The screenagers

5th May 2006 at 01:00
Pete Wells explains how using Chroma Key technology can transport your pupils to any time or place in this world... or beyond

Today my pupils meandered along the romantic streets of Paris before visiting the Eiffel Tower; well, they deserve a treat after last week's trip to the oppressive, distinctly child-unfriendly Victorian era and the previous week's turmoil aboard the RMS Titanic - all this trauma and Sats as well. It's tough being a kid these days.

Let me explain. My new favourite toy is our Chroma Key screen. The screen - a simple, fairly inexpensive piece of green cloth - has transformed the way that my pupils and I approach education. Using it, some standard video-editing software and a camcorder we can make films, documentaries, soap operas, news reports or pop videos from anywhere in the world or beyond.

Here's how it works - we film the pupils performing in front of the green screen and then video editing software "keys out" (or makes transparent) any green in the footage within the shot. The transparent areas are then replaced by other video footage or photographs of our choice.

The most common everyday example of this is the standard TV weather report where our favourite forecasters are simply gesticulating in front of a blue or green screen. More exciting, student-friendly examples include the dazzling effects of the recent Star Wars, Harry Potter or Sin City movies where the performers must have been fed up of the constant sight of green or blue stages where the set would simply be "put in" later.

Everyone can benefit from the exciting opportunities of Chroma Key. My pupils with profound and multiple learning difficulties, at Portland School in Sunderland, starred in some amazing productions. These include a history of music DVD, cntaining a track made completely of the pupils'

vocalisations, and a charades DVD where the students, in full costume, are transported into their favourite films.

Pupils with severe learning difficulties have also made it to the big screen by starring in a range of visually impressive films and productions.

My favourite examples include: a cross-curricular travelogue on the cultures and customs of North Africa; an everyday soap opera which addressed a range of social issues (and the pupils' understanding of them); an exploration of Shakespeare's The Tempest (where the students filmed puppets they had made against epic digital backdrops); and a north eastern version of Romeo and Juliet exploring the forbidden relationship between Rob, a Sunderland supporter, and Julie, a Newcastle fan.

The beauty of using such technology with students of a lower cognitive ability is the opportunity to allow them to explore more abstract concepts.

These pupils often have difficulty imagining worlds beyond their own. Once they experience the green screen they quickly take control of their learning, offering imaginative, valuable input to any curriculum area.

The technology is in its infancy and relatively rare in education, so it has provided us with opportunities for inclusion with our local mainstream schools. Working together, our students and students from other schools produced scenes for an inclusive production of Oliver Twist as well as an anti-bullying video. In such projects, everyone is included, all contributions are valued and everyone's talents can be celebrated.

I now work with pupils of a wider range of age and ability and am constantly amazed and delighted at their talent and creativity. I have watched Year 4 pupils become fire fighters and victims in self-made fire safety videos; I relived my childhood as a group of Year 6 pupils made their own version of A Christmas Carol; and I learned tons about volcanoes and tsunamis from Year 10 pupils "reporting" from hotspots around the world.

While subject knowledge and the ability to think creatively are enhanced considerably in such activities, there are also wonderful opportunities for boosting self-esteem and raising achievement. An example of this was a Year 10 media project where pupils were asked to script an advert for jet boots.

I watched in awe as an initially self-conscious teenage lad had no qualms about dressing as an old lady who was going to use her jet boots to catch a skateboarding, hoodie who had stolen her purse.

In this digital age, the word "screenagers" is used to highlight the fact that most of our learners' education and social activities rely on using a multimedia screen. With Chroma Key the pupils aren't just watching it, they're doing it.

Pete Wells, formerly of Portland School, is winner of Becta's ICT in Practice Award for Inclusion

How to do it

To make Chroma Key films you need:

* A green or blue screen. These can be surprisingly cheap, I saw a 10x12 foot reversible green and blue screen for pound;250 on a photography site, which would be more than adequate for most needs

* A digital video camera (any standard camcorder will do).

* Digital video software. A nice, cheap PC program that supports chroma keying is Ulead Video 9, available for pound;25 on Amazon.

If you're more adventurous, Adobe Premiere also does the job nicely.

* Mac users can buy a wonderfully effective plug-in for pound;16 (SS Composites and Masks) which works fantastically with iMovie.

* I Can Animate Mac software (reviewed on page 31), pound;35, Kudlian Soft.

* Lottery-winning schools can buy a "Chromamatte" screen. This screen looks grey but is in fact made of lots of silver-coated glass beads. These reflect any light shone at it (from a blue or green light ring attached to the camera lens) which is then shone back at the camera. This makes the camera "think" it is looking at a blue or green background which makes keying easier - best for pros this.

* Lighting is desirable but not necessary. I got away with using natural light at Portland School.

* Each piece of software works in pretty much the same way. The green-screen clip is put before (or above) the background clip in the timeline(s) and the Chroma Key filter combines them.

Film clips

* Pete Wells now works at Sunderland City Learning Centre. You can see examples of his Chroma Key projects at

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