Like most of us, I'm always looking for enjoyable activities that also manage to teach something important. It's crucial that students undertand the film/video/TV vocabulary both the words themselves and the visual language. This exercise helps them along their journey to think and express themselves visually. The Video Scavenger Hunt works well as a first hands-on project. Use it to introduce camera basics. However, its primary goal is to introduce the many different camera angles students might use to convey ideas. The exercise begins with abstraction. As they work through the project and analyze what they did, you move them toward more concrete ideas.
Before the Scavenger Hunt, show examples of good and bad framing. Still photos work best here so I download several pictures (good and bad) from photography Websites such as iStockPhoto. Project each picture and then ask students to express what they feel is both good and bad about the images. Keep to the abstract; don't get too heavy into the lingo yet. You will be surprised how students gravitate toward good composition and interesting angles and really notice the less-than-stellar images that don't "work" for them.
After this initial study, it's their turn to go out and get some content. Divide the group into teams based on the number of camcorders you have. Try to keep teams to 4 learners or less, but you may need larger groups if you have fewer cameras. Give each group a camera, tape (or whatever media you use), and a tripod.
Start with some basic instruction about camera operation. Stick to the barest minimum at this point. Give them just enough camera information to get started. Consider using the automatic mode on the cameras as it's too soon to be teaching exposure, white balance, audio levels, and so forth. You want your students to concentrate on framing and getting good images. However, I do prefer manual focus even if all other settings are set to auto.
Here's what's on the handout for the project:
Use the camera to find and videotape YOUR interpretation of the following items. Shoot at least five seconds of each shot.
1) Worm’s Viewpoint
2) Bird’s Eye View
3) Way too close
4) Looking "through" it
5) Focus trick
6) Hidden camera
9) Unusual point of view
11) Director’s choice … surprise everybody.
Please start each take by saying your name and what the shot is. For example: "Jack's Bird's Eye View."
Give them about an hour to go out and capture the items on the list. Emphasize that these concepts are their interpretation of the suggestions listed. We're not talking CUs, low-angle shots, or rack focus ... yet!
Their workflow should be to frame the shot, press record, and then slate it verbally (such as "Sue Smith's Worm's Viewpoint"), shoot about five seconds (minimum), then pause the camera. Students should capture their interpretation of every shot. That's a lot of takes to go through, but I find it invaluable.
When finished return to the classroom and watch all the projects. I prefer to project them up on a big screen and go though each shot, sometimes pausing the frame to discuss what they achieved. You never quite know what you're going to get, but in my experience there will be plenty to talk about: framing, focus, rule of thirds, "shaky" camera work, and more. Push the students to really analyze what they made and see projected onscreen.
Focus on the positive aspects, but mention the problems, too. Once projected for everybody to see, these problems become rather obvious to the learners. Aim for an understanding of basic camera mastery, good composition, getting in close, and capturing detail in more interesting ways. On playback, begin to introduce the correct vocabulary - close-up, low-angle, etc.
Here's an example of what transpired during a recent class. One group shot their feet for the bird's eye view. I polled the class about what was working with the shot. While most students agreed that the shot did look down from above like a bird might, another learner chimed in and said that the shot didn't show anything she didn't see every day. "I can look down at feet any time I want. The shot didn't give me a unique perspective. I want to be shown something different from my normal life."
You will find that this project makes for a terrific first introduction to the camera and the film/video/TV language. Students seem to enjoy the challenge and you will have plenty to talk about when you show their work. After this project, send them out to get more shots, but for this second project use the correct vocabulary (CU, LS, rack focus, etc.) and add some complexity such as panning, headroom, leadroom, and more.
Jeffrey P. Fisher has taught film/video/TV to middle and high school students. At other times he's either teaching his college courses or running his own audio/video company. Get more information about him at www.jeffreypfisher.com.