After I taught the elective Filmmaking for the first time a few years ago, I realized how easy it is for students to quickly create a short film.
The process of creating a film can take a month in my elective class, but I squeeze it into a week for my literature classes by simplifying my expectations for the assignment. Depending on the availability of technology at your school, you may need to adjust your approach to this assignment, but generally, students can easily create a film using their phone or a desktop computer.
For the assignment, I ask my students to work in groups to create a film adaptation based on one of four short stories from James Joyce’s Dubliners: “An Encounter”, “Araby”, “Little Cloud”, and “Eveline”. I ask them to create a new version of the story set in the present day with a plot and characters loosely related to the story. If this character were living today, what would be their name, their look, their manner of speaking, their status, their relationship with social media? How would their experiences be different?
Here are a few things your students should consider when creating an adaptation of the literature you teach:
1. Position of phone
Students should shoot in landscape, not portrait. All this means is to hold the phone sideways. This way, the clips they shoot will fit full screen on a projector or television. Because of social media apps, they always make this mistake.
Make sure there is adequate lighting. Without professional lighting, this a big challenge since shadows can appear almost anywhere around a school building or outside. Just adjusting the position of the people in the frame will go a long way. Changing the place where they shoot will also help.
This is hands down the most important thing in a film. If the viewer can’t hear people speaking, they will have no idea what’s going on. Students should stand close enough to the person to record their voice and be mindful of loud refrigerators, wind, conversation, or heating or cooling units.
4. Length of shot
The typical shot only lasts five to ten seconds. I know that sounds ridiculous but it’s true. Students sometimes think they have to memorize a bunch of lines and shoot one scene all at once, but short shots will allow them to film one line and speaker at a time and change the point of view as much as they’d like. They can capture reactions and body language to add to the drama or comedy of the story. The whole movie might only be two minutes long (sounds short, but that’s around 20 short shots).
5. Types of shots
Techniques related to the angle and movement of the camera or the subjects take a little more time to teach, but might be worth mentioning, especially since it creates a great conversation about point of view. The main shots include close up, medium, long, medium-long, two-shot, over-the-shoulder, high angle, low angle, Dutch tilt, deep focus, pan, and tilt.
It might take a graduate degree to really know the ins and outs of how to act. However, just mentioning the importance of body language, tone, pacing, and volume can go a long way. Are you angry? Shout the line. Throw your hands in the air. Are you disappointed? Put your hands on your hips and lower your eyelids. I tell my students to act as if they are experiencing the events, and most importantly, I tell them to have fun with it.
7. Voiceovers and asides
Voiceovers can be a fun and easy way to add an internal monologue and asides can add an extra layer of comedy to a short movie. Students could use the voice recorder on their phone or in iMovie.
In Filmmaking, I ask for a formal script, but in my literature classes, I get students into large groups and ask them to create an outline with the main scenes or events and a rough idea of what the characters will say. Improvising the lines can be fun and will usually make the movie appear more authentic and real.
My students use iMovie, but depending on the technology available to your students, you might have them use WeVideo or some other website or software. Airdrop is an easy way to share files on an iPhone or good old-fashioned wires usually speed up the process of transferring files. I’ve also seen amazing movies shot and edited right on an iPhone using the preloaded iMovie app. If video editing is too much of a challenge with storage space or other tech challenges, I wouldn’t be afraid of asking students for a short performance in front of the class or throwing together prerecorded audio with a narrator and dialogue. You may want to give your students the option of writing a short story, short graphic novel, or script.
When students export the final file, it’s best to find a format that creates a small file (less than 1 GB) with quality resolution, like an .mp4 or .mov (MPEG-4, H.264). I ask them to upload the final file into their Google drive account or you could tell them to create a private link in YouTube.
This in-class activity is a great way to end a unit or give students a little extra time to finish their assigned reading. Students are also happy to collaborate on a creative assignment, make sense of literature, and express their understanding of the world they live in at the same time.
English language arts teacher
Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers