Clouds In The Head

Literacy The Other Side (In Another Medium)
1 June, 2010, 1:08 pm
Filed under: Daily maily

In the first half of 2010, students at Dungog High School made a 1-minute ad for the Jennifer’s Words project. I acted as a mentor for the project, in an ad hoc way. Already the teachers Louise and Fiona and the students had had meetings with Jane Caro and Mojo ad agency and honed out a fine script.

What they didn’t have was experienced guidance for the shooting and editing stage. Louise called me and I gave them a little bit of help.

Let me say straight away, I had no input into the script. I read it and said, wow, that’s great. I helped with casting, running quasi-professional style auditions for the main parts, had a look at the storyboards and then made myself available for the first half of their one-day shoot.

They needed to know how to add a bit of light in– well I’m no DP but I’ve been on a few sets so I got them to set up a light, showed them how to angle a reflector. I explained some of the things I’d learnt over the years – like filling up space with actors, doing rehearsals, finessing the framing. I encouraged them to leave a lot of top and tail on shots, to not be satisfied with their first take, to go a bit tighter. I gave the director Tess some advice. Not much – you learn by doing, really.

In the afternoon I discussed the shots they’d be using for the main performance sequences and then left them to it.

A week later I came in to help with editing. Cameron their editor had already made a rough cut but there were some basic things that I knew from having been involved for years in this biz –when to cut in close, cutting for tightness of the audio track, cutting for performance, finding a rhythm, cutting out pauses and trimming out weaker moments (even Cate Blanchett’s performances get some degree of “rescue” in the edit room). It’s not rocket surgery but it is very important.

The Jennifer’s Words project is about literacy – its founder Janne Ryan’s mum loved words but has lost them through dementia. Janne wants to promote a love of words.

Literacy has two sides: to be able to read (and comprehend) is wonderful. To be able to write (and be comprehended) is even more wonderful. And writing isn’t just about sentence structure and vocab. There’s a mechanical process too. Knowing the difference between non-defining and defining relative clauses, or understanding what we mean by subjunctive or homoioteleuton or a hapax legomena is FAR less important than being able to actually pick up a pen and write – or turn on a computer keyboard and tap the keys – and create meaning.

Film literacy also has two sides. Despite the Twilight series, teens are pretty film savvy as far as watching and understanding.

But the act of picking up a pen and scrawling on paper translates in film terms into knowing how to crew, getting someone to “turn over”, calling “action” and “cut”, leaving space, thinking about pacing, shooting coverage, finding succinct ways to help an actor improve their performance, adding a little underlight to brighten a face, making sure that the basic uninflected action in a shot is clear, framing, not crossing the line, controlling crowds, safety, collaboration. To having patience – “hurry up and wait”. And thence to the mechanics of working an editing program, and then finding ways to cut for sound and performance and clarity and meaning and rhythm.

That’s what I wanted to add to the high-schoolers’ experience, a bit of my experience, a bit of film production literacy.

As my reward I got a free ticket to the final night film at the Dungog Film Festival – got to see Sami Swilks’ great little performance and then had a ticket to the party afterwards – but the real reward was seeing a film that had all the elements of a lovely little ad being given the chance to achieve that potential through a few small tips.