What we learned teaching filmmaking in Uganda: Getting to know the camera

This is the second entry from our amazing time teaching filmmaking in Uganda, where I just want to share a few thoughts on what worked for us in getting people used to unfamiliar equipment. A mistake that’s easy to make is to assume your students already know more than they do – maybe it’s the fear of coming off as condescending – but doing so does more harm than good. There’s no shame in starting at the absolute basics: how to hold the camera, where to turn it on and off, how to start and stop recording.

At this point I’d like to give a shout out to a unique organisation, InsightShare, who do brilliant work in participatory video. Participatory video is a very hands-on and community oriented method of teaching anyone, regardless of education, background, etc., how to make films about issues that concern them and their communities. While we did not follow this method 100% in our own workshops, the extensive resources and pdf handbooks that InsightShare make available on their website were a godsend. Most of the earlier exercises we did with our students came straight out of the InsightShare Participatory Video Handbook. Starting with….

The Icebreaker game!

Icebreakers are often undervalued, seen as something slightly corny and awkward to get through at the beginning of a conference or meeting. But they serve a very important purpose in building confidence (see gif above), especially when you are asking people to engage with something that is completely new to them. In our case, the icebreaker consisted of a simple exercise that had everyone sitting in a circle, and one by one students would operate the camera to film the person opposite them introducing themselves. They would then hand the camera over to the next person, and explain the basic camera functions necessary to complete the exercise to them.

It sounds stupidly simple, but this exercise is actually a brilliant teaching tool – first off it serves for everyone to introduce themselves, secondly it immediately takes away any fear or shyness of new technology and gives everyone the basic skills of operating the camera, third, it gives everyone a taste of what it is like to be filmed and talk into a camera, and fourth, screening the footage gives a lot of opportunities for teaching about framing, composition, eyeline, lighting, etc. Talk about big value in a small package! It made a world of difference to other workshops I have taught, where I realised half way through the day that participants had mistaken the instruction of taking “shots”, i.e. single video clips, for taking photographs, and were proudly showing me the great snaps they had taken… after this icebreaker, no matter what other mistakes might be made, you can be sure all students will know to record with the camera.

Next up was an exercise called Twist in Frame, meant to teach new students about framing, composition and most importantly, directing. This one was fun, and requires props. Yes props! You draw a big circle, divide it into quarters, and draw a body part in each quarter – we did feet, eyes, ears and hands. Each student gets a turn to spin the bottle in the middle of the circle, then roll a dice. Whatever body part the bottle points at has to be in frame the number of times the dice says. This means the student becomes the director of the shot, instructing people to move around and hold themselves in such a way that, for example, there are 5 feet in shot.  This is a really simple, fun way to get people used to directing, i.e. bossing people around – not something most people are naturally comfortable with. Screening it back to the students also allows discussion about what the focus of a shot is and making that clear to the audience – for example, one student had to show four ears in her shot, and had two people facing the camera in close up, which pretty much obscured their ears from sight.

The final exercise I’m gonna talk about in this post is the comic strip exercise, which is a good way to introduce story boarding to new filmmakers. The aim is to come up with a simple story and storyboard it in about 5 to 6 shots. The trick is that each frame is still and frozen, like a comic strip. This is a great way to teach about shot variety, i.e. close-ups, medium, wide. It also gets at the core of filmmaking, which is telling stories! And knowing how to plan them…

in two groups, our students came up with some great stuff – one comic strip was about a man cheering at a football game on TV and when he goes to sit back down, someone’s pulled his chair away so he falls over. Classic. The other was about two people sunk in conversation, so that one of them doesn’t notice a big hole in the road right in front of her, which she falls into. A bit kinder than the other group, they included a last shot of her friend helping her back out. Two slapstick masterpieces!

And that’s it for Getting to Know the Camera! Stay tuned for some more posts, including tales of angry village women chasing after actors, and a knife pulled in a local bar… 😉