Teaching the Language and Grammar of Film

The past few years, I have gotten back into teaching filmmaking. When I was doing graduate work in media with a focus on film and video, I came to believe that films can be treated as "texts" and that they can be "read" and analyzed, as I had done in my undergraduate studies in literature.

If films can be read like texts, then the language that films use must also have a kind of grammar that can explain its structures.

Roger Ebert used to do "shot at a time" workshop where he would examine a film closely. A film, like a novel, is very controlling. I think a film is even more controlling than a novel. When I read The World According to Garp, I had an idea about how Garp looked. My original sense was he looked like the author, John Irving. But after I saw the film version, Garp became - and still is - Robin Williams. Atticus Finch is Gregory Peck. When you watch a film, you only see what the camera’s eye shows us. The director, editor, cinematographer, actors, set designers, costumers and many others control (and at times manipulate) viewers. 

Knowing about the grammar of film allows you understand how that is done and can give you back some control over the way the film works. Part of the grammar is knowing the reasons why a long shot, medium shot, close up, or an extreme close up was chosen. Studying the language and grammar of the shot, the grammar of the edit will make you consider whether a high angle, a low angle, or eye level is used. Is the camera being objective or subjective? When the camera is subjective, we become one of the characters, and that can be like reading a first-person narrated novel. How does the pace of the edit affect an audience?

Citizen Kane
Citizen Kane offers many opportunities to illustrate film grammar

Every language teacher talks about composition. Every film teacher talks about the composition of shots and scenes. Look at how the director has arranged actors, objects and lighting.

Besides showing and discussing films, to teach the grammar of film you should really have students make films. Otherwise, you are teaching grammar in isolation. I learned through decades of teaching writing that grammar should be taught along with writing. Teaching grammar in isolation is not only boring, it is not effective.

You can start to teach students to make films on paper. Not every teacher has access to filmmaking gear - although today, many students are carrying a video camera in their pocket that is many times more powerful than the Super8 film cameras and video camcorders I first used in classes when I started teaching. Then and now, I have students use storyboarding as a way to really think about shots and angles and building a scene.

A wonderful "side effect" of teaching how to read a film and make a film is that it fosters critical thinking.  

I recently discovered Pixar in a Box which is a behind-the-scenes look at how Pixar artists do their jobs. It allows you to animate bouncing balls, build a swarm of robots, and make virtual fireworks explode. The program connects to math, science, computer science, and humanities in very natural ways. The project is a collaboration between Pixar Animation Studios and Khan Academy and is sponsored by Disney. 

One part of the Art of Storytelling section is on the grammar of film

Basic Shot Types

 

Get Deeper Into This

How To Read a Film

Film Studies

Film Analysis

 

Mobile Social Media Goes Even More to Video

video on phone

The web went mobile years ago. Video went mobile with smartphones. Social media went mobile soon after. And next social media went video crazy.

Facebook and Instagram (which it owns) have launched a separate app called IGTV. This is an app for watching long-form, vertical video from Instagram creators. It is a video hub, but it is not for episodic, TV-like content.

But Facebook is interested in that kind of content.

With Facebook's 8 billion daily video views per day, Facebook doesn't want text - which is still a huge part of the Facebook experience - to dominate.  They are moving towards an even more video-oriented site.

They started by introducing a new Watch section to a small group of US users. The new platform differs from  IGTV which targets Instagram’s younger audience. That audience is made up of a lot of Generation Z who were NOT brought up on TV. Instagram says "We've learned that younger audiences are spending more time with amateur content creators and less time with professionals." 

Instagram is supposed to be meeting with online creators hoping to lure them into the new video platform. They are looking for things like 10 minute vlogs, not extended programs. On IGTV, creators are the channels.

instagram-press.com/blog/2018/06/20/welcome-to-igtv/

newsroom.fb.com/news/2017/08/introducing-watch-a-new-platform-for-shows-on-facebook/

Digital Humanities and Open Pedagogy

human network

I see that the Google Science Fair is back and, though many K-12 teachers are at the end of their academic year, this summer is the time to plan for what students could do in the fall. This seems like a "science" activity, but this is where the phrase "digital humanities" should be.

Looking at the the website googlesciencefair.com, you find projects that take the science well beyond the science classroom. Closely related are the activities in Google's Applied Digital Skills curriculum. Here you can find some well-constructed lessons that can be done in as little as an hour and ones that could stretch across a week or unit.

For example, one suitable for middle and high school students is on creating a resume. It's something I did with students decades ago in a non-digital way. The skills involved here are many. Obviously, there is the writing, some research and some analysis of your own skills and ambitions. There are also the more digital forms of collaboration, document formatting and submission. I did this with undergrads a few years ago and required each of them to research and submit their resume to an internship opportunity. 

A longer activity that fits in so well with topics currently at the top of the news is about Technology, Ethics, and Security. Students research technology risks and dangers, explore solutions, and create a report to communicate their findings.

I would also note that the digital humanities must include what humanities teachers do in their work. 

Quizzes in Google Forms have been around for a few years and educators have used them for class assessments and in unintended ways as a tool. New features were recently added based on feedback from teachers' creative uses of the Quizzes. 

One example is that now, using Google’s machine learning, Forms can now predict the correct answer as a teacher types the question. It can also provide options for wrong answers. A simple example is a quiz on U.S. capitals would use this feature to "predict" the correct capitals for every state.

That doesn't mean that Google doesn't have a special interest in the computer science side of eduction. They offer special resources in those areas and professional development grants for CS educators to support those in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

I don't want to sound like an advertisement for Google - though advertising free and open resources isn't like selling something. Much of what the digital humanities can do moves teachers into an "open pedagogy." It changes the way we teach. 

This is more important than just finding resources.

David Wiley has written
"Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about open educational resources, but precious little has been written about how OER – or openness more generally – changes the practice of education. Substituting OER for expensive commercial resources definitely save money and increase access to core instructional materials. Increasing access to core instructional materials will necessarily make significant improvements in learning outcomes for students who otherwise wouldn’t have had access to the materials (e.g., couldn’t afford to purchase their textbooks). If the percentage of those students in a given population is large enough, their improvement in learning may even be detectable when comparing learning in the population before OER adoption with learning in the population after OER adoption. Saving significant amounts of money and doing no harm to learning outcomes (or even slightly improving learning outcomes) is clearly a win. However, there are much bigger victories to be won with openness."

Too much emphasis when talking about OER is on free textbooks and cost savings and not enough on the many other resources available that allow educators to customize their curriculum and even allow for individual differences. The longtime practice of curriculum designed around a commercial textbook needs to end. 

I have written here about what I called Open Everything. What I am calling now Open Pedagogy would be under that umbrella term. Others have called this pedagogy Open Educational Practices (OEP). In either case, it is the use of Open Educational Resources for teaching and learning in order to innovate the learning process.  In this, I include the open sharing of not only the resources, but also of the teaching practices.

Currently, I would say the level of openness we see is low. Others have defined the levels as: Low - teachers believe they know what learners have to learn. A focus on knowledge transfer. Medium - Predetermined Objectives (closed environment) but, using open pedagogical models and encourage dialogue and Problem-based learning. And the goal is for the highest level when Learning Objectives and pathways are highly governed by the learners.

 

How On-Demand Culture Affects Learning

tv viewerI wrote recently on another site about "cord-cutting" and about the rise of the group I call "The Disconnected" My Millennial son has cut the cord to his cable provider. He did it not only to save money, but because he simply doesn't have time to watch everything that is out there. Like many people, he mostly watches things on demand, either via a DVR or sites that allow on-demand viewing. He hasn't cut all his viewing bills to $0. He purchased Sling services which currently starts at $20 a month and offers streaming options. He still has his Netflix streaming account and can get movies and shows using his Amazon Prime account. He thinks I am a dinosaur for still getting Netflix DVDs in the mail. Netflix probably feels the same way and I am sure mailing DVDs will disappear entirely in the near future. I'm getting all kinds of offers (see bottom of post) to alternatives to my cable subscription.

I picked up a book in the library recently called On-Demand Culture that focuses on how this is changing the movie industry. Media is not my focus on this site, but it is a good example of on-demand culture.

It is not just about people watching films at home, but how the movie industry is changing because of digital technologies. Most people don't think about that film distributors now send films to theaters electronically. But consumers not only purchase or rent movies instantly online, but they are streaming them to high-definition televisions, their laptops and often to small mobile devices. When TV made its entrance bigtime in the 1950s, the movies reacted by going big with wide screens and color that TV couldn't compete with in quality. TV has caught up in many ways with that quality issue. (You can download parts of that book at https://muse.jhu.edu/book/24204)

Amazon is offering me an Amazon Channels Free Trial and suggests using Prime to watch thousands of movies and TV shows on demand. They even asked me to try an HBO Free Trial, which I would think is almost their competition these days.

With all these deals, why wouldn't everyone cut the cord? One reason people hang on is because many of these other services don't offer your local channels and some "basic" cable channels like CNN or sports channels.

modern HDTV antenna

A friend of mine was in that situation and started to investigate the HDTV antennas that are available. This seems like a throwback to the 1950s and 60s when every home had an antenna on the roof or a "rabbit ears" antenna on top of the TV.

The current generation of antennas allow you to pull in HDTV network programming for free - just like in the old days - with no monthly fee or subscription. It sounds ideal, but you are not going to get all that cable content, though you should get your local CBS, NBC and ABC affiliates and some other channels.

Adjusting your TV antenna 60 years ago had become a kind of art. You learned which way to turn it for channel 2 as opposed to how to get channel 7. People hooked up additional wires, tin foil and other things to them to increase the pickup. The new 360º multi-directional designs eliminate constant adjustments and they support up to 1080i HDTV broadcasts. But they have limits.

Many products say they can pull channels from towers that are within 40 miles of your TV. I live well within that range of New York City, so I probably could get all the local channels. Most of these products also have disclaimers that reception quality and channels received will depend on not only your distance from towers, but broadcast power, terrain and other factors like buildings and power lines. 

modern, old-style, outdoor antenna

I found that you can still buy rooftop TV antennas that look a lot like the ones from 50 years ago, though they are much more sophisticated and include amplifiers and other devices.

All of this media movement is part of the "on-demand" movement that started with VCRs that allowed us to "time shift" our viewing habits and terrified the TV industry. We still have some live event TV that is rarely watched at a later date. The upcoming Oscars and certainly the Super Bowl are perfect examples of "event TV" that is viewed live and that advertisers and channels love because they can easily measure the audience share.

I still like to go to a movie theater, but I go far less than I did in the past. Going to a theater has also become a kind of event. I go to films that I don't want to wait to see in a few weeks or month when they make it to my TV.

An “on-demand culture,” is shifting not only our viewing habits but many of our other expectations. When do people want to shop, or fill in an application? Any time at all is the answer. On demand. Even education, which has been my life's work, has gone on-demand with online content and online courses that allow student to time shift their education and pick and choose what content they want to view and when they want to view it. Most college professors have had to become proficient at creating digital content even if they still teach face-to-face in a classroom. Am I ready to cut the cord?  I'm watching the examples of my friend and my son. Maybe this dinosaur sees an asteroid headed his way.


 
 

Gaming STEM in Humanities Courses

I did a presentation last month titled "Gaming STEM in Humanities Courses" at the NJEDge Faculty Best Practices Showcase

I talked about using serious games, primarily the Web Adventures series developed by Rice University, as a way to increase students’ science knowledge and to inspire science-related careers. I was interested in “gaming” these STEM programs for teaching humanities courses.

I used the Web Adventures in several courses, but I particularly liked using it in an undergraduate critical thinking course. Take a look at the slides from the presentation.