go on to get further involved with video production.
We usually create five crews, which means we need five cameras, tripods, microphones, and a few tapes. One key resource we added in recent years is a “Green Screen” set up, which is very simple and opens up all kinds of wonderful creative possibilities. All it takes is a large piece of green fabric and a few lights. There are a number of simple videos on Youtube that explain how to do it, such as this one.
For editing we ALWAYS use Final Cut Pro on Mac laptops. One year we made the mistake of saving a few pennies by using iMovie. It was bad news — the program is fine for complete amateurs, but is limited and inflexible. FCP is both surprisingly simple to learn at an elementary level, but also has infinite potential for huge projects (a large number of feature films are now edited on FCP, including both of my recent movies).
DAY ONE: THE PITCH AND PLANNING
The process begins by having each student come up with their own concept for a video. In the case of the Scripps graduate students, we initially had them focus on environmental issues. But after a couple of years, I felt like the content was a little too fun and campy, and too light on substance. To correct this, we changed the assignment to, “Pick a faculty member and make the video about their research.” This helped provide a clearer and more substance-oriented focus for them.
On the morning of the first day, after an initial lecture from me, the students are each given three minutes to “pitch” their idea to the class and faculty. They are allowed to use three Powerpoint slides in their brief presentation. At the end of the pitches, everyone votes for their top five choices. The five with the most votes are selected with the students who pitched them becoming the Directors. Then the other students are randomly assigned as crew members. Usually two of the students are assigned to “camera” while the other two are editors.
At lunch the five crews meet separately to begin planning and come up with a Shot List in which they itemize each shot they will be filming. After lunch the entire class convenes. Each group gets up and presents their shot list to the class, then the entire group asks questions and offers up suggestions. Each session takes about a half hour, resulting in a realistic production plan. A director might have originally proposed to shoot a scene of fifty people on the beach. In the group session we explain that they can maybe achieve the same thing using a green screen shot of just ten people which they can, in editing, replicate to create an entire crowd. Things like that to make the project “do-able” in just a single day of filming.
At the end of the day, Ty Carlisle runs them through a short orientation on using the cameras and editing with Final Cut Pro.
DAY TWO: PRODUCTION AND EDITING
On the morning of the second day the students set to work with filming. If they have “B-roll” elements (still photos, video stock footage) the editors begin “capturing” it (digitizing it into FCP). By mid-day there’s usually enough footage shot for the editors to start to work full time with building the project in FCP.
By the end of the day all production should be complete and the entire group assembled around their laptop editing. Although two students are designated as the editors, we insist on making it a group effort where everyone eventually learns how to use FCP. The nice thing is that the directors are usually so limited in their confidence (being the first time) that they are eager for the input and support of the group, so the film evolves with a group voice and vision to it.
DAY THREE: FINAL EDITING AND THE “FILM FESTIVAL”
By the morning of the third day every film needs to be at the point of having a complete draft of the entire 60 seconds in the timeline of FCP. There is still time for a few “pick-ups” (final shots to be added) or even the occasional reshoot (something went wrong with a single scene), but mostly the videos are watchable at this point.
Final polishing goes on through lunch, with a deadline of 3:00, at which point everyone has to hand in their final cut to Ty. He puts them together on a single hard drive. At 5:00 all the students, faculty, friends and guests assemble for the big “film festival.” We then take turns giving each film and crew about 15 minutes to introduce their film, show it, then have the entire crew seated at the front like a panel discussion as I quiz them about what they learned, what was the initial vision for the film, how does the final product compare with the initial vision, what would they do different, and what did they learn.
Beer and pizza ensue and a good time is had by all.
THINGS WE’VE LEARNED
One experiment we did in the third year at Scripps was to skip the idea of group projects and instead have all 17 students that year each do their own individual video. The videos were all still pretty good, but not nearly as good in years where they worked as groups. For that reason we have chosen to go with the group project. There are also lots of other benefits from the group experience. For example, it serves as a social/icebreaking experience for the students to get to know each other better. Plus it uses up less resources overall.
A key element in creating the crews is the random assignment of individuals which prevents any sets of friends or cliques working together.
In the beginning we just threw the crews together and unleashed them, but each year I find myself spending more time on pre-production — forcing them to think through their plan as best as possible BEFORE they even pick up the camera. There’s a tendency, once the directors get picked, for everyone to feel like, “Okay, let’s get to work.” But we’ve learned there’s a payoff to pulling back on the reigns and pushing them on things like, “How exactly are you going to get this shot of the professor pulling starfish out of the tank — where is he going to be standing, where is the camera going to be placed, how are you going to light him, what is he going to say — draw me a picture on the board of what the image is going to look like in the frame of him holding up the starfish.” It’s frustrating sometimes, but as the director draws the image you can see them suddenly realizing they actually haven’t thought this thing through that well.
And one last element I’ve been pushing in recent years is storytelling. In the beginning, I was thrilled to see the student be able to slap together any set of images and have something that just makes sense. But in recent workshops I’ve been raising the bar by explaining to them the basics of story structure, then pushing them to try telling a story with their video. It’s not essential, but for many of them they are trying to tell a story, but they just haven’t structured it well. And some students have a hard time believing you can tell a story in 60 seconds. For them, I just recommend they take a look at a few of the “films” on the recently appearing website 5 Second Films. If those folks can almost tell a whole story in 5 seconds, you can tell an epic in 60.
So I strongly recommend you consider this template for a workshop. The best element of it is the pitching and selection process which greatly improves the quality of the projects (artificial selection at work — Darwin would approve!). For any given year about half of the students are still kind of lost when it comes to the pitch. What they present is pretty vague, uninspired, and not really ready for production. Often they will concede it themselves, saying, “I’m not really sure what I’d like to make a video about, but here’s an idea …” The other students are polite, but they generally have an intuitive sense of who’s ready to make a video. So there’s usually about ten major contenders for which the idea is presented very clearly and with passion. Any of those ten would make good films, but by taking only the top five you’ve given the projects a head start by selecting clear visions.
Again, if you want further advice or details or to book us, just get in touch and we’ll be glad to talk further. It’s amazing to watch students have the transformative experience in just three days of watching an idea go from paper to screen. It really can be “life altering” for many of them.