Lights, camera, no action.
Six Durham teenagers have been tasked with setting up a filmed interview of one of their peers. But most of them are just standing around, unsure what they’re supposed to be doing.
“Who’s the audio person? The cameraman? The director? Start doing your jobs,” says Mark Maya, one of the two instructors at the School of Doc, a five-week documentary filmmaking program for students from grades nine through 12 run by the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. It’s only the second week of the course, and this momentary uncertainty is, considering the youth and inexperience of the participants, not unexpected. And the fact that these kids have been asked to pull off a professional-looking shoot, which involves proper lighting, a well-framed picture, clear audio and a prepared interviewer, seems like Maya is asking too much. But pull it off they do.
Which is what School of Doc is all about. “For a lot of the students, it’s about the skill set we’re teaching, how to make a film,” says Ryan Helsel, Full Frame’s Educational Programs director. “A certain percentage like documentaries, but some are involved in their high school drama program and want to be an actor, and all the actors in Hollywood want to direct. I think most are latching onto ‘It’s a filmmaking camp.’ And I’m OK with that.”
Now in its fifth year, School of Doc is a free program that draws its students from the Durham Public School System and teaches them the basic elements of filmmaking – from how to set up and operate the equipment to interviewing techniques, using pro editing equipment, how to get permission to shoot, and how to put it all together to make an interesting film.
Prospective students fill out an application that includes basic information and questions how much they know about documentaries, if they have any filmmaking experience, and what they hope to achieve with the course.
“We look for a wide variety of kids,” says Todd Tinkham, a professional filmmaker who has taught at School of Doc since its inception. “We don’t want them all to have experience with film and video and editing. The big thing we look at is how much their teachers are enthusiastically behind them. Could this kid benefit from this? Could this kid use this?”
This year’s class of 15 includes a rainbow of white, black and Hispanic students, including one Muslim girl. Kids like 18-year old Neo Cruz of Riverside High School, who started out with an interest in video journalism and says he “fell in love with editing, working with the camera, asking questions behind the camera.” Or 15-year old Destini Riley, a Jordan High School student who says she appreciates School of Doc because it helps her “learn to work with other people and their ideas; you have to find a way to merge all those ideas together.”
Students provide ideas
Collaboration is a key here, since School of Doc students are split up into separate crews. They watch documentaries, since their experience with the form has mostly been limited to what Riley calls the “boring” docs they’re shown in school. They do interviews, storyboarding, brainstorming. The students are also encouraged to provide input on what they’re being taught and what subjects they want to make films about. This year, for example, they are working on short films – generally around 10 minutes in length – on standardized testing in school, and Seeds, an inner city gardening program in Durham.
“The students come up with (story) ideas, but they have to be realistic,” says Mishel Gomez, a Wake Forest University sophomore who attended School of Doc and has also worked there as an intern. “We had to get the documentary done within a certain time frame, so we named places we wanted to know more about.”
Mishel’s class made a film about Pelican’s Snoballs, a Durham business selling iced treats.
Back in the classroom setting, Tinkham and the students are critiquing some previously shot interviews.
They’re scrutinizing frames as if they were sacred texts, checking to see if the lighting is throwing too much glare on the subject, whether the background makes sense given the subject matter (one interview about standardized testing has a brightly colored background more appropriate for a sunscreen commercial), and other criteria.
“Look at that frame,” says Tinkham of one shot. “What did we do well? And how about our lighting?”
“Compared to the other shot (they saw), how does it look?” adds Maya.
“There could be more contrast,” says Iris Vitiello, who attends Riverside High School.
“Well,” says Tinkham, who’s concerned that instead of a plain background, there’s an electrical outlet plainly visible in one of the shots, “what could you do to get that out of there?”
“Move her (the subject),” says Cruz.
And so it goes. Sometimes it’s the controlled chaos of a real movie set. Sometimes it’s an exercise in parsing minutiae. But it’s always educational.
“The program is really good at creating an environment of success for students who may not excel in traditional classroom environments,” says Helsel. “This includes many students who get good grades, but aren’t excited or challenged. It also is very good at allowing for space in which the students can gravitate to the part of the process that is most interesting or rewarding to them – while every student will learn all of the basics, every year there are some students who are really interested in cinematography and others editing, sound, interviewing or producing. It’s really very interesting to see what the students gravitate toward and what they find rewarding.”
See the film
What: Screening of the School of Doc final film made by this year’s class, plus other short projects made in class.
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, July 16.
Where: The Full Frame Theater at the American Tobacco Campus, Durham
Cost: Free. Limited seating
The film will also screen at the 2016 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.