Stars in their eyes

9th May 2003 at 01:00
Not so long ago, drama teachers could find little or no uses for computer technology, but that has all changed at Dyce Academy in Aberdeen. Dorothy Walker reports

Two years ago, Laurence Young could find no role for computers in the drama studio. When he began to explore digital video, his views altered dramatically. Today, with a major film-making award to their credit, he and his students are revelling in the opportunities presented by the new technology.

Laurence Young is principal teacher of drama at Dyce Academy in Aberdeen.

In March, a group of his fourth-year pupils won a Creativity in Digital Video prize for their five-minute film "Emergency", a spoof soap which raised wry smiles when it was screened at the awards ceremony in Birmingham.

Their cinematic triumph was the culmination of a year spent on a short course in drama - one of a number of courses which offer 15 and 16-year-olds the chance to dip in and explore a new subject, as a balance to the pressures of studying for Scottish Standard Grade qualifications.

Says Laurence: "Because it is school-certificated, the course is pupil-led - we have a discussion and decide what we would like to do during the year."

In 2001 the decision to use digital media for the drama course was an easy one. Pupils were raring for the opportunity to try out the camera and video-editing software which had arrived at Dyce, courtesy of a digital video pilot being run in schools by the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta). Laurence now put together a course which would equip students to enter the Creativity in Digital Video competition, run in association with the pilot. The broad learning objectives echoed those for Standard Grade drama: creation and presentation, together with the acquisition and application of knowledge and understanding.

There was one 80-minute lesson every week, and the first two sessions focused on the grammar of video - the essentials of high-quality filmmaking, which Laurence stresses are of the utmost importance. "You have to ensure students understand things like camera shots, camera angles and storyboarding. We studied the openings of TV programmes and looked at adverts, which are particularly good as they use many different types of shot. You can analyse why a particular camera angle was used, and the students pick up on it really quickly, as they all watch TV." Storyboarding exercises were done with the help of material from Film Education.

Next came a demonstration of the camera, with Laurence explaining how to avoid the seasickness-inducing effects often seen on amateur video. He says: "Digital cameras have many built-in special effects, but it is better just to point and shoot, and add the effects at the editing stage. It is vital to stop filming and set up each shot, and to use a tripod."

He showed how to transfer the footage to the computer, and followed up with an on-screen tour of iMovie, the video editing software, before the students divided into four groups to tackle their first project - the production of a two-minute film on a subject of their choice. Adverts and film trailers were deemed suitable candidates for the time frame, and a couple of groups chose to dramatise a daydream scene which he had outlined.

Laurence has spent many years working with traditional video, and as soon as the students were introduced to the digital version he realised how much easier it was for them to reflect their ideas and play a hands-on role throughout an entire project.

He says: "As a motivational tool, digital video is superb. The cameras fit into the palm of your hand, so they are more manageable than bulky VHS machines. A few students used to take an interest in tape-to-tape video editing, but it was complicated and time-consuming. Now editing is done on the computer, and they are fearless."

Once the film-makers discovered they had the freedom to re-edit their material (with videotape, it is almost impossible to go back and re-think earlier editing decisions) they were determined to tweak their footage until it was perfect. Laurence says: "Few would do a critique of their own writing, but students of all abilities were very willing to take a critical view of the video material they produced."

Four groups competing for the use of one computer could have posed a major problem, but those who had mastered the software immediately volunteered to help their classmates: "I hadn't experienced that level of peer-tutoring before, and it was very exciting. Quite a number of students who might have had difficulty expressing themselves in writing were able to put across their ideas visually. They were keen to experiment with the group's ideas and then teach others what to do," Laurence explains.

With the short films successfully in the can, each group set its sights on a more ambitious 2 to 5 minute production, on the understanding that the first two films to be completed would be entered for the awards. After a discussion on the art of making narratives and documentaries, the teams homed in on their topics, which ranged from a news documentary about a supermarket's ban on schoolchildren to an educational film which urged primary pupils to report bullying.

The team which triumphed came up with a masterly take on the TV soap ER - a mock medical episode in which a comatose teenager is rushed not to casualty but into school for "urgent educational attention". Turning crisis into drama proved a winning formula. "Highly entertaining, amusing and effectively edited," said the judges, a verdict which won the school another much-coveted set of digital video equipment.

It was a proud moment for Laurence, although he was already firmly convinced of the value of the technology. Long before he set out for the awards ceremony he was making plans to share his experiences with other departments. He says: "I used to be known as the staff Luddite, but now I have the zeal of the converted."

Resources

iMovieVersatile, easy-to-use digital video editing software supplied with Apple iMac and eMac computers, and used by the 50 schools which took part in Becta's digital video pilot. Video footage and stills can be imported and made into movies, complete with visual effects, soundtrack, title and credits. Tel: 0900 039 1010www.apple.comuk

Pinnacle Studio version 8

PC-based video-editing software, which Laurence Young is planning to use to help other departments explore digital video. He says:

"Like most Aberdeen schools, we are PC-based - we only use iMacs in the drama department for video-editing. Apple used to have the market in simple video editing software cornered, but I came across Pinnacle Studio 8, and it is very similar to iMovie - some things it does better, some not so well."Price: pound;159 from Pinnacle SystemsTel: 01895 442003 www.pinnaclesys.com

Film Education

Funded by the British film industry, the Film Education charity promotes the study of film and cinema in schools, and provides a range of free educational materials, all detailed on the website. There are also online study materials, a film library and links to events and competitions. Laurence Young says: "I have used the site for years with senior students. The text-based material is good, as is the new range of software."www.filmeducation.org

The British Film Institute

The education section of the bfi website includes a resource-packed teachers' centre, together with guides to film careers, statistics, educational research and details of initiatives such as school-cinema partnerships. The bfi was commissioned to evaluate Becta's digital video pilot, and the site's research references include a link to the evaluation report.www.bfi.org.uk

Becta

Becta's website offers a Creativity in Digital Video guide, explaining how to get started and how to integrate digital video into teaching and learning. A digital video discussion group enables teachers to share experiences via email. Schools can also find details of the Creativity in Digital Video Awards, open to pupils throughout the UK. There are several entry categories; Dyce Academy won the award for a 2 to 5-minute film in the 15-16 age group.www.becta.org.ukteachingcreativityawards

USING DIGITAL VIDEO

Laurence Young has also worked digital video into some favourite lessons for younger drama classes:

* In the Fairytale News lesson, first-year pupils create and present a news bulletin which puts a spin on a well-known nursery rhyme. Each group selects an angle (Did Humpty Dumpty fall - or was he pushed?) and scripts the bulletin, with students acting out the roles of newsreader, reporters and interviewees. Laurence says: "We used to record this on audio, as a radio news piece. Students had to do characterisation, but they only had to consider voices. Digital video has really expanded their scope - it's now a TV production, and they have to think about mannerisms, costumes and locations."

* Second-year classes choreograph and perform a two-minute dance drama, which Laurence used to video in long-shot, so that students could view their performance as if they were sitting in the audience. Now they storyboard their work before filming, identifying which camera angles can be used to emphasise dramatic points and create a more televisual effect.

"When they sit down to edit the film and decide how to put it all together, the level of discussion is impressively high - this technology encourages team working and team building."

Laurence says that digital video is helping students explore new skills at an earlier stage in their drama career. "They are learning new acting techniques, because presenting to camera is different from presenting to a live audience. They also have to develop directing skills - many more than in a traditional drama class. At Standard Grade, students tend to be collaborating on a production - only at Higher Level do they go on to look specifically at directing others what to do. But with digital video, someone has to say how to direct the film."

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