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Now it's desktop video

It's early October and it's raining on the newly refurbished Albert Memorial. It still manages to gleam in the autumn sun despite the constraints of season and situation. Inside the Royal College of Art opposite, 16 young students are managing to do just the same.

Apple Computer is hosting a unique event - pairing the schoolchildren with "icons" from the world of entertainment, science and the arts (see photos, right). Together these pairs are using relatively low-cost technology found in the high street and many homes to make their own digital movies. The icons, or Apple masters as they are known, are all household names. "We select passionate people who have done amazing things in their field and we ask them to donate their time for free. It's a non-endorsement approach to working with education," says Kanwal Sharma, manager of the project. Already the programme has seen the masters trot the globe and work with Aborigine students in the outback and youngsters with attitude in the Bronx.

Two key questions lie hidden beneath the purposeful activity I see at every workstation. Is video now the ultimate creativity tool? And what can 12-year-olds do with support, equipment and a little creative constraint? This takes the form of: "Here is an iMac with iMovie 2 movie editing software, a Canon Mv 30i digital movie camera and here is your professional mentor - you have two days to shoot, edit and present your two-minute finished movie."

Film director Ken Russell, totally absorbed and passionate as he goes about his tasks, is working with Emma Downey from Lliswerry High School, Newport. She turns out to be a brilliant gymnast so they are making their own dance movie with Albert Memorial backdrops. Looking over their shoulders I learn more about film-making in 10 minutes than days alone in the office. The shadow from the setting sun on gilt railings provides a diagonal that bisects the action and repeats through the scenes.

Asked about the potential of such tools for education Russell is loathe to be interrupted: "I don't know about education. I stopped going to school - but I do know that I wanted to be a film director when I was 10." His eyes narrow and the memories kick in. "But I was 28 before I could get the equipment together to make my first film." Would he have gone to school if this technology had been available? "I suppose so. Now if you have the talent and a story to tell you can do it." He is also making sure that Emma realises the standards needed, having scenes reshot till they are perfect. She is serving an intense, yet compressed, digital apprenticeship and thriving on it.

Professor Stephen Heppell, a home-grown Apple Master, went down to the Tube station at midnight to get stunning "wild mouse" footage for his two-minute shot with Annika Hobler. "All you do," says Stephen, "is go down the Tube and wait quietly for four minutes - two if you bring a cheese roll."

"It's easy enough," says Annika, aged 12, from Scoil Iogn id, a Jesuit primary near Galway. All instruction in her school is in Gaelic but the Jesuit foundation lso realises the importance of digital language and has just paid for 31 iMacs to be installed in the school lab.

Floella Benjamin is hard at work on a London ecology movie with Gareth from Lliswerry. Is it safe to smile in London? is their working title. I find them discussing soundtrack - headphoned and immersed - deciding on Nat King Cole for the good moments. "I used to feel inadequate with computers," says Benjamin. "Now I know I can be creative. Unlike with video and computer games, here you are in charge of the creativity."

Gareth is a natural, says Benjamin, before cutting to the key point: "In the past, nonacademic children couldn't shine on film because it was too expensive. Now, if you believe in yourself and have access to equipment costing less than pound;2,000, you can produce something good enough to show a top producer."

At times it seemed the mentors were learning more than the students and taking longer about it. Often they were on the receiving end of instruction. "He's doing OK," says Fergus Stuart from Trinity Academy, Edinburgh, of his partner, actor John Hurt, who was working on a voice-over. Sarah Clarke from Bedford High School already had a more diverse media pedigree than her partner, Joseph Fiennes the actor, for she has recorded her own movies and produced a CD of her own music recordings - and she's only 12. Digital video-making is part of the curriculum back at school in Bedford. "Students film their own products in CDT to make adverts using Apple Final Cut Pro software," says teacher Dominic Leitner.

There is a strong whiff of healthy competition in the air. Hugh Laurie is doing voice-overs as Chris Rea busks in the background. The man in charge of making it run smoothly is Tom Robinson (remember the songs War Baby and Glad To Be Gay?) and he's taking his role seriously: "Events like this don't work unless people get to know and trust each other."

Four students from each of the four schools in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales were selected for their social skills and out-going natures then given this media chance of a lifetime. Apple is feeling upbeat about pioneering desktop video in much the same way that it did desktop publishing. More important, the company is brave enough to put these tools into lots of different hands around the world to see what happens. For two hours I watched as movies filmed on Canon Mv30i digital cameras was edited at broadcast quality on IMac DV computers (with 128 MB of memory). Some projects had as many as 74 separate edits and I didn't see a single computer crash.

The equipment has now gone back to the four schools with the students and the slightly gobsmacked teachers. "My mates will never believe it when I tell them I was making a film with Ken Russell," says Steve Jones from Lliswery. "And now I'm taking the Macs back for my media studies work even though we are an RM school. There's nothing to touch this set-up for video work."


Apple Masters:

John Davitt is a freelance writer and educational consultant

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