Lights, camera, point, click, action!

Some subjects -- like filmmaking -- were made for educational multimedia

Published July 14, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Using multimedia for self-education is an admirable notion that's been around at least since the Apple II was welcomed into schools across the country roughly two decades ago. Implicit in most accounts of why the "digital revolution" is such a great thing is the notion that users might be able to learn languages, history, technology and more -- using only their computers to connect with the world of information waiting to pounce across the circuits and into their brain.

But most education software, when it came down to it, relied far too much on the novelty of using a computer as the chief selling point-- or else used the computer to shoulder the burden of the dry repetition involved with, say, learning to conjugate foreign verbs. "How to Make Your Movie -- an Interactive Film School," a course on three CD-ROMs (for Windows 95 or Macintosh), was devised because its creator, filmmaker and teacher Rajko Grlic felt that film school textbooks were simply not demonstrative enough for a craft in which movement was so vital. An electronic solution, in a CD-ROM format familiar to most computer users by now, was a good response.

Students using "How to Make Your Movie" get a point-and-click introduction to basic filmmaking: Camera shots, the cinematographer's tools, the scriptwriting process, the history of films, legal and production fundamentals all receive at least a cursory introduction, sometimes much more.

The format for most topics is the "lecture," usually a room with a few objects lying around and a bulletin board or file cabinet with notes, plus a brief video introduction. Most of the subjects are taught by other working film scholars recruited by Grlic to cover their specialty. The lecturers are mostly likable -- though we usually only get a very short clip, and are then left to read notes. It's unsurprising that the coverage of each subject is a little brief (the film history lecture is called "the Speedy Gonzales History of Film"); but the basic information is there, and it all seems solid, at least to this amateur.

A sense of discovery is embedded in the course; scattered throughout are bits and pieces of a short film that students uncover as they go along. We first see parts of the film via illustrations of camera positioning; fragments of ideas about the film develop into a treatment and then a script as the screenwriting lectures move forward. Finally, on the top floor of the school's imaginary building, the student may watch the final production of the short. Great art it's not -- but it manages within its brief span to provide a nice overview of film technique.

Mostly, "How to Make Your Movie" makes good use of its multimedia format. When illustrating types of shots, the program deploys coordinated video, text and sketches of the camera and actors' locations. Users can click on a camera in a diagram, drawn much like a football play, to see the view through its lens, or watch a diagram moving in action as a shot is made, and its camera and actors execute precise motions. All the while a video of the scene may continue on the side of the screen.

When the design is less successful, it's usually the result of adopting clichis from the CD-ROM medium's early days. The program's interface, for instance, is a building housing a film school, and each room corresponds to a given topic, holding the relevant lecture. 3-D space as a way of organizing data is an old idea within the multimedia universe, but it's a questionable one for most purposes. Spreading information out architecturally means moving around to get to it, which is not so handy. The novelty of inhabiting an imaginary place loses its charm on the second trudge down the hall to check a forgotten fact. Thankfully, there are shortcuts -- but a flat two-dimensional index would have been convenient.

Some of the bells and whistles could also have been left out. In the film history room, for instance, a slide projector rests next to the bulletin board containing the subject's lecture. While the "Speedy Gonzales" film history provides a whirlwind tour of the cinematic past, the projector beams images of great directors, some of whom are not even mentioned in the lecture. The space taken up by the slide show could have been usefully given over to descriptions of these additional luminaries: How would someone know to genuflect in front of the image of John Cassavetes if they don't know who he is?

"How to Make Your Movie" ought to be of considerable value even if you have no plans to enter your first feature at Sundance. Learning about the ideas behind making films -- and at least a little of the nuts and bolts involved -- will benefit anyone who wants a film experience beyond amazement and spectacle. From childhood, we learn about literature by writing as well as reading, creating as well as consuming; but with film it's a different story. When readers understand the elements of design, typography, layout and grammar as well as the history of writing, they're in a better position to appreciate the accomplishment of a good book. It's natural that viewers of film who expect to get the most out of the experience would want at least a minimal grounding in the processes of celluloid creation.

There are, naturally, many things in the work that would be of little interest to someone out just to pick up some film vocabulary. The creators fully intended this to be a solid introduction for new filmmakers. Hence, there are binders full of information on industry-standard cameras and their relative merits, as well as film, sound and lighting tools. Sticky notes from the instructor giving personal insights and anecdotes are posted over the straightforward technical information. It's not exactly like having a teacher around -- but the suggestion of an informal student/teacher relationship provides at least some of the desired benefits.

For those who want to go further, "How to Make Your Movie" contains a syllabus for teaching a one-year class using the program as a coursebook. Ohio University, where Grlic has been a professor since 1993, has taken a further step into the experimental academic future by announcing a year-long Internet-based class to begin this October. The students will use the CD-ROMs, shoot their own films and meet with teachers and classmates, mostly online.

Even if you can't make it to film school, "How to Make Your Movie" will give you a cheap, solid introduction to the craft and provide good direction for future study, from Aristotle's "Poetics" to informative Web sites. When you're ready to start shooting, there's a worldwide list of camera renters; for the would-be auteur with a finished film, there's a directory of film festivals to enter. Multimedia education may have a spotty record, but filmmaking may be just the right discipline to show off its promise.

By John Alderman

John Alderman writes about technology and culture, slums around by publishing the Underbelly travel guide and makes music and sound effects with nerd rock band Three Day Stubble.

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