Filmmaking out of the box? Making media with touchscreen devices

Two members of the DARE Collaborative, John Potter and Theo Bryer, were recently involved in researching an after-school filmmaking project with children in year 5 (aged about 10) and year 8 (aged about 13). They worked with filmmakers, Xube, in a school in East London in work funded by Into Film to explore the ways in which touchscreen devices might be used in practical filmmaking activity. Could they be used straight out of the box? Which ways of working promoted best-practice in learning how to make a moving image production with touchscreen, tablet devices?

As reported in an earlier post, the researchers and filmmakers first sought the advice of children in two schools who were already filming in this way. Xube then worked through half a term of activities towards constructing two jointly scripted, shot and edited short films: one with the younger children and one with the older children. Their blog on both projects, Out of the Box, can be seen here.

Here is the film made by the younger children…

Boxing Clever from xubetv on Vimeo.

Here is the film made by the older children…

Boxed In from xubetv on Vimeo.

Findings in the evaluation by John and Theo, which you can download and read in full here, focused on how the Tablet devices, in this case iPads, enabled (or not) particular kinds of learning about film. Whilst the increased availability of such devices is welcome – a familiar artefact for children fortunate enough to have one at home – it is not always clear how they can best be used to enhance teaching and learning. Should they be used as surrogates for desktops and therefore for browsing or, more prosaically, for assessment activities? Should they be used to play games related to the curriculum? Or should they, as in this case, be used to exploit the camera, the easy interfaces and portability? In other words, for creative purposes? We were looking at least partly, therefore, for ways of working with these touchscreen devices which might be transferable to classroom settings and promote an engagement with practical media making.

As you’ll see from the report, the results were complicated. It was not a simple “yes” or “no” and, like most instances of technology in education, there were issues to overcome which related both to the kinds of learning about film supported by a touchscreen as well as to the software and to the hardware. More hype about how easy things are continues to obscure the need for properly integrating technology in settings of learning. So our role was to try to tell the story in such a way that teachers, children, and our funders, could better understand how to work with them.

On the plus side, here was a device on which children could plan, shoot, edit and exhibit pieces of work, without cameras, cables and computers. Apps exist which enable storyboarding and working with editing on a timeline and with soundtracking (we used a paid app called Pinnacle Studio, but others – including free software – are out there). Because of this it was possible to have very rapid review of shots as they were taken and for the creation of simple exercises which built towards making the whole film. Xube prepared a series of excellent examples for viewing and reviewing together as a group which demonstrated particular shots. Children could go straight to trying these out.

On the downside, iPads are proprietary devices designed for individual consumers which do not easily lend themselves to group work or give up their data for archiving and transferring. Both of these are essential in an after-school, or in-school, setting in which they are shared with many other users and in which days may go by between shoots. You don’t want to lose precious work. Of course there are ways round this, but they require a degree of technical support and additional activity.

As in most student filmmaking, you need additional equipment if you want to go further. Sound recording is limited without a decent quality microphone (so, as recommended by others, including the wonderful learn about film site – don’t record sound whilst making the film unless you have one – add sound later). iPads need specialist mounting frames to attach to a tripod and the cameras, though very good, also do not have anywhere near the depth of field of actual cameras. Some children said they would like to move on to “real cameras” next.

The most successful thing about using touchscreen devices is that they promote a beginning level of understanding, very rapidly, of how shots work to tell a story. So long as you work iteratively from carefully chosen shot examples and back to shooting and editing again, you can build this knowledge. It could and should be part of learning how to work with moving image grammar. It’s also learning by doing, drafting and re-drafting. I could go so far as to say it’s about experimenting with digital texts, creating and then de-bugging them when they don’t work in the way that you want them to or tell the story as you had hoped. In this way, it could make some useful connections between computing and media in the curriculum (more about that here and here).

To summarise: the report is here. Xube were great to work with, Into Film provided the funding as par of their learning about setting up CPD in the field. We owe a debt of thanks to the wonderful London Nautical School, Chris Waugh (Edutronic) and to Clip Club and Michelle Cannon for hosting our initial visits.   Touchscreen devices have a future in learning about filmmaking and working across the curriculum.   The hype should be resisted, however. It is definitely not always easy but it is always worthwhile if you believe that children should create and not just consume moving image media.

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