Cultivating Cineliteracy

Karen Mitchell's TV and film course combines watching and analyzing along with creating films.

"If students are going to be literate writers and literate readers, then I want them to be literate viewers, too," says Mitchell. "I believe it takes the study of film to be a good filmmaker, but you also need to be a filmmaker to really understand film."

Throughout the semester, Mitchell's students master the language of film-the vocabulary used to discuss film styles and filming techniques. A typical lesson might begin with Mitchell writing five to 10 vocabulary words on the board-words such as close-up, long shot, establishing shot, or over-the-shoulder shot. She explains what the terms mean, and then the students will watch a film while Mitchell pauses at examples of the concepts. The subsequent class discussion encompasses identification of the kind of shot, why the director chose to use that shot at that time, and the effect on the audience.

"We analyze those and continue for about 15 or 20 minutes," Mitchell says. "Then I'll play the film for 10 to 15 minutes, asking them to keep track of where various shots occur, and we talk about that. And then finally, when the film is done, we'll discuss it for a little while and then there's a test."

The written test requires students to define the concept or technique represented by the five or six words Mitchell writes on the board, give examples of the term from the film the class just watched, and explain why the director chose to do that.

"There's learning the vocabulary, seeing examples of the vocabulary, identifying them, and then eventually a test. That's probably 50 percent of the class, doing that sort of thing," Mitchell says.

Exploring the medium

Students also explore film styles, cinematography, shot composition, camera movement, film editing, the use of sound, and story techniques. They survey the history of film and view the work of filmmakers such as Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, and Orson Welles.

"Technologically speaking, filmmaking has changed hugely over the last hundred years, but there's still a way to tell a story visually that Chaplin knew about and it was refined each time a director got their hands on it," Mitchell says. "Orson Welles introduced the crane swooping down into a shot, Baz Luhrmann has added some really interesting editing techniques, and of course Spielberg and Lucas brought in computer-generated special effects. But you still tell a story in little brief pieces in close-up, primarily. That has not changed."

Mitchell chooses films based on the concepts they illustrate. The class starts with The Iron Giant, an animated film that contains good examples of different camera shots. The class discusses editing using Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet, films directed by Baz Luhrmann. Films by Charlie Chaplin help students explore early film.

"And then I'll also do some parody; either Young Frankenstein or a great short called George Lucas in Love, which parodies Star Wars, Shakespeare in Love, and all the George Lucas films all at once. It's only about 10 minutes long and it was made by some USC film students. It's a great example," Mitchell says. "And then I'll do a documentary in there somewhere, too."

For the final exam, students tackle Citizen Kane.

The analytical coursework removes some of the mystique from movies, especially as students become aware of how filmmakers achieve various effects.

"When students deconstruct a film, they also debunk some of its power," Mitchell says. "When you watch any film, when you can talk about what the filmmaker is doing to achieve the response that you're feeling, then that response becomes less subjective and more objective and you're aware that it's happening." She cites violence in films as an example. "Filmmakers are not trying to make kids violent. They're simply telling a story. Violent films affect you because of the way the story is told."

The new lens through which students see TV and film affects their recreational viewing as well. "It's really typical for kids to come out of the class and say, 'I can't watch a movie anymore,'" Mitchell says.

Becoming filmmakers

In the second half of the course, the students become storytellers and filmmakers. They work independently and in groups to write short screenplays, create storyboards, act for the camera, use video cameras to shoot story footage, edit their footage using computers and digital video editing software, and produce two short original films on videotape.

Using components from other artists

Adding music and other footage to a film introduces some interesting legal discussions in Mitchell's class. In professional films, filmmakers must pay royalties or license fees and obtain special clearances to use material they didn't create themselves.

"As the years have gone by, the kids are really savvy about copyright issues because they understand that there's this whole debate about whether it's okay to download music, to make it free. It's kind of questionable technology as far as I'm concerned. They do it; they believe it should be free. But the very fact that they know it's controversial, I think is cool. They often ask, is it okay if I use this? We have those discussions a lot, which is great," Mitchell says.

"I have told my kids that as long as we're just doing projects for the class and you're going to show them to your family, no big deal. But you do need to credit the artist in the titles," Mitchell says. "Recently, the kids have been creating good enough work that we're sending it out to contests and festivals, and that becomes a gray area. It's clearly a student contest with student films and they're not getting anything from it. We're kind of on an edge here with student work."

Beyond four years

Mitchell has discovered the combination of watching films and hands-on work to be very effective. The only homework is to shoot the films outside of class.

"I have made my course less academic and more hands-on as the years have gone by," Mitchell says. "The first time I taught this course I was so into film appreciation, and I really got into a lot of technique. That was exactly what the seniors wanted, but I totally lost the freshmen."

Mitchell's course is open to all students at the high school. "From the most struggling freshman to the National Merit Scholar senior, we're really dealing with more than four years." she says.

Two sections of an advanced film course will be offered in 2003-04. Less instructional about film than the TV and film class, the advanced course will focus on production and require students to complete more projects using Apple Final Cut Pro digital editing software. The editing tool is much more complicated than iMovie, but it also provides more functionality.

Adventuring beyond home video

The final project in Mitchell's TV and film class is a 10-minute film. Often, she says, the kids ask, "Could I make a 30-minute film? Could I just make it two hours?" To which Mitchell replies, "Why don't you trust me on this. We're going to maybe make 10 minutes."

As the project progresses the kids gain respect for what it takes to really edit a film. "A film is not like a home video where you set up a camera and do all your antics," says Mitchell. "It's a series of very short cuts, and that astounds them. I don't think they've ever thought about that before."

Lea Anne Bantsari is a freelance writer and editor in West Linn, Oregon.

Read other articles from the November Issue