Thursday, May 6, 2010

A happy ending

A semester-long college course -- especially a brand new one -- is a tightrope act. Is there a clear line from one end to the other? Are there any gaps where students might stumble? In some respect, you can't know the answers to those questions until you've gone all the way through it.

I just reached the end of a course that I've never taught before. It was a hybrid between a film aesthetics course I've done in various forms many times, and a crash course on digital filmmaking that I could never teach. Luckily I had a co-instructor who knew how to do that second part. But I mostly proposed the structuring, because I'm the experienced pedagogue. I strung the tightrope.

And two-thirds of the way across, I found that students were falling off right and left. I had given them what I thought was a generous cushion of time to work in groups to plan, shoot, and edit a short film. The students were divided into six groups. We have two high-end Canon cameras. I arranged things so two groups could have a camera for a week at a time, with two weeks left at the end where groups could check out cameras short-term for pickup shots. I shuffled the schedule a million ways to make it work.

But what I didn't know was that I wasn't including an important step. The footage they shot had to be digitized before they could edit it. The digitizing could only be done with the camera. So if another group took the camera for shooting, the previous group couldn't get their footage digitized. The time I had provided on the syllabus for them to edit got eaten up by waiting for the chance to make their footage usable. One group, the unluckiest of the bunch, got their camera late from the previous users and only had 24 hours to shoot before the next group needed it. They had to wait for the pickup shots slot to get the bulk of their footage. And the digitizing lag/bottleneck meant that they got their footage to edit less than 24 hours before the project was due.

Yet tonight's final exam film festival featured all six films, even the one from the snakebit group. That one was rough, certainly, but its energy and comedy elicited roars of laughter from the assembled students and guests. The groups invited the actors, extras, and friends that they recruited to work on their films to witness the final products. Every single one contained some memorable and sophisticated effect, and a couple were quite effective throughout. The audience laughed, gasped, and marveled for the whole ninety minutes. Despite all the unintentional debris I left for the students to hurdle on their way across the tightrope, they all made it to the other side.

I can't take any credit for their perseverance. I can only be glad that they didn't let my mistakes derail them. If there's a next time, I'll know better how to smooth the way for the students who follow -- thanks to the students this time who endured the roughest ride.

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