It was a sense of frustration and apprehension that turned 13-year-old Hana Kaur Mangat and her friends into moviemakers. After a gunman killed six in a Wisconsin Sikh temple in August 2012, Hana and others in her debate club at the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation Sikh temple in Rockville were " … devastated. We wanted to do something to prevent anything like this from happening again," she says. The result was "Sikh Kid to Kid," a 30-minute movie that "explains Sikhism and shows kids' reactions to what happened in Wisconsin."
Moviemaking is a form of expression for an increasing number of children, mostly because "the technology is so accessible now," says David Stern, director of digital media at Imagination Stage in Bethesda. Smartphones, iPhones, iPods and iPads have video cameras, and most computers come with some type of editing program, such as Windows Movie Maker or iMovie. Available as an app, iMovie turns Apple devices into portable, mini movie studios and iStopMotion allows the same devices to create stop-motion animations or time-lapse videos.
But moviemaking is more than lights, cameras and action, says Stern, who teaches narrative filmmaking to those in 5th grade and up. "It's about storytelling….Kids think they need to do special effects and green screen. But I say, 'What's the story?'"
"YouTube has a lot of content, much of it poor―the result of a lack of storytelling," says Benjamin Steger, an assistant professor at George Mason University who runs a film and video summer program for children on the Fairfax campus. An understanding of "dramatic principles"―such as character and plot development―is fundamental to visual storytelling, be it narrative, documentary or animated.
Young moviemakers "apply so many language arts and thinking skills, creative and critical," says Jane Freeman, outreach and education coordinator for the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville. "They have to tell their story and get their message across in sequence and create conflict and resolve it within certain parameters. There's genuine learning going on but through a medium that's very hands on and has a product that's authentic."
Moviemaking for All Kinds of Learners
Moviemaking is particularly good for "kinesthetic learners. It taps into other intelligences not traditionally used in school," says Arla Bowers, the Lights, Camera, Literacy! program manager for Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS). The program, now offered in about half of MCPS' 40 middle schools, "lets students show what they've learned by filming it instead of answering questions on a quiz."
Filmmaking "is a collaborative art form," says Stern, noting that most groups in his classes range from five to eight kids. They have to be willing to "listen to other people and recognize that the best idea may not be their own. Sometimes it's not that the idea is better, just different. They have to compromise."
A video may be a child's "first experience with a team project that has to be carefully planned and developed from start to finish," says Emily Riedel, owner and director of TIC Summer Camp in Fairfax, Bethesda and Washington, where her youngest film campers are 8 years old. "You can't just jump in and begin a film. It is a process that requires first establishing a team and defining roles."
Playing to Strengths
Students tend to gravitate toward positions that will utilize their strengths. A child with "good visual sensibility or a passion for visual media" might opt to be a cinematographer," says Steger. Others may find they prefer to be a director, actor or sound operator.
Students try their hand at every position in the Fundamentals of Filmmaking class at Imagination Stage in order to learn the process, "pre-production through post-production," says Stern. Pre-production is stressed. "Few people, let alone kids, understand the preparation needed to make things work. There's a lot of thinking and sitting around tables figuring things out."
Stern equates pre-production to an architect's renderings. "You don't have an architect draw a plan for a house and end up with a shack or a castle," he says. The same holds true for filmmaking. "Here's the plan, what we saw in our mind's eye. When we're finished, that's what it should look like. If it doesn't, then something went wrong."
Learning By Critiquing
Figuring out what went wrong is part of the learning process. Students in Lights, Camera, Literacy! classes meet to review their films and "to talk about what could be improved," says Bowers. "Because we've looked at what has come before us in terms of historical filmmakers, we discuss techniques that could have been used."
As a result, kids have become "savvier media consumers," says Steger. "Having learned to analyze how a story is told allows them not just to consume but to think critically about the film."
Their analysis moves beyond the generic, "It sucked or was boring," says Stern, to the specific, such as "the stakes for the main character weren't high enough. Hopefully, as they become more demanding, they'll raise the bar for the industry, a good thing if you look at what's out there."
They also "discover that filmmaking is a powerful way to express a point of view," says Bowers, whose students watch a documentary called "Mad Hot Ballroom." The film "shows kids in New York City who, after learning ballroom dancing in their PE class, have a competition. By the end, the audience is rooting for a particular team to win. We ask our students, 'How was the filmmaker able to manipulate you into doing that?'"
"The ability to judge long-term rewards rather than just experience instant gratification" is another benefit derived from the process of filmmaking, says Riedel. Children gain insight into the level of effort required by each team member to accomplish something as a group.
Time management and interpersonal skills also are enhanced by working on a film, says Brian Schilling, a MCPS outdoor environmental educator who administers the school system's Environmental Film Festival. "Students have to interact, communicate and coordinate with many people. If it's a documentary, they will need to arrange interviews with people and site visits. They can't simply show up and shoot."
Learning Other Skills
Schilling notes that this year's winning video, Life of a Longboarder, was shot in multiple locations. "It's about a kid who takes his skateboard everywhere and how environmentally friendly that is."
Kid Sikh to Sikh
It's not at all unusual for festival entries to take the better part of a school year to put together, according to Schilling. The students involved in creating Sikh Kid to Kid needed nearly a calendar year to come up with their final product.
The initial planning got underway in late August 2012, after the Wisconsin shootings. They "started recording in September, every weekend for nearly eight weeks," says Harminder Kaur, M.D., Hana's mother. "Sometimes, after reviewing the video, they had to re-record. Then came the editing process."
Hana and her mom spent hours watching raw video to determine what to keep and what to use. "It needed to be both entertaining and informative," says Hana. To that end, Hana focused on content. "I tried to watch it from the point of view of someone who knows nothing about Sikhs" - and her mom helped evaluate camera angles.
In April, the young filmmakers held a premiere at their temple. "The movie turned out to be a bigger hit than we imagined," says Hana.
Sharing the Work
So, they took it to a small film festival in Rockville. "It was the favorite of many people but the picture quality was not good," says Kaur. Hoping to enter it in other festivals, the filmmakers decided to reshoot certain footage with a higher quality camera. They originally "used a Flip camera. But some things that were shot at the temple with the Flip didn't come out well."
A decision to add music complicated things, as the students needed to secure permission from the copyright holder. "Plus we needed permission from parents with kids in the video in order to put it on social media," says Kaur.
The Internet and film festivals are the most popular ways for children to share their work. Sharing videos on the web "is completely fine, but it needs to be framed properly," says Riedel. "No personal information or contact information [should be audible or visible] within the film. I would also recommend using a password-protected video-sharing system like SmugMug.com or Vimeo.com."
The Virginia Film Festival runs the Young Filmmakers Academy, a program done "collaboratively with interested schools and teachers," says Freeman. "There's a challenge, which involves an artifact, props and a play on the word prop, such as this year's 'A Proper Film.'" What's fascinating "is the way students see the challenge and interpret it. Each film is unique and distinctive although the parameters are the same." Films are shown "on the big screen" to an audience of roughly 500 kids.
ACTION! is the Virginia Film Festival's contest for rising 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders. "There are fairly specific parameters―in terms of time limit and genre―and scholarship money," says Freeman. The festival also showcases the winning film.
Entries into the MCPS Environmental Film Festival are shown at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, which cosponsors the event along with American University (AU). There are two categories: environmental documentaries of 7 minutes or less and short narratives of 3 minutes or less. All entries are judged, "which is an enticing piece for some people," says Schilling. Prizes have included tickets to the AFI Silver Theatre and "passes to a 10-day workshop on filmmaking or film criticism at AU."
The Biggest Prize of All
But the biggest prize of all, according to Schilling, is the personal transformation that often accompanies the filmmaking process. "I had one kid tell me, 'I don't recycle. No one in my family recycles. But, now I see things a little differently.'"
Hana Kaur Mangat concurs: "We made the movie to educate people about Sikhism but realized it's a two-way street. If we want others to learn about us, we need to learn about others as well."
Activities for Aspiring Filmmakers and Film Critics
Go to films, museums, concerts and plays to see others' work and inspire creativity.
Visit a local TV station to see how directors, camera and sound operators and talent do their jobs.
Write stories, draw storyboards and read.
Get involved in group and team activities, as filmmaking is a collaborative challenge.
Secure and learn to use equipment, such as cameras, lights, microphones and editing software.
Collect costumes, props and fabric from yard sales, consignment shops and Goodwill.
Attend a filmmaking class after school or a camp in the summer.
Examine film credits, and learn about the different jobs involved in making a movie: producer, director, screenwriter, actor, costume designer, casting director, makeup artist, etc.
Hold a home screening for friends and family, complete with red (paper) carpet, dim lighting, popcorn and applause.
Act in a local theatrical production or college student's film project.
Attend film screenings and festivals to see what other kids have produced.
Source: Virginia Film Festival