Today’s post is from guest writer Jessica King — a filmmaker and teacher whose goal is to tell stories that are at once familiar, uncomfortable, demented, and exhilarating. In this vein, she and her partner, Julie, are currently writing & producing a feature-length thriller for director Phil Holbrook and have been tapped to adapt a naughty memoir by author Kevin Keck.
Independent Film in the Classroom
Recently Ted Hope wondered whether viewing more independent film might make kids smarter. He pondered why there isn’t more of a concerted effort to teach young people about independent film, asking, “isn’t it in our interest to encourage deeper appreciation of the art and craft we have given our lives to?”
As a high school Film Studies teacher for the last 8 years, I can’t go so far as to say teaching students about independent film will make them smarter, but I’d argue that it can make them more intelligent movie viewers. The same is true for teaching them to watch classics, like Citizen Kane or Night of the Hunter. Or foreign films, like All About My Mother or Band of Outsiders or In the Mood for Love.
The trick is that you have to teach them how to watch films first, how to understand the unique language of film. Young people today are used to the language that Hollywood speaks: big explosions, big emotions, big stars. If you want to challenge that, you need to get to the root of film language first.
Before I delve into how to teach film language, I’d like to address a very common problem in terms of students learning about and being exposed to film in a high school setting. Film Studies courses are typically offered as English electives. Most English teachers are barely trained to teach English in a meaningful way (university teaching programs don’t usually focus on the technical aspects of reading or writing – diction, detail, imagery, syntax, tone), let alone film. Instead, English teachers are often talented, enthusiastic people who LOVE literature, which means that they want to talk about themes and characters and feelings, but not about how a text creates meaning and establishes purpose. As a result, many teachers who end up in Film Studies teach film as an extension of literature, showcasing them as visual novels. I find this extremely problematic. My film curriculum, on the other hand, considers, from its core, film as a distinct artistic medium.
In any Film Studies course offered at the high school level, the first thing I must do is disabuse my students of the notion that they are going to spend the next 9 months watching The Hangover and How High. I do this by starting with a brief history of film. As soon as I say the word “history,” they know that Bad Boys II is probably not going to be on the agenda. I spend about two weeks covering the major technological and business developments in film. Through both lecture and video, we uncover the Lumiere Brothers and their Cinematographe, Edison and his Kinetoscope, the invention of sound and color, as well as the significant developments of the Hollywood studio system from the early silents through The Code and the subsequent rating system. My primary goal in the beginning of the course is to get my students to understand that a) film is an expensive and technologically driven business and b) old films had technological and cultural limitations and, therefore, one’s expectations should be adjusted accordingly when watching.
The rest of the first semester is devoted to understanding how films tell stories both in terms of narrative structure and film language. First we look at the difference between classical narrative and non-classical-narrative film, noting, of course, that non-narrative doesn’t necessarily mean that the narrative elements aren’t in place, but that they may not be presented in the traditional manner. For this unit, I’ve compared Stage Coach with Memento and Bringing Up Baby with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This initial comparison helps students immensely in terms of understanding that some films require a little bit of work to piece together. They eventually find that as long as they know what the narrative elements are, they have a chance of putting together a very satisfying puzzle.
Next, we delve into hard-core formalistic study. I do a unit on mise-en-scene. Although this term can be problematic, I start with the traditional (and narrow) definition, which basically encompasses set-design, costumes, props, etc; then I expand the definition to include framing, composition, etc. This leads to my next section, cinematography (black and white first, and then color), and, finally, editing.
In each of these units, I try to teach without overwhelming the students. However, you’d be surprised at how much they can absorb. For instance, in the cinematography unit, we start by learning about shots, angles, lighting techniques, framing devices, etc. Then we watch a film where many of those things are particularly notable. I often like to start with something by Orson Welles, as he was such a master of technique. I’ve shown Citizen Kane, A Touch of Evil, and The Lady from Shanghai. My students don’t love these films, which is fine because we’re not there to like or not like the films. They do learn, however, that lighting, framing, and camera angles are powerful communicative tools that affect mood and establish themes.
This intense, semester-long focus on film language both excites and bothers my students. It excites them because it makes them feel smart; it bothers them because they start seeing it EVERYWHERE. They constantly come to class saying that they are annoying their friends and family by pointing out various camera angles or discussing how the slow-paced edits are intensifying the suspense and manipulating the audience’s emotions. And this tells me that I’m doing my job.
When second semester hits, we take a much broader focus. Now that the students understand how films convey meaning, we ask the question, “To what purpose?” I generally frame second semester within the guise of Commerce vs. Art. We cover the invention of the blockbuster film by learning about the New Hollywood films of the 1970’s and the arrival of Jaws. We look at the business of Hollywood, film genre, auteur theory, independent films, foreign films, and documentaries.
Perhaps one of my favorite units of the year is the independent film unit, in part because it addresses a major elephant in the classroom. I teach in an urban school, traditionally one of the most ethnically diverse in Chicago. I am often one of maybe 3 or 4 other white people in the room. Movies, on the other hand, are very WHITE, as the film industry, both in Hollywood and the indie world, is dominated by white men. This is not a political rant; it’s just an observation. While I try to choose films with more ethnically diverse casting all year long, it isn’t easy – the reasons for this would require an entire essay to itself.
When I get to the independent film unit, I frame each film within the lens of spectatorship. We begin by exploring simple questions about our viewing practices:
Why do you watch films?
Who do you identify with in most films?
What happens when you see people that you identify with portrayed in a positive way vs. a negative way?
Who is often left out of our cultural productions, and what are the implications?
In answering these questions, a very simple fact emerges: most of my students rarely, if ever, are exposed to films that feature characters whose appearance or lives in any way resemble their own. As a result, they believe that movies are not meant to represent them and, on a deeper level, that they are not meant to be represented. They also believe that movies are only meant for escapism and entertainment. After uncovering these ideas, I show them examples that combat those notions.
We watch three independent films from within the past year or so (I like to keep this unit and my Hollywood unit very current). Over the years, I’ve included such films as Ballast, Chop Shop, Amreeka, Raising Victor Vargas, Real Women Have Curves, Talk to Me, George Washington, and Waitress, and I’ve seen amazing results. The students are immediately drawn into these worlds. Although some resist these movies because of the slow pacing or lack of fiery explosions, the majority perk up. They’re seeing something rare: black people, brown people, women people, young people, immigrants, or poor people who look or act or sound like them or other people in their lives. They’re seeing stories worth thinking about because the story is primary. This matters.
By the end of the school-year, most of my students report that they no longer enjoy Hollywood films the way they used to. They ask for lists of films or directors to keep exploring, and they thank me for opening their eyes to a world of film, and a way of understanding film, that they’d never known existed.
Posted in education
So I’ve been waiting for WordPress 3 to come out before really diving into this, because in WP 3 they introduce easy use of custom content types. Up to this point, you were allowed to create either a post or a page. Now you can create any type you want. These types are still just posts really, but it allows for something I’ve been working on for some time.
Mobile apps for films and storytelling have been a hot topic for a while. There have been good ideas and bad ideas. But the one thing I think any mobile content app should have is the ability to update the content on the fly. This is where WordPress comes in. It’s a robust and widely used CMS option, which saves us the time and hassle of writing our own CMS. It has a large support base, active development and just about every feature you could ever ask for in a tool like this.
So I had been thinking for some time about how to use WordPress to power mobile app content. One problem was that I did not want the mobile content to show up on the site. So the custom content types came in exceptionally handy for just this. I was able to create a type called “mobilecontent” and thus guarantee that I could direct that content only to my mobile devices and not to the site itself.
What’s beautiful about this is now I have one place to manage my story-world, my BTS, my articles, my Transmedia data, etc. All in WordPress.
But how do you get it to the mobile apps? One way to do this would be for the app to read an rss feed off of the site. RSS is XML. The problem I had with this was that the standard RSS feeds did not give me as much data as I wanted about posts. So I first set out to write my own plugin to create the feeds I wanted. Then I got to thinking about it a little more and decided I liked JSON REST services better anyway. They are simpler to deal with and both Objective-C and Java have super-simple methods of consuming them and turning them into objects for use in your app. So as always, before I started in on my own JSON plugin, I searched existing WordPress plugins. And sure enough, some dude made one that suited my needs (nearly) perfectly. So I installed that and wrote a little Android code to consume it. But the one thing this plugin lacked was access to custom content types. He had written it before these were available. So I added this to the plugin myself. I will submit it back to him to see if he wants to keep my code in there.
But what this got me was exactly what I needed to serve up WordPress content to my mobile apps.
Of course, you could have the standard mobile app that looks like a mobile version of your website. Or you could launch a whole mobile story, fed through WordPress, and served up to mobile devices. Adding custom fields to WordPress posts for lat/long means you can now tag a post for geolocation. Then your app can respond accordingly. Now, WordPress can be used to create a scavenger hunt. Or a location based ARG delivered to mobile devices. All with this off the shelf, FREE CMS system.
There is still a lot of work to do on this and a lot more detail to add. But I thought I would kick it off with these initial thoughts to plant the seeds and see if anything catches for people. I am moving forward on this now, probably working out a framework in Android first, because it’s so much more fun to code than Obj-C. I will be using this on the LOST CHILDREN apps, and would be happy to have some more guinea pigs as well. If you have an app in the works, and looking for some way to update the content regularly, hit me up.
Posted in Storytelling creative collaboration tools and services transmedia
Recently, I’ve been keeping a close eye on tools for audience building. Several months ago I was very excited about a project, being funding through Kickstarter, called Openindie – if you’re not following Kieran Masterton on twitter already, then you should be. The site is still in beta, and what is exciting about Openindie is that it’s still finding and building it’s community: it is open to ideas and able to adapt quickly to what the filmmaking community needs.
A few nights ago I was in night-owl mode, with a moleskine and pen in hand, as I was pouring over some of the most-requested films on Openindie. Among them: Heart of Now, We Live in Public, and What’s Up Lovely. I was sketching out site designs that made use of an integrated Openindie request button. Researching which of these top-requested films on Openindie were heavily using Openindie on their film’s main site, the answer: none of them.
Which, I found very strange. But I’ll get to that below.
What I mostly wanted to talk about is: better approaches for audience building. Either for the purpose of mapping out which zipcodes have enough support + demand to schedule screening events, or for other purposes. A question I kept coming back to was “is it necessary for the audience to actually sign-up?”. Openindie does make the process quick and painless by offering Twitter Oauth and Facebook Connect – but does this benefit Openindie more than it does the film?
For example: I’ve been very interested in using twitter as the main engine behind building audience interest – asking that someone interested in FToM simply twitter the hashtag #requestFToM (for those who do not have a twitter account already, they could simply text #requestFToM to 40404). If Openindie could make use of that kind of information, I think it would be a far more powerful tool then having people navigate to a specific URL, sign-up, and then click on the request button. Any #hashtag attributed with GEO information could be mapped immediately, and any #hashtag without could be @replied back to requesting a zipcode. There is no sign-up form, there is no Oauth or Connect needed. Anyone with a cell phone that walks past your flyer on the street could immediately voice their interest.
What I would most love to see from a site like Openindie is a request tool that is 100% flexible on the filmmaker’s end. By that I mean, the request button does not change, you can grab a short piece of code and embed it anywhere you like. But from within Openindie the tool can be scaled out and adjusted in reaction to what is working best and what isn’t. As a filmmaker, what would I like to happen when the request button is clicked?
I would like the visitor to never leave the film’s site. Or if they do leave, much like Paypal, they are returned right back to where they started after the request is finished.
I would like control over what the visitor sees. Have I turned on the options for both twitter and facebook? Or am I just asking them to provide an email? Am I offering all 3 or 4 or 5 options? Does it take them straight to a pre-written twitter with the #hashtag and other important info? These should be settings that can be controlled from the Openindie dashboard without having to replace any embed script.
Once a visitor clicks the request button, that same button then reads: promote. And, of course, have 100% control from within Openindie as to what exactly happens when that is clicked. Does it take the visitor to Openindie’s list of sharing options? Or point them to a site of sharing tools still under the film’s URL? Perhaps I’m running a campaign that involves real-world action like flyers or stickers in public places and want them taken to a page walking them through that idea.
Only a tool that is 100% flexible is going to be a perfect fit for each different filmmaker.
I’m really excited about where Openindie is heading – and I’ve already pestered Kieran about some of these ideas and he seems very open to them, even more so he seems excited about talking to filmmakers and getting feedback on what tools are going to take independent film the furthest.
Posted in audience distribution promotion tools and services