Silence is a golden movie opportunity

It was watching the 1939 film of The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the atmospheric setting of St David's cathedral that triggered the idea of making a silent movie with children. The sheer exaggeration of expression and movement used to convey emotion and narrative could be explored in drama.

Different scenarios and situations could be devised, which would need to be simple and explicit to communicate through face and body movements alone.

This would tie in well with teaching storywriting in the classroom, where pupils' efforts often suffer from over-complication owing to concentration on the action and insufficient character development.

A further incentive for the project was the exquisitely executed book, The Spider and the Fly, based on a cautionary tale by Mary Howitt and illustrated in Hollywood film noir style by Tony DiTerlizzi. Children love it and readily pick up on the refined Victorian language.

Everything fell into place quickly. An enthusiastic teacher and his Year 5 class (whom I have vivid recollections of as a "very lively" reception class some years ago), were keen to take part. They already had working links with the county's cultural services team, who offered us Scolton Manor as a location for the movie.

In the first lesson, the ICT advisory teacher showed excerpts from a range of silent movies. I read The Spider and The Fly and we discussed story possibilities for a silent movie.

Storyboarding was modelled on the interactive whiteboard, paying attention to whether scenes were long shots (LS), medium shots (MS) or close-ups (CU). And the pupils set about storyboarding their own ideas in small groups with a strict time limit imposed. The only stipulations were that it should be a Victorian setting with a heroine and a villain.

We then voted on the best storylines, merging the different ideas into an overall plan, choosing Victorian names and characters. Different groups took it in turns to storyboard sections on the whiteboard, paying close attention to continuity.

Practice was given in groups of three in the use of video cameras and the terminology used: "Camera ready", "Camera rolling", "Action", and "Cut", mentally counting five-second intervals before filming stopped so that all of the action would be on film.

During the next two weeks the pupils prepared their own costumes and props.

They were well organised, taking it in turns to act as cameraman and director and, when not involved in the action, observing what was going on and offering constructive suggestions.

Magnificent in his top hat and swirling cloak, the villain, a tenant farmer thrown off his land for not paying the rent, wreaked his revenge on the wealthy landowners by abducting their daughter and tying her to the train line. Here at Scolton there is a stationary steam engine (in which wrens are nesting) that the children felt had to feature in the action.

Extra tension was created by a child filming a moving train on the Gwili railway and inserting this later when editing.

Film editing took about one day, again with pairs of children working on different sections - trimming the front and back of each clip, and adding special-effects to emulate a black-and-white movie.

The film was shown to the school and the children were spellbound. A further showing is planned at the Pembrokeshire Schools' Film Festival and the school is planning to enter the Becta Creativity in Digital Media Awards.

According to Becta's criteria, the project certainly did "provide opportunities for young people to pursue their interests". It "enhanced critical thinking, problem-solving skills, opened up new and innovative ideas, improved the pace of learning, and gave them experiences which would be of use in their future lives as workers and citizens".

Most marked was the rise in their self-esteem and ability to work cohesively as a group. The children's verdict: "A classic film, but most of all it was fun."

Dastardly Deeds at the Manor is available from, price: pound;5Eva John is an advisory teacher in Pembrokeshire

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