What I Learned on a Film Shoot

A few weeks ago, a student asked me to be involved in a short film she and others were making for a senior-level class.  After some negotiations about when I could meet the director, then after that meeting, I agreed to be involved.  It would require me to give up most of a Saturday, learn only a couple of lines (which they actually gave me right before the scene), and drag a chain around for much of the shoot (that chain was much heavier than I expected).

I learned a good deal about movie-making while I was there, as I’d never been at a film shoot before, despite my love of movies.  I have a great deal of respect now for stand-ins, as much of my job was simply standing around while they worked on camera angles, tried different lenses, or waited for the sun to go behind a cloud or a car to pass.  I also have a new respect for film actors and actresses.  While they’re not the ones standing around, they’re expected to come into a scene after sitting for an hour, then get completely into character and perform an emotionally wrought scene.  Then, they have to film that scene multiple times from multiple angles, all while giving the same level of performance.

This blog isn’t about film, though; it’s about education, and I also learned something about education yesterday.  The entire class was there during the filming, and the project is clearly designed to teach them how to make a film.  The only way to make a film, of course, is to make one, so that’s what they were doing.  The professor was there (another character), but he only put himself into the discussions once or twice that I noticed.  Here are some conclusions about teaching (and especially group projects that I learned):

The students were teaching each other much of the time.  Because the professor wasn’t involved in the discussions, the students had to talk matters out among themselves.  I watched them debate which lens would make the best shot and when they should use a different angle.  They didn’t only debate what they should do, though; they also talked about the why.  They went beyond information they had memorized (which lens would provide the most width, for example) to how to apply that information, using the theory they had discussed.

They had been prepared for this project.  It’s not just that the class they’re enrolled in this semester had prepared for them, as it’s mainly about making the film, but that their entire curriculum had led up to their making films.  They’ve had theory classes; they’ve done film criticism; they’ve taken practical classes about the equipment they were using.  They needed all of that preparation, so they didn’t have to spend hours talking about why they were making their choices.  Instead, they would spend minutes talking about those decisions, drawing on everything they already knew.

They had prepared ahead of time.  Granted, students aren’t known for their advance preparation, and I certainly didn’t find out some information until a day or two before filming began, but we did have conversations before I arrived.  I had a copy of the script a couple of weeks before we met to film; I heard from the young woman in charge of wardrobe, and we talked through what I needed to bring.  The producer had a notebook where all of the shots they wanted were laid out in order, and everyone who needed a copy had a copy.  There was not one time that they needed a piece of equipment or a prop, and it wasn’t there.

Everyone had a job to do, and they did it.  On a project like this, if one person doesn’t do his or her job, the entire production can stop or simply fail.  Because everyone’s role is important–whether it’s the young woman who made my leg look bruised or the director of photography–everyone must do what they are required to do.  This responsibility makes all of them responsible and gives them an investment in the project.

They built a sense of community.  The students had to work together to make this film happen.  Not only did they have to rely on each other, but they willingly helped each other.  They sat around and ate pizza together during a break and talked about life, in general.  They have a shared experience to draw from; they (we, of course) have inside jokes (in fact, at lunch, they referenced one from their previous film shoot, and I was the only one who didn’t get it).  I will interact with those students differently now when I see them on campus, and they will interact with each other differently.

Now, I have no idea how to apply this information to my classes.  I don’t typically do group projects, and writing is a much more solitary endeavor.  I also don’t know how the professor grades these films.  I know he’s on set for much of the time, and I’m sure he’s observing the students’ participation, but I don’t know anything beyond that (I’m sure I’ll talk to him about that now that I’ve seen how it works).  I’ll keep thinking about this experience over the next few weeks and see if I can find anything I can use for my classes.

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