Film rites of passage

Nicki Household sees how one school is at the cutting edge of video production

Clare, a slim teenager, bows to the applause of her classmates as she is declared winner of a competition to find a dancer for a new pop video. The runner-up, a boy called Juan, is walking disconsolately away from the scene when Clare suddenly collapses on the floor.

It turns out that she has been eating so little for so long that her body has run out of energy. Her rival Juan, who eats plenty, gets to dance in the video. The moral is that you're more likely to get what you want if you eat a healthy diet.

The story was made up by the pupils of Queen Elizabeth II High School in Peel on the Isle of Man, who have turned it into a 20-minute video, filmed and performed by themselves. But this is no Beadle's About home movie. Every scene has been planned, scripted and rehearsed in minute detail, then shot from several different angles and with dozens of takes, by the 17-year-old camera operator.

Editing by deputy head Julie Harmer and the programme's volunteer director, actress Caroline Webster, is still in progress. When it's finished, the video - called Eatrite in honour of its sponsors, a local food store called Shoprite - will be broadcast in an afternoon children's slot on Tara Television, a new cable station based in Dublin and marketed to other schools.

Eatrite is the fifth professional video that the school has produced and the second to be transmitted by Tara, which commissioned the school's last production Manx Myths and Fairy Tales. Previous programmes used a simple SVHS camera but Eatrite has been made with a sophisticated Panasonic WVF 565 camera and digital editing suite. This is professional broadcast equipment, beyond the range of most schools and academic institutions.

This has been made possible by the Manx Department of Industry, which is keen to train young people to work in the island's growing film industry. It paid for the equipment, as well as Panasonic, which has declared the school a key site centre of excellence. This results in a programme of technical support and workshops. In total, the school's facilities would cost about Pounds 150, 000.

It all began three years ago, when Julie Harmer helped Year 11 pupils put together a play about drug abuse for school assembly. This drama, which included a real ambulance, real drug squad officers and real paramedics, was such a hit that the cast was asked to perform it at other schools. But a repeat performance was impossible until the Lions Club, a local businessmen's charity, offered to sponsor a video and Dead Choice became Queen Elizabeth's first video drama.

Since then there have been So Who's Listening Anyway?, a story about bullying; School's Out, a travelogue for the Department of Tourism; Manx Myths and Fairy Tales and Eatrite. The next project is People and Images of Peel, a video for the foyer of the new Pounds 8 million Peel Heritage Centre. The drama ideas have all been suggested and developed by the pupils themselves, though the final scripts are written by Caroline Webster, an ex-pupil of Julie Harmer, who combines an acting career in London with her virtually unpaid work at the Peel school.

The videos are all made after school and at weekends (which quickly weeds out any volunteers who lack the necessary commitment) and once filming begins, they're made quickly because, as Julie Harmer explains, "if you take more than three weekends over it the actors can suddenly age, as teenagers do, or have a hair cut which would ruin your continuity".

About 50 pupils took part in Eatrite, as actors, crew or extras. "I'd wanted to be involved in the videos for ages because I'd seen them going on and they looked such fun," says 16-year-old Kara Shepherd, who plays the anorexic dancer in Eatrite. "Now I'm in one, it's such a good experience. I'm enjoying it." Kara, who will be in the Manx gymnastics team at the Island Games in Jersey next June (and is no thinner than she should be), feels a personal involvement in the healthy eating issue. "When you're dedicated to a sport, you become very conscious of the need to eat a healthy diet," she says.

Seventeen-year-old Nicola Cowley's role as chief camera person for the last three videos has convinced her that this is how she wants to earn her living. Currently the only pupil at the school qualified to operate the new camera (though about 30 now know how to operate SVHS cameras), she takes pride in passing on her skills to others.

"I just think it's brilliant," she enthuses. "I've always been more interested in what goes on behind the camera than in the content of a television programme. Now that I know a bit about it, I always notice mistakes in television dramas, like a cigarette being stubbed out a few seconds after it's been lit, because they've used two different takes and not thought about continuity."

"Making their own programmes has made the children much more critical about what they see on television," says Julie Harmer. "They'll come in in the morning and ask if I noticed the 'noddy shot' or 'bad edit' in Panorama. But above all, it gives them a confidence in communication and teaches them to work as a team." Several pupils have now made their own videos unaided for coursework projects.

Headmaster Harry Galbraith has nothing but praise for this extra-curricular activity. "We're very keen on academic performance at this school," he says. "But I was concerned that there were too few opportunities for artistic and technological development. The videos have made the school a more rounded institution and I get a certain amused satisfaction from the fact that a comprehensive on the outskirts of a small fishing village on the Isle of Man is at the cutting edge of media technology."

All the videos are available from the school at Queen Elizabeth II High School, Peel, Isle of Man IM5 1RD. Tel: 01624 843181 Ian Low, Panasonic Broadcast, Panasonic House, Bracknell, Berks RG12 8PF. Tel: 01344 853115

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