Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier
Vol 4 (1)
University of Kansas
For many departments, incorporating production elements into courses on film and media theory, history, and criticism is a practical necessity. With their creative projects and glamorous post-graduation jobs, production classes tend to be popular with students. However, in departments like mine, which offers neither vocational training nor a fine arts degree in filmmaking, the liberal arts degree in Film and Media Studies is built on theory and analysis; courses in cinematography, post-production, animation, and screenwriting, among others, comprise the popular production track within the major. Integrating production elements into the department’s “studies” courses bridges the divide between theory and application for students and, done well, allows critical practice to become immediately relevant to the demands of film and media as a creative, productive enterprise.
This effort can be difficult to implement, as our critical studies courses, particularly at the introductory level, present a number of challenges: enrollment is anywhere from double to ten times that of the production classes; as many as half the class are non-majors with little or no production training fulfilling a general education requirement; students in these courses do not have access to the department’s equipment resources; and course objectives are focused on critical thinking, analysis, or historical comprehension of the medium, not in the execution of creative works. In Fall 2015, I worked with instructors to redesign one of our introductory courses, Film & Media Aesthetics, to bridge between the “studies” and “production” designations within the department. The redesigned course offers students opportunities for hands-on and applied learning through a consistent integration of low- and no-tech production components. Pre-production planning and a creative reliance on DIY production techniques introduced production elements in a way that is scalable to larger classes and reliant on student creativity rather than expensive equipment needs. In this article, I will offer a brief overview of some strategies used in Film & Media Aesthetics to integrate production elements as in-class activities and take home projects.
Image Story: Composition and Narrative
The image story project is a lesson in basic filmmaking that requires few technical affordances to execute. Students pair up in teams of their choosing, with at least one member of each group with access to a camera phone or digital camera. Students construct the story of a pursuit, told in a sequence of still images. Though students could use editing software to order the images into a story, the minimum requirements for the assignments allowed for a simple use of the autoplay feature in PowerPoint or Keynote to transform the images into a rudimentary silent film.
The image story assignment is completed over approximately four weeks, largely outside of class time. However, we also designed in-class activities to emphasize the key concepts from media aesthetics that we expected students to explore in their projects: narrative and composition. For the former, students were assigned excerpts from David Bordwell’s Poetics of Cinema (2008) and Jason Mittell’s Complex TV (2015) and applied concepts of narrative structure. Students began with their own ideas for their project story and were challenged to break down and analyze the components of their narratives, and reconfigure them into alternative scenarios. What would it mean, for example, to tell the same narrative in such a way so that the sujet and fabula do not match? What are elements from the narrative that would constitute a narrative enigma? Student teams worked together to develop their narrative and plan their production by considering the theoretical concepts at play.
Image stories rely on compositions that are effective and creative to tell a story without movement or sound. In-class storyboarding activities emphasized key concepts of framing, angle, and lighting, as well as the necessity for thoughtful pre-planning. With paper storyboard templates and pencils, students worked out how compositional choices could effectively convey meaning without words. How could a frame, for instance, depict the same moment but be composed to convey humor or horror, menace or melodrama? Students depicted their understanding of concepts of visual arrangement with storyboarded frames that informed their own projects.
Completed image stories consist of approximately 15 still images, set to play automatically to allow students to consider time as an aesthetic component in their storytelling. Students also submit a storyboard of the project, one that reflects their process of planning and drafting their narrative and compositional choices. The project is worth approximately 10% of the students’ course grade, and though the grading rubric considers creativity and production quality of the images, the primary concern is students’ understanding of key analytical concepts of media aesthetics. For full points in narrative, the story is meant to be a clear, coherent illustration of the three-act structure, and to merge narrative ideas with the conveyance of strong composition and emotion. For full points in composition, the final product must display thoughtful and effective variants of camera placement, shot distance and length, perspective, and lighting to display an understanding of the vocabulary of visual communication.
Media Pitch: Pre-production
The final project for the class includes the option to pitch a new, original media product. Over the course of six weeks, students conceive of a film, television series, or digital program, and assemble a preliminary style bible in which they illustrate and justify their aesthetic choices. The assignment requires students to produce a media product with coherent creative vision, but allows latitude in how students depict their work, making use of a range of techniques to apply theoretical and analytical concepts to the planning for production.
As part of the media pitch, students outline the premise of their product, including not only story and characters but also format, genre, tone, and style. Students are given the option to create character profiles, color palettes, and setting illustrations, among other things. One of the more challenging components of the media pitch is the plot diagram. For this, students create an outline of major events for their film or an episode of their program, but arranged in such a way so as to mirror some of the experience of viewing the completed product would offer. Students aim to create a sense of time, delivered in an asynchronous fashion, or a sense of space using low-tech, two-dimensional means. Some of the more effective results for this component had students plotting out events in a road trip film on an unfolding map to show where and when they would happen, and creating overlapping, color-coded timelines to illustrate an episode that cut frequently between simultaneous actions at multiple locations. The assignment also includes the requirement for students to storyboard and create a shot list for a key sequence in the opening of their film or the pilot episode of their program. Students designed storyboard frames, again on paper, that illustrated the sequence of events, and included fine detail, such as camera angle, distance, and shot duration, in the shot list. These components ask students to consider how they would execute their original work in order to convey the style and aesthetic meaning they intended.
Evaluation for this component focuses on students’ understanding of how practical choices of production underscore creative efforts, and the production of meaning through visual elements, with originality, coherence, and effectiveness as the primary categories for assessment.
The final component for the media pitch was an analysis of industry, in which students determine the market, distribution streams, and target audience for their product. The students then create promotional paratexts – advertisements, film one-sheets, trailers, teasers – that illustrate principles from their readings (Jonathan Gray, Show Sold Separately, 2010) and effectively condense the aesthetic principles of their product into an accurate and appealing format.
The project is worth nearly 20% of students’ grade, which includes scaffolding work, including proposals and conferences, in the latter half of the semester. For the final product, students are graded on the completeness and coherence of their pitch (20 points), the mechanics and skill of execution, including written and visual components (20 points) and the analysis, creativity, and depth to their media product (25 points). Together, these components represent production that can be accomplished with a range of technologies or with no special equipment; some students shot and edited sophisticated trailers, while others cut up magazines to create collage advertisements. Irrespective of the technology used, production components allowed students to consider how aesthetic concerns of media could manifest in economic and industrial practices.
Film & Media Aesthetics is not a production course, but the integration of production elements into projects and in-class activities emphasized students’ synthesis and application of the theoretical concepts that are its focus. The projects and activities are complemented by traditional assessments, tests, and quizzes, but it is through the activities that the instructors were more able to see when students understood terminology but not the functioning of concepts in a broader context. Our original purpose in incorporating production was to provide more opportunities for synthesis, and in this sense, using paper storyboards and DIY technology was an effective tool for students to apply theory. What became clear as students poured creativity and innovation into their activities was that these techniques benefitted more than just the studies courses; those students who proceed through the department’s production track also benefit from a more consistent exposure to pre-production, planning, and application of critical concepts to creative work.
NOTE: The course assignments, rubrics, and design were done in conjunction with two other instructors in the department, Zach Saltz and Robert Hurst.
Anne Gilbert is a Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor in Film & Media at the University of Kansas. She works with faculty to redesign courses to involve hands-on projects and active learning strategies. She researches media industries, fans and audiences, and digital culture.