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Name: Dave Leigh
Location: Union, South Carolina, United States

I was born too young. And when I die, I'll still be too young.

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Making Films

As I mentioned on my News & Commentary, my kids decided to produce machinima videos for their Roman & Greek history projects. In that piece I was focused on the VirtualDub software we found (it's incalculably easier than Windows Movie Maker), but I did want to comment on the process of the work itself.

Tim and his friend Adam decided to do two mini-reports: one about Roman roads and another about gunpowder. Inspired by Red vs. Blue, they would use a video game to provide the locations and characters. They chose their favorite online game, Runescape, as the world in which they'd shoot their video.

The process was remarkably like shooting a real video:
  • They had to acquire equipment. Tim and Adam chose Hypercam for their screenshots, which they downloaded and installed themselves. (Michael, working on his unrelated project in another room, chose the Open Source CamStudio. Way to go, Mike!)
  • They had to scout locations within the world.
    • Tim and Adam's entire presentation was in the video, so they were very careful to chose places that were appropriate to the period that they were studying and had just the right kind of roads.
    • Mike's video segments were used to introduce Impress/PowerPoint slides with his content, so he had a bit more leeway, and used it to find generally interesting places for his avatar to stand.
  • They had to make sure their avatars were properly costumed.
  • They scripted the presentations. That's "scripted" in the Hollywood sense. That's right, Writer's Guild, they crossed the picket line.
  • They rehearsed. This was especially challenging for Tim and Adam. They did much of their rehearsal, etc. in separate locations, but both had to play to Tim's "camera", and had to coordinate their activities. A bad take meant a bit of jostling around to get everybody back into position.
  • They had to deal with crowd control. Like a real movie shoot, there were bystanders or people who just didn't know that filming was going on. Occasionally a take would be ruined by someone walking up and striking a conversation.
  • After "principle photography" (screen capture) they still had to edit the raw footage. For that I got involved as editor, with the kids as directors. They transferred the files to my machine and I used VirtualDub to do the editing. In practice, this was the least time-consuming bit of the work.
  • When the AVI segments were written to disk, the kids took over again.
    • Tim and Adam used OpenOffice.org Impress slides to frame and size the videos, with slides for introduction, credits, and bibliography.
    • Mike's report was heavy on the slides for informational purpose... much more of a standard presentation. He broke his video into four segments that were used to introduce the various topics. (His avatar was sort of a virtual David Attenborough)
One thing I found fascinating was the amount of focus the kids brought to the task. I don't really think this was intended as a "project" by the teacher... she'd only given them two days to do it... but it grew into a project. The kids never noticed. I saw at least 6 hours of solid effort out of each of them, and this from a group for whom homework is usually a dirty word!

I was also struck by how fair the division of work was. One would scout locations while the other was looking for software, etc. They each scripted their own lines. They played to each other's strengths. It was a really good collaborative process.

Except for the final video editing (and that was in the interests of time. As I've implied, the work here sort of grew beyond their expectations), they didn't have to ask for my help. They knew what they wanted to do and did it. In fact, watching them work taught me a little about producing screen captures. I've been meaning to do some tutorials for VIC CRM and have never gotten 'round to it. They've helped me narrow my choice of tools.

I don't know what sort of History grade this will earn them, but between you and me... I really don't care. Knowledge of Roman roads will probably do exactly nothing for them in the long course of their lives. But they'll most certainly get a lot of mileage out of the videomaking skills; and the technical, team building, collaboration, and problem-solving aspects of the project have earned them an A+ in Computer Science from me.

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