To start: I don't recommend this project. The scale is something else and really needs to be teacher centered to pull it off in a reasonable amount of time (two weeks from script to premiere). The end result has always been worth it, but this year showed how monumental it can be to make a coherent film with a bunch of teenagers. If anything, this story is intended to show you what can happen if you're committed to iterating on an idea. Don't give up because the first attempt is crap, figure out WHY it was crap and recommit yourself. Let me tell you a tale...

Year One

Classes: 2
Equipment: 720p borrowed camera, library tripod, iMovie, MacBook Pro
Final Product: 5:47, 440MB; 2:37, 203MB

My second year teaching I had this morning class. They loved to dance. They drove me crazy. A contributing factor to how mentally draining my second year was. This happened a lot:

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The afternoon class would find out about this and create responses. These dance battles continued for a week or two. Then I came to my senses and stopped it.

To appease their need to dance, I said sometime in the future we could make a more fleshed out version. That was the framework for the project. I typed up my thoughts in a little rubric. Some kid would be the director. Some kid would be the dance coordinator. Anyone who didn't want to participate could make posters or something. We needed five scenes, each one about a topic we'd covered during the year.

Verdict: meh, but a sign of potential. The kid director idea was terrible and the films are pretty incoherent. The posters everyone made were junk. The dances, those were fabulous.

Year Two

Classes: 2
Equipment: 1080p borrowed camera, library tripod, iMovie, 27" iMac
Final Product: 5:07, 788MB; 7:01, 1.08GB

I was going to be ready this year. We'd film for a week! I gave myself full creative control and wasn't going to let anyone cop out with a poster. I had just started organizing the room into discreet groups so I tried anything and everything to try out the group framework. In each class, I gave them the idea: a bunch of scenes, each vaguely about a topic we covered. Each group was responsible for fleshing out an idea around the scenes.

Verdict: better, the films were still kind of random, but each of them was funny. We even hacked together a decent plot in one of them. The quality of the sound left a lot to be desired. In the three days after we finished shooting the groups were supposed to make tutorial videos about the topic they picked earlier. This was my way of beefing up the intellectual content of the whole exercise. It was a bad idea. The tutorials were horrible.

Year Three

Classes: 3
Equipment: 1080p camera, Røde StereoVideo Mic, library tripod, Final Cut Pro X, Mac Pro
Final Product: 9:08, 1.35GB; 5:56, 870MB; 5:43, 835MB; 5:26, 804MB [bloopers]

Spurred by the success of year two, I knew these were going to be good. Now we start introducing some logistics: negotiating shooting locations, planning around AP tests, making arrangement for cameos, etc. We wrote the story the same way it was done the year before. The individual groups were responsible for a scene. This time, we found a way to tell a story, often needing to modify the original ideas heavily. I set aside two days to explicitly write the script. One class was so fond of their groups that the story revolved around the rivalry between purple table and blue table:

Verdict: now we're talking. Spending time on the stories really helped. One of them was a dud, but that had more to do with the personalities of the students involved. We were doing enough filming that the blooper real became its own entity. Previously they were incorporated into the individual films. Sound quality improved, but the stereo microphone had trouble (a school bus was idling nearby in one shot, kids still aren't loud enough). Tutorials were scrapped in favor of other projects.

Year Four

Classes: 4
Equipment: 1080p camera, Røde StereoVideo Mic, Røde boom pole, Røde NTG-2 shotgun microphone, H4N Zoom Recorder, sound technician, tripod, Final Cut Pro X, Mac Pro
Final Product: 5:26, 632MB; 6:54, 790MB; 7:43, 919MB; 6:12, 723MB; 7:52, 910MB [bloopers]

I was excited to make these the entire year. Each class had the right personalities to make it work and they did not disappoint. The biggest difference is we started with the story. All the classes had a foundation idea long before we started production. In little moments of downtime I would let them think out loud about their plot, knowing it would be beneficial. When it came time to write the script, we were way ahead of the game and discussed a story that was going to work and make sense from start to finish.

In case you're wondering: Avengers (top left), Cheating (top right), Dora the Explorer gets married (bottom left), and Selfie Addiction (bottom right).

Rather than force a scene around math, we let the scenes dictate what might be necessary. And it was subtle, little lines of dialog here or there, or a prop that involved a problem written on a little whiteboard.

We also heavily invested in costume design. OMG the props.

The big win was the investment in equipment. Everyone sounded lovely. I ran the camera with its microphone, and a couple students ran the separate recorder and boom mic. Honest to goodness sound technicians, creating mind blowing scenes like this:


Verdict: just amazing. All four films were great. Premiere day was so much fun. The kids were so excited to be a part of it from start to finish. It's a lasting memory. But man, a half dozen times I had to stop myself and think about what I'd gotten into. Four movies to write, direct, film, and *gulp* edit. I saw the editing nightmare coming early (that whole external mic thing required a lot of syncing source files which thank goodness Final Cut manages like magic) and did a little blocking after every day of filming. When shooting was over all the movies were roughly blocked and the task of minute editing was not so intense.


Try this project with plenty of warning. It is a lot of work on your part. The kids were responsible for a lot of the ideas, but ultimately I had to have a very active role in the whole thing. It involved a lot of research on my part to learn about film making, audio/video equipment, and teaching myself to edit (and then spending about 10 hours editing). It was as much a learning experience for me as it was the students. This is NOT something where you can chill for two weeks while the students make something fabulous.

You and I are good at different things. You have lots of good ideas I'm sure. Do not throw them away because the first year didn't go as expected. Do not be afraid to invest time in tweaking. You don't make a full scale Avengers spoof your first time out. Keep pushing, never stop trying.

AuthorJonathan Claydon