Teaching Film: Visually

Jason02Technology is an ever changing landscape, and as educators, our challenge has always been to teach the most current technology without the budget to properly bring this technology to the classroom.

In few industries is this dilemma more apparent than film and video production, wherein every month a new camera system, editing package, workflow or distribution method debuts.  With clients clamoring to incorporate the latest techniques to sell their products, movies employing cutting edge technologies to keep audiences at the edge of their seats, and production companies racing stock the latest gear, we as educators have the responsibility to teach these trends to best prepare our students for the working world.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to bring these trends into the classroom - for years, our teaching aids were textbooks and movie clips, neither of which fully provide students with an immersive look at the filmmaking process.  Rich cinematography techniques are reduced to a few paragraphs in a textbook. Lighting techniques are severely hampered by inexpensive, consumer lighting equipment and new camera technologies only exist in a sales brochure. 

Adding to this educational quagmire is that today’s students are the epitome of media consumers, digesting rapid-fire imagery in video games, movies and television programming.  Their ability to assimilateJason01 information has increased significantly, rendering passive teaching tools like textbooks, filmstrips and overheads virtually obsolete.  So how do we adapt our teaching method to best cater to the visual learners? Quite simply, we must become better visual teachers. 

Filmmaking is a visual medium - and teaching visual arts with visual teaching aids to reaching the media student of today does not have to be expensive. Visual teaching methods can vary from integrating media examples into assigned exercises to using demonstrative multimedia to enhance your lectures.

1. Don’t be afraid to deconstruct  - Have your students to deconstruct and reverse engineer existing media.  For example, ask your students to choose a scene from their favorite movie and storyboard it.  Ask them to identify “why” each cut what made and “what’ the purpose of each shot in the sequence is. “How” does it contribute to the story and “who” is the shot about? Try assigning this exercise for an Oscar-winning movie, and also for a badly-shot indie movie, studying why one scene may work and the other may not.

2. Show your students - don’t tell them -  The “show, don’t tell” philosophy not only applies to filmmaking, but also lecturing.  Don’t just provide examples from movies that illustrate your point, but show scenes that do it incorrectly. Screen examples of good and bad composition; footage both properly and improperly white balanced; a scene that cuts on motion and a scene that does not, a scene well-acted and a scene over-acted.

3. Scalability - Unless you’re teaching at USC, odds are you don’t have the latest RED camera, a fully-equipped studio or a 5-ton grip grip truck with which to teach.  In an era of ever-shrinking budgets, especially for elective programs like media production, our equipment cache may nothing more than a few Sears construction lights, a couple scraps of diffusion and an old miniDV camera.  While you can teach basic techniques with these tools, it’s important to teach scalability - how to scale the technique upward to bigger and better gear.  How do you employ 3-point lighting with Arri HMIs and Kino-Flos, level real dolly track or use flags, nets and silks to shape light? If you can’t afford this gear in the classroom, bring it to your students with training videos like those available on FilmSkills.com. Videos produced by working professionals can provided an added perspective on the application of new techniques and technology.

4. Following a multi-process - Although filmmaking is a linear, procedural process- a script is written, then cast, then budgeted, then cast, then scheduled, the shot, in the classroom, try running several of these processes concurrently.  For example, have students follow along in a script while watching a film, noting how the director translated the written scene directions to the action as it unfolds on the screen. Or, have students create a blocking and lighting diagram for a scene from an existing movie, trying to determine light, camera and actor placement.

These simple techniques for incorporating existing media into the classroom is inexpensive and often trumps limited equipment and production budgets. Ultimately, embrace the visual teaching aid in your classroom. The more you can use the moving image, the more your lesson will connect with your students. The technology and techniques you use to teach your students today is what they will use in their careers tomorrow.


jason-tomaricJason J. Tomaric is an Emmy-winning director and cinematographer in Los Angeles, and produces the online filmmaking resource, FilmSkills.com.  FilmSkills uses dozens of instructional videos from hundreds of working film industry experts to enhance students’ learning experience.