Today, I accompanied my eldest child and his class of gifted 4th graders on a field trip to the TIFF Bell Lightbox. The Lightbox is the home of the Toronto International Film Festival. As part of their year-round programming, they offer opportunities for kids to learn how to make films. The gifted classes at my son’s school go for a day each year from 4th grade to 8th grade and get more advanced instruction each trip.
The day promised to be challenging, but I hoped it would be rewarding. My son loves visual storytelling, but struggles with group work. I knew that if he could find a spirit of collaboration, he would love the day – but, there was always the possibility of a complete disaster.
At the beginning of the day, the students got a crash course in storytelling and script formatting. They were then divided into groups of 5-6 students and told to write a 2-3 page screenplay for a story involving four kids their age sitting around a table.
My son struggles with rapid idea generation. He has an outrageous and vivid imagination, but is slow to get his first ideas. Somebody else at the table threw out an idea quickly that most of the group loved, but not my guy. We nearly had a melt-down, but with a combination of my coaching and generous suggestions from his group, the writing got underway. Once the group got going, the adults sat back and watched.
After writing for 45 minutes, the groups got up to read their scripts to each other. This served as a pitch session because after the readings, the students would vote on which script would be produced. Knowing the intensities of gifted kids, I worried about how the kids who didn’t have theirs chosen might react.
The leader had a good voting system: secret ballot and each person was to vote for two scripts. The kids had a sense that it was fair. It was nice that they got to vote for their own script even if they thought another script was better; they could feel good both about themselves and their classmates.
As expected, the writers of the winning script were thrilled. Screams and shouts and jumping up and down ensued.
The instructor let them enjoy a little celebration. But, not for long. There was work to be done.
Casting was by lottery, entered only by those who wanted to act. The rest of the class became the directors, assistant directors, sound engineers, camera operators, and slate, working in self-selected teams.
The instructor sent the actors out of the room to memorize their lines and gave each production team a crash course in their responsibilities. He led them through a rehearsal and then they filmed the movie. They had two cameras and two mic booms. The director team took as many takes as they needed to get a good shot. The assistant directors coordinated everybody. Someone slated the takes. They used wide shots and close-ups, and a special point of view shot for an effect called for in the script. The kids worked hard, learning quickly and needing less coaching as the afternoon went on.
Until, they all got tired, seemingly at once.
They had absorbed a huge amount of information, and concentrated hard all day. They could see the finish line. But, the actors started making mistakes and one of the camera operators got a little sloppy. The first three shots each needed 3-5 takes. The fourth and final shot took 11 takes.
As the final shot was reshot and reshot, the energy in the room flagged. The group responded to the line flubs and sloppy camera work with a collective slump.
With the authority of experience, the instructor stepped in, rallied the troops, gave the actors some direction, and got the shot.
The whoops and hollers when the team of student directors called”Cut” were wild. They did another take for luck, but everybody knew they had the footage they needed for the entire film.
They had done it.
As a group, they had gone from knowing nothing about making a film to having shot a film in less than a day.
The footage will be turned over to an editor at the Lightbox who will edit the film, add a title, music, and credits. Within a couple of weeks, the class will be able to watch their two-minute movie on a DVD in their classroom. In expect the joy and celebration of that viewing will be spectacular. Perhaps for some of them, one of the best gifts they receive this year.
Kate can usually be found writing about writing at www.katearmsroberts.com.