Kranky Kids - Tech Learning

Kranky Kids

Let's talk education. When I started the Kranky Kids after-school programs in 1995, my sole intention was to have fun. The first group project was a radio show. Then the kids were badgering me for more, so we began creating unique original theater productions. I say "unique" because they were solely our own ideas and
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Let's talk education. When I started the Kranky Kids after-school programs in 1995, my sole intention was to have fun. The first group project was a radio show. Then the kids were badgering me for more, so we began creating unique original theater productions. I say "unique" because they were solely our own ideas and writing. At the time, I had no idea how much new technology I would be learning and how enjoyable the acquisition of that knowledge would be.

I believe after-school programs should be fun, pure and simple, with no sense of homework involved. In Kranky Kids, the responsibility for the final polished output (be it film, stage, or radio) is on my shoulders. This approach allows students to better focus on teamwork, see themselves through their performances, and obtain a true sense of accomplishment both individually and as a group.

After school, there are no mandated standards or set curriculum that must be followed. It's just me, the kids, and endless imagination. There are, however, two rules in Kranky Kids. They're adhered to in the strictest sense of the word.

The first rule is that students can be fired. That's right, fired. If a student is disruptive, disrespectful to myself and the other students, or a general pain in the neck, that student is out the door. Parents love this rule, too. (I have yet to fire a student; apparently their desire for amusement far outweighs their desire to disrupt.)

The second rule is to feed the students. You cannot work with hungry kids. Also, sharing meals strengthens their sense of community and offers an opportunity for awarding compliments and for airing and resolving complaints.

The evolution of technology has had a powerful effect on the program. Kranksters were performing in their schools, at a small local theater, and on the street before we turned to digital video. But once the technology became affordable, we all wanted to try our hands at filmmaking.

The Process

All Kranky Kids productions start with a jam session to find out what currently interests everyone. For our first film, Saving Tink, the kids wanted to be super spies, super detectives, or super heroes. I decided to make them bad detectives-bad as in they were terrible at the job. They'd ruin evidence, make a lot of noise when hiding, stand out in a crowd, inform suspects they were suspected, and only solve cases by accident.

So we began both filming and my education in DV technology. I learned very quickly to double-check the settings before recording and to have an extra fully charged battery on hand. Another tip to have plenty of tape on hand, plus extra for overruns.

And why is miniDV tape so special? Because it keeps track of your work frame by frame via timecode. If you stop recording and then jump forward to continue recording, you'll leave an unrecorded gap and your timecode will reset to zero. Because of this you will either not be able to capture all your footage into your editing program or only get parts of it after a great deal of fiddling. I learned this the hard way.

So heed this very important tip I picked up at a video boot camp sponsored by Apple: if at all possible, prerecord your miniDV tapes from start to finish to prestripe the timecode. Then you don't have to worry about it and you should be able to capture all your footage, especially if more than one person is manning the camera. Of course you can also eliminate any time gap by always making certain you rewind onto the tail end of your last shot before continuing any recording, but when you have a group of wild kids swarming around you, the less technicalities you have to think about, the better off you will be.

You'd think it would be obvious, but when you're making a film you need a lot of footage for editing, which I didn't get the first time out. I was trying to save tape and because I turned the camera off right at the end of each take I was unable to capture some scenes due to that timecode issue.

You also need to train the actors to not immediately start a scene or break out of character when ending a scene, so you have about three or four extra seconds on both ends to play with while editing. These are called handles and are very useful when editing. Transitions like a cross dissolve or a gradient wipe need extra frames to smoothly incorporate.

It's a good idea before or after shooting a scene, to have everyone stand quietly so you can record about 20 seconds of "room tone" in case you need it. And when would that be? While editing you'll invariably find a place where you want to remove an unwanted sound in a scene, like a door slamming in between lines. If you try to just cut the sound out and leave the picture there will be a gap of dead silence that is very noticeable so you will fill that gap with some of your room tone.

As you can imagine, filming in and around a school after hours presents all sorts of interesting hurdles. If you film in someone's classroom you have to make certain it gets put back together the way it was when you started. The janitors are cleaning and making all sorts of noises that you must avoid. Sometimes other students not involved are hanging around and have to be scooted out and away. Teachers working late have to be informed to not walk through your set or talk in nearby halls.

Now, we Kranksters are members of the Continuity Club. We love to discuss films and discover the continuity flaws like the Roman gladiator wearing a wristwatch in Ben-Hur. This attention to detail is important for the students to learn, yet very hard to follow through on when we're filming. Try getting a bunch of kids to wear or at least bring the same clothes with them when you're filming over the course of seven to eight weeks. Or to not get some crazy haircut. Or to please stop growing! I had one student who changed so much between the filming and the final edit I didn't recognize him. Not to worry though, the entire school is more than helpful in pointing out any incongruities when they view a Kranky Kids film. The Kranksters take it in stride because they know what's been involved in a shoot.

As an aside, it's very amusing how confused the kids can become when you film everything out of order. Plays they understand. Filming the end, then the beginning, then a piece of the middle, then another ending because you might change your mind in post or a new beginning for the same reason-well it just makes them crazy at times. Oh, and they get sick too, which usually changes the story yet again.

One big lesson all the students absorb is that there's a lot of downtime when making a film. Sometimes a student may only be needed for a few minutes of filming in a session. What do they do? They watch the process, they help with setup/breakdown, they do their homework, they play outside if the weather is nice or in the halls if it isn't. They socialize and make friends with their fellow Kranksters. Longtime Kranksters tell me that for them the socialization and the friend making is the most important element of Kranky Kids.

I teach the kids to communicate. My directions to them are typically: You must tell the other character certain information. How you say it is up to you but the information must be understood for the story to move forward. Now go!

It's important every student get a chance to relay the same piece of information and have a go at all parts. This is how they learn that people have different ways of expressing themselves and some ways are more successful than others. It also helps them see why certain performances made it into the final cut and others didn't.

At the end of Saving Tink, the students discover that Tink is another student who has been tinkering with their school records on his computer. Tink then deletes the students one by one, a visual effect of making the kids disappear individually. This involved everyone freezing, pausing the recording, having a student step out of the frame, recording enabled, pausing the recording, having another student step out of the frame, etc. until they were all deleted.

Tink brings them all back whereupon they decide to delete Tink to teach him a lesson. He disappears, but when they try to retrieve him they discover they haven't pressed "save" on the computer and he's lost forever. Oops! Well, at least they solved the case.

The little brother of the student who played Tink watched the film while sitting right next to his big brother and burst into tears when he saw that they couldn't get Tink back. Ah, the power of cinema.

Lishka DeVoss has been running Kranky Kids (www.krankykids.com) for eight years and is still learning how to shoot and edit.

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Create Your Own After-School Program

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Tech Tips

  • It is important to get a camera with a good size LCD monitor (3.5 inches) to watch while filming and for viewing a take. Checking your work as you go along is necessary since it is hard to know what you've captured on tape without reviewing the footage.
  • A deck is also important because when you're capturing video to a computer, there's a lot of rewinding and forwarding the tape, which is a lot of wear and tear on a camera's motor and heads. I also purchased a separate monitor because what's displayed on a computer screen isn't exactly what you'll see and hear on a TV. Always keep in mind how your final film will be viewed and then edit for that medium. Kranksters get a DVD or VHS copy of their films and performances to take home.
  • Being a Mac fan makes my computer and software choices easy, and Apple's educator discounts help tremendously in allowing me to buy more equipment with my budget. I'm also an advocate of tutorial DVDs for Final Cut Pro. Without them, I wouldn't have gotten such great results on any of my films. You can check the Kranky Kids Web site for more info on both software and hardware currently in use.
  • To ensure good sound quality, the mic needs to be away from the camera. I purchased the ECM-HS1, which sits in the hot shoe on top of the camera, to use as a separate mic. Unfortunately, this isn't far enough away and it picked up the sound of the camera motor. I solved this sound problem later by using a Shure Condenser Mic BG 4.1 or a Sennheiser ME 66 Shotgun Mic Mod Electret with a K6 Power Module on a boom or mic stand positioned as far from the camera, but as close to the actors as possible.
  • I chose the tripod because it's an indoor/outdoor, toug-as-nails variety with pointy tips that can be used to plant the legs into the ground for stability. I chose the head because the camera isn't big enough for one of those really heavy-duty heads, but I still need the smoothness of a fluid head while shooting, and a quick release for fast setups and breakdowns. Each session with the students is only an hour-and-a half, so time is precious.

Gear

I started with the following equipment for filming and editing:

  • Sony DCR-TRV9 digital camcorder
  • Sony ECM-HS1 Electret Condenser Mic w/zoom and shotgun mode
  • Sony GV-D300 Mini DV deck
  • Sony PVM-14N5U 14" Trinitron color video monitor
  • Manfrotto 3221W tripod and 3130 Quick Release micro fluid head
  • 400 MHz PowerMac G3
  • Final Cut Pro 1.0 for Mac.

The Sony TRV-9 camera was in the news in 1999 for supposedly enabling you to "see through clothes" using the nightshot button. Bogus, but it intrigued the kids and it's a good camera. The comparable one from Sony today is the DCR-TRV80.

Kranky Kids' new gear:

  • Canon Super XL1S 3 CCD digital camcorder
  • Nebtek 50XL 5 inch TFT LCD monitor with lithium-ion battery adapter for Canon cameras
  • Sennheiser HD 280 Pro (Closed Ear) stereo headphones
  • Manfrotto 3067 video dolly

Continue to Create Your Own After-School Program > > >

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Create Your Own After-School Program

A Starter Guide

Where to look for Funds:

  • Parents
  • School District Grants
  • Education Grants from Corporations
  • Education Grants from Individual Trusts

What to Include in Funding and Program Proposals:

  • Specific information about your program and what the students will accomplish.
  • Dates, times, location(s), and equipment must be listed on a flyer to the parents or on any grant proposal.
  • Break down your hours if any significant travel or postproduction is involved.
  • Everyone wants to know what they're paying for and the more questions you have answered before being asked, the better.
  • Provide references.
  • Remember that some states require fingerprinting of anyone working in a school.

First Step

For Kranky Kids scripts that you can use for productions in your school go to www.krankykids.com.

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