Eat your heart out, Hollywood

16th March 2012 at 00:00
Making films and animations that professionals would be proud of is easier - and cheaper - than you might think

To many, video cameras are for out-of-focus films of birthday cake candle-blowing, first Christmases and hours of unedited family holidays. But growing numbers of teachers and pupils are finding them an invaluable tool in the classroom. From recording parts of lessons using mobile phone cameras to more ambitious projects with flip cameras and digital stills cameras, schools are becoming increasingly inventive with video.

And, after careful lobbying from groups such as Filmclub and Film: 21st Century Literacy, the government seems to be gradually recognising the importance of film in schools.

A recent report from the independent Film Policy Review Panel stated: "Unlike other art forms - literature, theatre or music, for example - film has yet to find its rightful place in education ... Every child and young person in the UK must have the opportunity to see a wide range of films, and have opportunities to learn about and to make their own films."

The review's focus has been on the consumption of films rather than their creation. Meanwhile, in many UK schools, a far more hands-on approach is being adopted.

One of the organisations contributing to this film-making resurgence is the Bristol Film Academy (BFA), an independent company that provides training and continuing professional development to schools.

Matt Thurling, managing director of the BFA, is a Bafta-winning film-maker who has worked on digital and film projects for The Beatles, Gorillaz, computer games company Electronic Arts and Sony. Thurling says that the idea of bringing film production into the classroom started out as an experiment with Bristol University and local schools.

"I realised that, when I made documentaries myself, I got to learn about things in a much more engaging way than I did in a more traditional capacity," he says. "The technology and means of film-making has become far more accessible and I wondered how it would work in schools."

Schools were intrigued by what the BFA was trying to do and Thurling noticed that it was only minor obstacles, such as getting the sound right, that prevented them from utilising cameras well.

"We saw that if we could just give them a few tricks of the trade - teaching them how to structure a documentary properly with storyboards, using clip microphones to pick up the sound properly - it could become an incredibly successful tool in any subject, not just for film or drama," he says.

One languages class decided to recreate scenes from popular movies in different languages, acting out Mamma Mia! in French and The Italian Job in German.

"They translated the scenes and worked together in groups, even producing props for it," says Thurling. "Their teacher said that it was way more than she had expected and that they put far more into it than they would have if she had just set an essay task."

Jobs for every talent

A popular misconception, particularly among students, is that making films is simply about the person in front of the camera and the team operating the camera.

"It's not just about the presenter and the cameraman - there is the editor, the production manager, the script editor, there is a whole team behind the scenes," Thurling says. "What is interesting is, when you go into a school, you see people naturally gravitating towards the role where their talents lie. Certain roles do require certain types of people.

"Some pupils struggle with the written word and are better visually or with the spoken word, while others are drawn to the technical side."

Where most films fall down is in the pre-production stage. Few people outside the industry realise the amount of work that is necessary to even start shooting a film. And while many students will be keen to express their inner Orson Welles or even Tim Burton, the work starts with research and preparation to focus on an idea, often called "mood boarding". Once the idea is crystallised, work on creating storyboards and writing scripts can begin.

One of the first projects BFA worked on was a science film at Cotham School in Bristol in 2009-10. The school asked for volunteers from Year 9 to take part in a science film project that would require them to work beyond their usual hours.

A group of five was chosen and they came up with the idea of reviving an extinct species. The project was led by science teacher Simon Neville, who explains that they decided to focus on bringing woolly mammoths back to life.

"The pupils had to work hard out of lessons and out of school. They were not always sure of the outcome, but they persevered," Neville says. "Gradually the film took shape and, just as this happened, a beautifully preserved baby mammoth was found. The media were suddenly all over us and we were in the paper and on the radio before we knew what had hit us."

The team's film, A Mammoth Idea, was shortlisted for Electric December, an online showcase of short films made by young people across Europe organised by the Watershed cinema in Bristol.

Animating the rainforest

One area of film-making that is taking a serious hold, particularly in primary and special educational needs schools, is animation.

Creating a flipbook animation has always been simple, but now anybody can download an app or software package that gives them the ability to create a stop-motion animation to rival Wallace and Gromit.

One of the key players in the educational animation market is Kudlian, which specialises in producing freeze-frame software such as I Can Animate, allowing even Year 1 pupils to create professional-looking animation shorts.

Bricknell Primary School in Hull used this software to create a six-minute animation about the Ecuadorian rainforest, which eventually ended up in the hands of former US vice-president Al Gore.

The film, I Wish I Went to Ecuador, tells the story of Year 6 teacher Victoria Tuthill Jones, who travelled to Ecuador on a teachers' trip. On her return, she decided to set up a charity with her companions to raise awareness of the environmental issues that are affecting the rainforest.

"We had an idea to raise some money to buy and protect a piece of Maquipucuna's rainforest, so we could have a little piece of Hull in South America," Tuthill Jones says.

But after a conversation with her headteacher, who mentioned that the opportunity to create an animation had come the school's way, things really took off.

"We needed an idea to base the animation on and the head said that we should make a film about my trip to Ecuador. We hooked up with an animator, who set the children their initial tasks of coming up with storyboards for our film to follow," Tuthill Jones says.

She brought in artefacts from her trip and set her class the task of researching and developing the idea.

"They didn't realise how much they were learning," she says. "It brought out the artistic ones, the ones with technical ability and the ones who were good at set building."

Soon the whole school was involved, with every child being asked to design and build a tree for the film's rainforest set. Before long, the art room had been turned into a film studio.

"It was something that the pupils had never done before and they couldn't quite believe what they were being asked to do," Tuthill Jones says. "It was very exciting for them."

A powerful tool

The finished film won the Films by Young Animators Award at the 2011 Bradford Animation Festival. It has been nominated in international film festivals and was shown in public libraries across Washington, DC.

But it was when the school showed it to their local MP, former Cabinet minister Alan Johnson, that it found its way into the hands of Al Gore.

"Alan Johnson introduced me to (former deputy prime minister) John Prescott, who wanted to take the film to a UN climate change conference in South Africa," Tuthill Jones says. "He then phoned from the conference to say that he had just spoken to Al Gore, who wanted more copies of the film. Who knows what will happen next?"

While it is unlikely that every animation created in schools will end up on the desk of one of the most powerful men in the world, the power of animation to connect with pupils is unrivalled - at least according to David Bunting, the animator behind Bricknell Primary's short film.

Bunting has an impressive track record, having worked as an effects animator on Disney's The Tigger Movie and as a storyboarder at Aardman Animations, helping to create Shaun the Sheep.

He says that the medium instantly chimes with young pupils, but can also bring out creativity in older students. "Animation is one of the first experiences a child has with art and with TV. And it's not just films, but all of the associated media - books, games, toys, you name it.

"It is the play involved in animation that makes it so powerful. If you find animation is really hard work, then you are not doing it right."

Bunting believes that animation can work across the whole curriculum. "I often find that, when teachers think of animation, they immediately think it is something that is for the ICT or art departments. You usually find the English teachers run a mile from it, mainly because of a fear of the technical side of things," he says.

But with the technology around animation becoming ever more simple to use, even advanced animation can be done in the classroom with very little training.

"Animation is the combination of art and science," Bunting says. "Science has always been at the forefront of animations and, with the new software on offer, you don't need extremely expensive kit and you certainly don't need to be a technical boffin."

According to Bunting, teachers often use animation to test how well pupils are doing in normal lessons. For example, maths teachers can use the frame rate required to create a moment in time on an animation to test pupils' mental arithmetic.

Animation can also be used to great effect in creative writing, to see how well pupils structure a beginning, a middle and an end, and to demonstrate how to make characters believable.

Every subject can be covered, depending on how inventive a project intends to be, and an original soundtrack is needed for any film, which calls for the involvement of the music department.

"Projects like these always surprise teachers. You find the pupils take real ownership of the films they make and it connects with even the hardest-to-reach among them," Bunting says. "It gives those pupils confidence, teaches them how to collaborate and work in a team. You often hear a teacher saying, 'I had no idea that student had that ability' after working on film projects involving animation."

Using animation is particularly effective in special schools. The older animation techniques away from the computer - such as using simple cut outs, plasticine and Lego - are simple but tactile tools that can help pupils with special educational needs engage with their learning.

But what really allows teachers and their pupils to connect with film- making is that it comes from real life. Be it documentary film-making, TV news reporting or even creating a new animated world, it all stems from the real world.

"You can take your inspiration from anywhere: a museum, a news story, an art gallery," Bunting says. "From there you just use your imagination."


Cotham School's A Mammoth Idea.


Bricknell Primary School's I Wish I Went to Ecuador.


Anim8ed - an online animation teaching resource.



Most creative productions will start with a broad research process in which reference material - anything from a recording to a photo to a feature film - is gathered.

This kind of exercise is sometimes called "mood boarding" and it makes a good preparatory task for pupils before they get stuck into the filming.

Break the project down into manageable chunks using scripts and storyboards. You may want to use one or the other, depending on the content of your production, or you may want to use both or develop your own hybrid - there is no set way of doing it. The important thing is that you get your ideas down on paper before the cameras start rolling.


The production phase is highly collaborative and can reveal hidden aptitudes. Production roles are diverse: in front of or behind the lens; creative or technical; visual or audio. It is helpful to think of the traditional roles on a shoot and to either assign them or allow the students to gravitate towards them.

Dividing a class up into production units of between two and five and delegating responsibilities for roles should lead to good teamwork and great results.


Editing just means cutting stuff up, chucking some of it away and changing the order. This used to be done with a real blade and splicer. Now it is done with software.

The disadvantage of software is that it looks complicated. The advantage is that it is non-destructive: you can cut and shuffle your footage as many times as you like without affecting the original.

The best way to learn editing is by doing. Do not read books about it, get stuck in.

Twitter @BristolFilmAcdm

Source: Bristol Film Academy CPD workshops for teachers


The classic DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera for independent film-makers has been the Canon 5D, but you can get similarly good footage with other, significantly cheaper cameras, such as the Canon 550D.

Shooting video on a DSLR is trickier than on a camcorder because you have to manually focus the camera. This makes focusing while moving harder, but by no means impossible.

- A bigger problem with DSLR cameras is sound: try to get one with an external video microphone input so that you can attach a microphone (such as a Rode Shotgun). For more professional results, record sound separately, although this will add to your editing time later.

DSLR cameras are light, so you will have to think about ways to reduce shake. Consider keeping the tripod attached as a counterbalance for hand-held shots. A "slider", which allows your camera to slide along a short track, is terrific for cinematic movement - ask a colleague who is good at DT to help you make one as they are expensive to buy ready-made.

Software that is useful for amateur film-makers includes Celtx, a fantastically versatile script-writing programme (the basic version is free); MPEG Streamclip, which can be invaluable for converting video files before you edit them, saving you time at the rendering stage (free); and Magic Bullet Quick Looks, an easy and cheap way to colour-grade your project using 100 filmic styles ranging from film noir-ish monochromes to the teal and orange extremes of a modern blockbuster (about #163;60, but discount vouchers are available online).

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