Silent Filmmaking Lessons

Lesson One. What is silent film? 

 In our first lesson, we spent some time talking about the technological innovations and limitations of the 1920s. I showed them a quick Buster Keaton Clip and elicited comparisons between movies of today and movies of the 1920s. After discussing their ideas, we made inferences about why these silent movies looked and sounded the way they did. We discussed how recorded sync sound hadn’t been developed yet which made recording dialogue very difficult.  Instead, music was added to tell a story. They especially enjoyed the fact that sometimes this was done live by a piano player or small ensemble during screenings. Students discovered that the lighting was mostly from the sun on large outdoor sets. The actors were required to wear heavy make-up that looked black and white in order to accentuate their facial expressions, which were often exaggerated. At the time the film was hand-cranked giving the actors a skittish comical movement when played back. 
We also discussed a little about what was going on in the US and Europe after watching a sequence from Chaplin’s modern times.  Students worked in groups and did an easy fill in the blanks worksheet on the history of silent film,  which we then read aloud together.  
My notes: Looking back at this lesson, I could have probably worked a little harder to fit in all of the daily 5 literacy components making it a more balanced language arts lesson. This would definitely be a goal worth working towards for the next time I do this unit. 
Lesson 2. Visual story telling. 
Together, we enjoyed the famous flower seller scene from Chaplin’s City Lights. The students were invited to tell the story in their own words and even make up dialogue for what the characters might be saying. We also talked briefly about eyeline matching:  I explained that directors and editors know that where the actor looks is what the audience wants to see too. I tried to illustrate successful eyeline matches by starting and stopping at particular close ups in the City Lights scene. 
Next, we looked at famous movie stills from more modern movies and talked about the different types of framing.  As we looked at stills from Harry Potter, Citizen Kane and Despicable Me, I asked guiding questions like: 
Where is the actor? 
Where might the camera be? 
How much space does the actor take up in the frame? 
Why does this actor look so big/small? 
What kind of story does this picture tell? 

We then spent a lot of time talking about storyboards. Students were put into groups to discuss examples of the different kinds of shots they could identify within the storyboard exemplars. I
pointed out that a sentence from a story might take several frames to show on a storyboard. Effective storyboarding was about using different kinds of shots and having a reason in the story for choosing that type of shot. Then, students were given four simple silent film scenarios to choose from. When they chose one, they were instructed that they would use that story to make a storyboard as a plan for their final project. They worked on the storyboard together for the rest of the lesson and then completed it for homework.
My notes: In retrospect, it sounds like a lot. However, you don't need to be the one doing a lot of the explaining. I was delighted when the students were able to articulate their interpretations of why shots were framed the way they were and what kinds of stories they tell. Next time, I would like to attempt to do this lesson with a more constructivist approach since the groups I have worked with have come to class with a good understanding of the visual basics of filmmaking. 
Lesson 3. Stock Characters and basic editing. 
We opened the class with a review of eyeline matching and different types of shots. We discussed that the stereotypical characters found in silent film were often repeated and therefore referred to as “stock” characters.  Students were reminded that politically it was a different time, and women and men were usually casted according to strict gender roles. We decided we wanted to do modern re-tellings, giving the students the option to cast any way they want. 
Next, we chose student volunteers to use an iPad to shoot and edit a quick sequence in front of the class. I realise this may sound a little nerve racking for a teacher who is new to moviemaking, but trust me, once you play with iMovie on your own you will become more comfortable with it. It's very effective for you to demonstrate this in front of the whole class, (fumbling through the interface and making your own mistakes is allowed). 

This is how I demonstrated a test-shoot and test edit: 
    First, we connected the iPad to the projector with a thunderbolt converter, (If this is not possible you could also mirror the iPad screen using apple TV or choose to import the files to the class computer and use free movie editing software instead). 
I called up two volunteers and together we slowly shot a four shot sequence together using the Camera app in iPad. During each shot, I took time to think aloud and talk about my reasoning for camera position etc.  I wasn’t afraid to make mistakes and even intentionally made a couple of them to show the students that it’s normal and expected. I asked students to point out the mistakes and we did a few more takes when needed. Then, we imported the videos into iMovie, talking about each  step, so the students could understand what I was doing. 
After the clips were imported into iMovie, we added all of the videos into a new sequence. We watched the whole sequence and they commented on how the story didn't make sense. I asked the students to help me choose the takes they liked and we arranged them in the right order. I even found a little time to demonstrate how to speed up and slow down the footage so they could experiment on their own. 
My notes: A tip for teachers that are just starting with tech: Don’t be too concerned with trying to explicitly teach them how to use every function in iMovie. There are hundreds! You’ll just stress yourself out and the students could not possibly learn all of them at once. Instead, gradually build new skills once they have mastered the basic ones.
There was a lot to cover and some potentially uncomfortable historical content about gender issues that we needed to work out. In the end, they were very mature about it and I think it came through in the final products.
Lesson 4. Test Shoot and rehearsal. 
We began class with having a couple groups present their storyboards.

Now it was time to let them play!

    Students blocked and rehearsed the full storyboard action without the camera. 
    When I found that some groups were close to finished blocking and rehearsing their stories, I gave them an iPad and went through a quick refresher with iMovie and Camera apps. Group by group, I invited them to choose a 4 or 5 shot sequence from their storyboard. We called this a “test shoot”. They were allowed leave the classroom and find a space that they wanted to use.  Thankfully a co-teacher assisted me in supervising and I was able to frequently visit different groups.  
        When all the groups completed the test shoots, we came back to the class and they wrote down props and costumes in their agendas for next class. At this time, I also invited them to view and discuss their storyboards with the others in their group. I advised them that this was going to be their final shooting plan and that we will use it next class. They needed to make changes to their storyboards for homework. In order to minimise disagreements on set, they must all sign the bottom of the storyboard which makes them accountable for the plan. 
We finished the class up by watching some of the “test shoot” sequences and critiquing what worked and what didn’t. 

Lots of laughs and learning here! :)
My notes: You’d be surprised at how much the students will learn about the software through playing.  I often encourage this mindset while supporting groups one on one and saying things like, “What do you think this function does? Let’s press it and find out.” I remind them that being playful and having an open mind is the key to teaching yourself how to use tech and most of the students are receptive towards this.
The most difficult part was shifting gears from a creative and playful mindset to a critical one. Students need to understand that although moviemaking is creative, some rules need to be followed so that the audience can understand what is happening. Generally speaking, they found it hard to have their work analysed and critiqued so abruptly after learning a new skill. I kept reminding them that critiquing your work was an important step because we can learn from our mistakes. It was also an opportunity for me to troubleshoot and clarify anything technical for the “reel” deal. 
Lesson 5. Lights! iPad! Action! 
By now, your students should have what they need in their tool belts to make an entertaining and simple silent film. BEWARE! Some students could get very passionate about the project and might even try to control their group. Remind them that this is a first time for everyone and to be kind and gentle with your suggestions. I told them to stick to their storyboards if something wasn’t working.  After all, the clock was ticking and they all agreed on the storyboard in the first place. The final period took about 100 minutes to let them shoot. But it may take some groups longer as they might get ambitious with their storytelling. Some loved the process so much that they asked if they could retake some shots and edit during recess! 

My notes: I learned to let them work while circulating frequently to groups. In the future, I would predict behaviour from students who might potentially have trouble getting a long with the groups and assigned them a role within the group (camera operator etc.) to keep them engaged. They may need to take more time on another day as some of the groups forgot vital props and wished they could shoot again next class. I was pretty firm about time and we accomplished mostly everything in the time I allotted. 
Lesson 6. POPCORN!
 Finally, we came together for a mini-film festival. We had some other classes and the principal join us to watch the films. We laughed a lot and it was a little celebration of how hard they worked. It was a perfect Friday afternoon class. Other classes asked their teachers if they could participate in something similar and the students were proud of what they accomplished. 
My notes: I’ve since successfully implemented this mini-unit with three different classes from about grade 4 to grade 8 and I have changed how I teach it each time. I can honestly, say it might not be a “silent” literacy activity, but it’s definitely a crowd pleaser.

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