The Enemy of Art is the Absence of Limitations: Integrating Film History, Theory, and Production

Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier
Vol 4 (1)
Drew Morton
Texas A&M University-Texarkana

It always happens midterm week. A voice chirps up from the back of the classroom and asks “Why is our midterm on film terms and old movies when this is a Video Production class?” My answer is cribbed from those offered up by my former mentors at UWM and UCLA (where Cinema and Media Studies and Production are housed in the same school). “You know what Jean-Luc Godard, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino have in common? They all have a firm understanding of film history. In order to make films, you have to know what came before and what rules lay at the foundation of the art form.”

This response – and its inverse on the rare occasion when a Media Studies student asks why he or she is making a video instead of writing a paper – tends to land with my students. After all, I argue, the tools of filmmaking evolve (from hand cranked analog cameras to digital SLRS; from tape, razors, and Moviolas to Adobe Premiere), but the formal conventions of visual storytelling have largely remained unaffected. Despite initial skepticism from the occasional student, the larger obstructions to joining practice and Media Studies in the classroom are the students’ varied experience levels with theory and software. This article will review the assignments I have mobilized in two of my classes – Introduction to Video Production and Advanced Video Production – and argue that the best approach is the highly adaptable approach.

My Introduction to Video Production course uses the broad history of film as its organizing principle. I typically begin the course by showing the wonderful documentary American Movie (1999) to give the student some insight into the stages of the production process and my own background. Using David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s Film Art as the main textbook, the second week focuses on an overview of film production before segueing into a lecture on early cinema, complete with screenings of Lumière Brothers, Méliès, and Edison shorts. During this lesson, I focus on the intersection of staging and spectacle and quickly introduce them to the camera (a Canon Rebel DSLR) and the tripod. Their first assignment is to produce one silent sixty second shot with a pan or tilt. Like the early shorts from 120 years ago, I see a lot of submissions involving cats and babies.

While the first assignment introduced the fundamentals of staging, focus, and exposure, the second focuses on the power of editing and introduces the students to Adobe Premiere. Yet, this module is also guided by film history and theory. The students are asked to read Sergei Eisenstein’s “A Dialectical Approach to Film Form” and to watch Battleship Potemkin (1925). We dissect both texts during a class session where I provide a prompt for the next assignment (Note: This class moves quickly, as I provide in-class lab time to my students so they do not need to buy their own software or equipment): make your own silent, two minute, intellectual montage short. This assignment is probably the most difficult for the students, as they tend to have trouble grasping Eisenstein and even more trouble applying him (they tend to understand parallel editing quite easily, but have trouble with the thesis+antithesis=synthesis aspect). Therefore, I suggest integrating a range of examples (The Godfather, Breaking Bad, and Apocalypse Now are some of my favorites) and asking students to pitch their own proposals before sending them out into the wild.

The third module focuses on Classical Hollywood Cinema (style, narrative, and genre) and reviews continuity editing, narrative structure, the classically defined protagonist, and the fundamentals of genre theory. I typically ask students to watch The Wizard of Oz (1939), Citizen Kane (1941), and Sunset Blvd. (1944) on their own and bring my own videographic series on film noir into class to help teach a crash course on genre. Then, I provide an overview of the screenplay format and the purpose of storyboarding. Their third assignment asks them to provide a script transcription, storyboard, and recreation of a scene from one of the three Hollywood films assigned. I explain to them that the production can be, to borrow a term from Be Kind Rewind (2008), “Sweded.” Essentially, they do not need to smash a beautifully decorated room to capture Kane’s angst at the loss of his wife. They can find a low budget compromise; the purpose is to get them thinking about how all the pieces – pre-production, staging, editing, sound, and performance – fit together.

The final module focuses on alternatives to Classical Hollywood and provides an overview of film movements ranging from German Expressionism and Italian Neorealism to the French New Wave and American independent cinema. Through films like Nosferatu (1922), Umberto D. (1952), Breathless (1960), and A Serious Man (2009), we quickly review the main narrative and stylistic tendencies, how the movements interact and influence one another (especially in the case of Neorealism, the New Wave, and American independent film), and how they differ from the Classical Hollywood Cinema. The students are required to produce an original final project that will be in dialogue with one of the alternate movements studied, beginning with a proposal outlining the connections between the project and the influences drawn from its source (the final product is typically three minutes).

Before proceeding to an overview of the upper division course, let me briefly provide some additional tips based on lessons I have learned after teaching this class four times. First, I integrate screening journals that are due in class the day films are to be discussed. I ask the students analyze the films via an aspect of production – editing, cinematography, performance, narrative structure – that they have been reading about in Film Art to illustrate that they have been keeping up with both the reading and the outside of class screenings. Secondly, aside from the first assignment, my projects are group based. In order to monitor the groups, I have each participant hand in a log briefly outlining what each group member did. I also allow the members to vote students “off the island” if someone is not doing his or her fair share of work (this has only happened once in the past). Third, be adaptable and in constant dialogue with your students regarding what they need and be flexible with your deadlines. They procrastinate. They underestimate how long rendering and exporting takes. They overestimate the capabilities of the software (no, Adobe cannot easily remove all the background noise you picked up when you shot a dialogue scene next to a jackhammer). Many of them neglect to ask for help or do not know what questions to ask. One way around many of these issues is requiring them to screen rough cuts for you and the class or to sit at the editing bay with them and illustrate options they may not have thought of (I often have my own production work in progress that I work on along side of them when we have lab time, so they can also get a sense of how I work).

A brief note of institutional context may be helpful before progressing. I do not teach in a Cinema and Media Studies (CMS) program; I teach CMS classes in a Mass Communication program that also encompasses sub-concentrations like Public Relations and Journalism. Therefore, I have a diverse roster of students consisting of those who take production classes, students who take CMS classes, and a smaller demographic who take both. While this typically is not an issue for the introductory class, it sometimes becomes one for the Advanced Video Production (focused videographic criticism) course. Thus, as I outlined in a recent post for Flow, my initial syllabus looks a lot different from my most recent one.

As you can see from the date on the revised syllabus, I have yet to teach the revamped version of the course. However, I have outlined my assignments in greater detail in the Flow article linked above. I plan on using the first day to have students write about their exposure to both production software (given that this class is solely focused on videographic criticism, cameras will not be used) and CMS. As I suggested earlier, I plan on using that information to make the revisions necessary to keep my expectations in line with their abilities.

Bringing history and theory into a production course (or vice versa) ultimately involves a degree of horse trading. I would imagine that some of my exercises for the videographic production course be easily integrated into a CMS class. For instance, having students make a short, sixty second, piece defining a film term like “mise-en-scene.” Or having students break down the continuity system into a series of videos devoted to pieces like the 180 degree rule and cutting on action. Depending on the size of the class, perhaps they could collaborate in small groups to do slightly longer videos on the concepts of genre or authorship. Of course, the issue is that production takes a great deal of time and resources. You will initially find that exaggerated expectations and a desire to still hit all the bases in terms of history and theory are a common enemy. However, perhaps your students will grasp genre more strongly by taking a few hours to search for clips for a mash-up than they will by a lecture and screening pairing. While you will obviously have to make tough decisions in your course design, as Orson Welles once noted “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” As you will discover, compromise can inspire creativity, as evident in both my syllabi and the various assignments reviewed here.

Dr. Drew Morton is an Assistant Professor of Mass Communication at Texas A&M University-Texarkana. He the co-editor and co-founder of [in]Transition: Journal of Videographic Film and Moving Image Studies, the first peer-reviewed academic journal focused on the visual essay and all of its forms (co-presented by MediaCommons and Cinema Journal). His publications have appeared in animation: an interdisciplinary journal, Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, Senses of Cinema, Studies in Comics, and a range of academic anthologies. His manuscript on the overlap between American blockbuster cinema and comic book style will be released by the University Press of Mississippi in 2016.

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