Teaching New Dogs Old Tricks

Too many times teachers and students rely on electronic special effects to use in a production.

This is OK but does it challenge the creative mind? Developing creativity comes from exposing the mind to many different stimuli. The click of a mouse button on a video effect is only one stimulus. The founding fathers of the cinema industry didn't have electronic special effects. They produced effects mechanically and used "whatever" to produce a desired effect. Basic mechanical photo and video effects and tricks can be used in any production in place of electronic effects. By exploring, learning and using these simple but effective techniques students gain an insight into the basic principles and terminologies that are used in today’s computer programs that generate effects.

This type of creative exercise does not cost big dollars. Art paper, paint, transparent colored term paper covers, old gallon plastic milk jugs, and a slew of other readily available materials that cost little to nothing can be used to create many different effects. They can be used to fill many a production needs.

For example, when I was teaching, one of my students was working on a small production that had a scene that required a paper airplane to fly across the room and land on a particular spot. To solve his problem, he used fishing line and two paper clips that were attached to the top on the plan The line acted as a zip line and the paperclips guided the plan to its destination.

You, as the teacher, should research and learn the techniques of the forefathers of cinematography and photography and then teach them to your students. My text, Video 101, A First Course in Video Production. describes and explains a number of these mechanical devices and how they are used. Use the Internet or the library (remember that place?) to research other materials. This knowledge will add another dimension to your video curriculum; one that will beneficial to you and your students.

These activities are fun. Creating gels, mats, filters, and any other mechanical devices are hands-on activities that not only challenge the students but also bring excitement and fun to their assignments. Fun filled and exciting assignments make classroom management easier.

This same principle can be applied when the need for a studio set arises. Involve the students in choosing and designing a set. Don't just rely on a green screen and virtual sets. Designing and building sets begin with an idea. But, where can you get these ideas? The answer is in front of you 24-7 on broadcast TV. Watch programs that are live or have live on tape segments with sets.

If the set is going to be permanent and used daily then use durable materials that will withstand the abuse. If it is a temporary set, then use whatever. Two factors must be present with all sets and props. First they must be simple and free of glare. Flat paint must be used. Do not clutter up a set with a lot of junk and don’t use objects with shinny surfaces. (Pro photo shops sell a water-soluble dulling spray. It is sprayed on objects to eliminate glare.)

A product that has a variety of uses in creating backgrounds or set graphics is corrugated vinyl. Sign shops generally carry it in 4’x8’ sheets. It comes in a variety of colors and can be easily cut and worked with. It has a shinny surface but a little flat paint for large areas or dulling spray for small graphics takes care of the shine. If you do not want to paint it or use a dulling spray, then tilt the top of the vinyl towards the camera so that the glare will be directed towards the floor and not the camera.

Another background material is muslin. Photographers use it extensively. It is a lightweight canvas material that comes in a large variety of sizes. Its natural color is off white but it can be dyed or painted. By using large spring clips, found in places like Home Depot, it can be hung from a ceiling beam or joist. This enables it to be hung flat, with folds and draped. If it is purchased with a 4-inch hem at the top it can be hung from a rod. Long rods can be made from electrical conduit pipe. Knowledge Backgrounds Inc. and major photo video supply houses like B&H and Adorma sell inexpensive muslin backgrounds. Check their web sites.

When purchasing a muslin background, keep in mind that dark colors will absorb light. This enables the color of the background to be changed by projecting a colored light on it. (Light colored backgrounds reflect light, which makes changing their color difficult.) Muslin backgrounds can be folded and stored in a small space. They can be cleaned and will last for years. Because of these characteristics, muslin backgrounds are economical and versatile. Note: My favorite stores for props and decor items are IKEA, Pier 1 Imports and any "Dollar" stores.

A number of different light fixtures and sources can be used to project light on backgrounds. Of course, you can purchase commercially made light fixtures. They are expensive. If your budget doesn’t allow for such fixtures then try these alternatives. First, try using outdoor flood or spotlights. The electrical fixture for the lamps should have a spring clamp and a bulb housing that will accept a screw on aluminum reflector. The spring clamp will allow it to be attached to anything with an edge and the reflector will permit a colored gel to be clipped to it with wooden clothespins. The reflector should be big enough to keep the gel from touching he bulb. If the gel touches the bulb it will melt. Note, always add a safety chain to the fixture to prevent it from falling and causing an injury.

A unique device to project patterns and colors on a background is a video projector. Photography anything that could be used to project load it into a computer and get creative. A piece of cardboard is often needed to prevent the projection from falling on to unwanted areas or people. This is known as a “gobo.” Gobos, flags, barn doors, and scrims are all light control devices used by the pros. Do a little research and check them out and let your students have fun with them in your video classroom. Chromakeys and computer-generated backgrounds are great but everyone seems to have fun with a, hammer and nails, paper and scissor, a little paint, and little imagination.

Have A Happy


Raymond S. Adams was a high school teacher from 1964 to 1995. He earned a BS Ed from California University of PA, an MS Ed from Duquesne University and a certificate as an Educational Media Specialist from Indiana University pf Pennsylvania. This Specialist Certificate enabled him to have the background to open a home-based photography RayAdamsCoverstudio inRayAdamsCover 1969. As video became popular, video production became part of the studio's services.

During his teaching tenure, he taught photography, social studies and video production. In 1992 he published a textbook on video production, Video 101: A First Course in Video Production. In 1993, he was Pennsylvania's PPTN/PBS Instructional Television Teacher of the Year.

After retiring, he became an adjunct instructor at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he taught television production and methods of teaching history.