Oberlin Blogs

Lights, Camera, Lots of Action!

July 22, 2010

Ma'ayan Plaut ’10

Summer camp... It was the epicenter of my universe from ages 11 to 16. In the two- or three-week span of camp, time would be consolidated and compressed and it would feel like a whole year would smoosh into an amazingly intense amalgam of education, friendships, and long-distance walking. I attended two camps sponsored by the Center for Gifted Studies at Western Kentucky University. I tromped all over the hills of Bowling Green to attend classes in chemistry, film, math, and writing, spent hours playing ERS* (Jump to Footnote 1) and dodgeball, and bonding with lifelong friends.

Two photos of the same 4 people a few years apart.

This is a pretty epic set of photos, actually. This was a section in the Center's newsletter right after my last year of camp, with a pair of photos of my best friends Chad and Jacqui, my fellow munchkins, and Corey, the counselor who dubbed our trio. Look at how much we grew up from the first year photo to the fourth year photo! Well, not me, because I am the littlest munchkin.

As a veteran of several of their programs, I am still completely obsessed with the Center's summer camps, but I'm a bit too old to be at WKU every summer. Instead, I've graduated to camp counselor, and this time to a roving group of creative teens at a film and media camp right here in Oberlin.

The Apollo Outreach Initiative (you may remember AOI from previous posts on papermaking at the Morgan Conservatory and my laundry list of my last semester of classes or from Marsha's recent post on Oberlin in the summer) held its first annual film camp for teens during the weeks of June 14-25. Starting at 10am, going until 4pm, we crammed as much possible film knowledge, lessons, technique, and practice over the fortnight.

Eager students in a film classroom.
Our campers deep in concentration.

Week one consisted of lessons on camera and sound equipment, techniques for image and audio recording, and editing, all taking place before lunch. After we ate, we broke into groups and completed a short project to demonstrate the skills we were taught in the morning. Each morning started with a variety of warmup games, both to help learn names of all of our fellow AOI-ers and to get pumped for the daily work.

Monday - We followed classic summer camp style and did a variety of introductory exercises to assure that both counselors and campers knew everyone's name. The afternoon video exercise broke the kids into groups of four, and then into pairs to interview each other to collect enough information and personality traits to make a short personal narrative about them. In a series of five shots edited in-camera (a fancy way of saying that the entire film was shot in order, by starting and stopping the camera to make the "cuts" in the movie) the essence or personality of the student was captured and then presented to the rest of the class.

At the end of the day, we did another short project: hand a student a camera, close the door of the studio on them, and let them do whatever they wanted for a minute. The only rule was that the whole class would watch all the videos the next day.

Small group in a classroom.
Day 1: Getting used to the camera. Jay walked around the circle during our first meeting and videotaped all of us answering a series of short interview questions.

Tuesday - We started the day with watching the "one kid, one camera, one minute" videos. We got some hilarious results, like an ad for Yoplait yogurt, a set of random facts about dolphins, and inventive naming of all the things one could find in the studio. After a lesson on long-takes (also known as one-takes, a challenging technique where a whole scene is shot without cuts; they are often used to show scenes in "real time" and as a realistic scenario), we broke into our groups again to make our own mini long-takes.

Long-takes require a lot of rehearsal, since they are all shot in one go. From action to cut, the camera is running, and whatever you get is what you use, or learn from before doing another take. My group emptied its pockets onto the table to look for possible inspiration for our take, and decided to make the scene focus on a mysterious object that is handed off from a briefcase (our camera case), and the paranoia that comes from it. We shot our take from a vantage point on the Wilder porch, which allowed for multiple levels and layers which we used while walking up the steps, looking around the setting, and then gazing out over Wilder Bowl to far-away onlookers.

We practiced the scene a few times, and then taped five versions. During our final shoot, the Finney bells pealed 3pm, at an absolutely perfect moment in the take, making our seemingly ambiguous scenario much more ominous and dark. Upon watching this last take, the group unanimously decided this was our best one, especially with the addition of the serendipitous bells.

Students trying out a video camera on a tripod.

Two students work the controls on video cameras.
Day 2: Learning about how to use our camera equipment.

Wednesday - This was a very busy day, with two video projects completed by 4pm. In the morning, we learned about the Kuleshov experiment, an editing technique that uses association and proximity of images to convey emotion or meaning. We then worked in our groups to create a master shot and three cutaway shots to show how the master shot would convey different meanings based on what one would see immediately after.

My group decided that our master shot would be of two of the girls in our group, with distinct expressions on their face. The first cutaway shot was of a reflection of passing clouds on the windows of Mudd library, the second shot was of a pencil being sharpened in a nose-shaped pencil sharpener, and the third shot was of a paperwad being dropped down five floors. With each cutaway, the master shot of the two girls first conveyed terror, then disgust, then intrigue.

Our second lesson of the day was about green screen composites, a method of sandwiching together action performed in front of a chroma key green background with a chosen created background. Once in an editing program, the green background disappears, making a blank slate to superimpose the chosen background. This technique allows for scenes to take place in space, in cities, in the woods, or any other location that isn't necessarily in the budget of a student film, or even possible with current human limitations.

My group combined with Tasha's group, and between the two team leaders and eight students, we came up with a short skit that we performed in front of the green screen and created several settings in the art workshop to serve as backgrounds that we would composite together later in the editing room. Our skit took place in a classroom, where three bored students daydreamed about how they wanted to destroy their teacher. One student dreamed that they were a giant that stomped on the teacher (the background was an amazing three-dimensional structure of a giant, with the live-action teacher in the foreground), another student dreamed that a cat chased the teachers (the background was footage from another group's Kuleshov experiment in the morning), and the last student dreamed she was a kung fu master who battles a team of evil teachers.

Group members working around a table with cut-tup paper, taking notes.

Putting together a model for use in filming.

A group works with paper and cardboard.
Day 3: Playing in the art workshop to make our backgrounds for the green screen composites.

The green screen videos are actually up on Youtube already, so enjoy!

My group's film, School.

The other group's film, Heaven.

Thursday - Today was dedicated to sound; in the morning, we learned how to use the different microphones and the digital audio recorders. After lunch, we broke into groups and created a brand new soundtrack to a clip from the tornado scene from The Wizard of Oz. My group decided to reimagine the story, making the tornado an irate mother dragon looking for its stolen baby dragon that Dorothy has taken from a wizard.

Another group made Dorothy into an evil witch who craved apple pie and blew up a dust storm to steal Auntie Em's pie, a similarly ridiculous plot to our group's. The crowning piece from this afternoon, and possibly the whole camp (at least to the participants), was a remixed version of the clip with an entirely beatboxed soundtrack to the new music video, Party Tornado. The tornado was a harbinger of parties, which was located in the cellar underground, an epic party that Dorothy was definitely not invited to.

Friday - We culminated our week with a visit from alum Nina Sarnelle, a filmmaker who taught us about stop-motion animation. Our afternoon activity was a short stop-motion animated video, where we created a game where students moved within a blocked-off area underneath the Mudd ramp and avoided being caught by a squiggly snake moving around the board. Once touched by the snake, the student would die a silly and horrific death and then show up in jail a few moves later. At the end of the video, the snake popped up and ate the camera. The thirty-second movie contained 300 photographs and took three hours to shoot. It was time-consuming, yet amazing.

Two people lay on the ground next to rows of white discs.

People standing still in assigned locations.
Day 5: Fun stop-motion animations with Nina Sarnelle.

By the end of Friday, all the students were assigned to their long project groups, and told to think about possible film ideas that connect to the theme of change. Excitements abound for the next week.


Week two was a blur of pre-production, shooting, and lots and lots of editing. My group had three lovely ladies, Chelsea, Taelor, and Taylor (What are the chances of that? At least I didn't have the identical twin boys in my group...) After deciding that the most important criterion for our film was that it be funny, we started to brainstorm things that we thought were funny. A stroke of genius hit me during this discussion, and I suggested that we make an infomercial for a product that would "Change your life!" After deliberation and a few inadvertent yawns, my group came to the conclusion that we should market a literal "sleeping pill" that would give the equivalent of 8 full hours of sleep in one magical pill. We named it INZOMBNIA and in the workshop, we created a fabulous shiny blue bottle and a mock-up of the pill inside: an chicken-egg-sized blue pill covered in stars and obviously impossible to ingest.

Our infomercial starred a poor sleep-deprived but driven individual who really needed to sleep (we cast Dan, our production coordinator and guru of all things electronic, as our somnambulist). After being stopped by a Village People-inspired cop for driving 40 miles under the speed limit, the police officer suggests that Dan take INZOMBNIA, which would help him stay awake for hours. We then progressed through the video with testimonials from happy customers, possible uses for INZOMBNIA, and then a list of terrible side effects that could arise from using this product.

Shooting was hilarious, mostly done in the studio in front of a green screen with backgrounds and props created by us in the art workshop. We cast various students as actual INZOMBNIA customers and recruited Claudio, the Apollo Outreach Coordinator and art workshop master, to do a voice-over. We also shot our entire class having a dance party to be the upbeat background of our side effects and warnings segment of the commercial.


The quantity of work that came out of this camp was staggering: we had five complete short films made in the course of one week, plus 16 personal narratives, 16 one-kid one-camera one-minute videos, four long takes, four Kuleshov experiments, two green screens, three remixed soundtracks, and one stop-motion animation. You rarely get that many films from a semester-long cinema production class. Our films were also some pretty high caliber work as well. I'm still reeling (punny!) from how much we created that I will look back upon with amazement in the future.

On June 30th, the final short films, plus a selection of the projects we completed during the first week, were screened at the first annual AOI teen showcase at the Apollo Theater. I urged the students to dress up for their first movie premiere, and a lot of them did, which made our red carpet photos even more classy.

The screening was amazing, I high-fived every student I saw once the screening was over, and left feeling just as proud as when I saw my own film projected on the big screen. These kids are lucky dogs to be able to feel that sort of pride so early in their adult lives.

Apollo marquee lists Toy Story 3 and AOI Simmer Workshop for Teens Premiere 5 PM

People gathering outside the theater.
More student screenings! My favorite kind of screenings!

I ended up learning so much during this refresher course in cinema. I gained the confidence of shooting and editing short creative projects in a short time span, as exemplified by several stop-motion animations I made with my webcam and the free program FrameByFrame and my tests of using my green bedspread as a possible green screen. I've always internalized technique by teaching it to others, so the lessons in equipment and the immediate application of skills helped both my students and me learn about film making very quickly.

Silhouette of people in front of a green screen.
My teaching team during a moment of calm in front of the green screen.

The rate at which the camp was moving meant that everyone was learning fast and dirty film making, which means I am now way more capable of making a film for fun (or for commission) from start to finish in a few hours rather than a few days, or a few days rather than a few weeks. Working with all the AOI students was an invigorating experience, overflowing with creative energy and speedy and quality video products.

After an exhausting two weeks and a weekend to recuperate, I realized that I could be a film camp counselor forever. I love working with kids and I love the creative process, and the intense scenario of AOI film camp is hopefully introductory fodder for the rest of my life as a media educator.


Want to support AOI and assure this camp can happen every year? Visit the Friends of the Apollo page at Crowdrise and make a donation to help us reach our goal of $30,000!

* (Jump to Reference 1) Egyptian Rat Slap was the official game of summer camp of my yesteryear. I kicked major butt at it... so much so that I went whole two summers without being beaten. I don't think my slap-stinct is at that level still, but I'd love to play if someone wanted to challenge me.

Similar Blog Entries