“It’s only a movie.” I will never forget that response from a student during a class discussion. While watching a film can be the most passive engagement with a literary text, I realized during that class why helping students become more active in the process needed to be more of a priority in my teaching. Creating a single exercise that would change perhaps a lifetime’s habit of passive watching into the active viewing and close reading of films would of course be too impractical. What I instead developed was a classroom activity to introduce, or, perhaps more accurately, more closely examine the three basic elements of film form: shot, take, and editing.
In my classes, a felt pen or two and a whiteboard are the only materials I use to draw some basic storyboards. The storyboards do not have to look like they are ready to pitch to a Hollywood mogul to teach the elements. They just need to get the basic content across and let the students fill in the rest with their own movie-watching imaginations. One thing that helps accomplish this goal is to keep the frames all roughly the same size to imitate viewing a screen. The steps in the activity are as follows:
- The exercise begins with a long shot to establish a setting, just as many films do, particularly if the setting is new in the film. I usually make it of a city because I find tall buildings fast and easy to draw, but any setting is fine if an instructor is comfortable drawing it.
- To establish a scene, the next step is to draw a couple of quick medium shots to settle in on a single location within the larger setting. In my classes, this is usually a park depicted as an area with some trees and a few quick figures in a couple of frames.
- The next step is to focus on a figure or two to establish the characters in the scene also in a medium shot. Drawing balloons with a line or two in comic-book or comic-strip fashion can introduce dialogue, which often occurs after establishing setting, scene, and characters.
- The last frames I draw are close-ups to show the complete the sequence of long to medium to close-up shots and also to discuss how close-ups also represent building intensity in a scene. I also draw an extreme close-up just of a character’s bloodshot eye and a bead of sweat (this is the quickest to draw) to show extreme intensity. Two regular close-ups can also work, and it can be useful to discuss how editing one close-up after another suggests the height of dramatic tension.
- On that note, discussing the length of takes while working through the shots can help explain their role in the narrative. Establishing shots, for example, tend to be much longer takes than close-ups, which reflect and underscore the building and rising of dramatic tension.
For those not inclined to draw the frames themselves is the option of using a page or two from a comic or graphic novel, both of which use storyboarding with balloons for dialogue, on an overhead. The frames vary in size, making the visual effect slightly different from film, but if Fellini thought enough of it to spend hours chatting with comic writers and artists, these examples should work fine. An option for the technologically adventurous instructor is the use of free Storyborder software for a dazzling presentation. Of course an instructor could of course use scenes from a film on DVD or streaming video. The key is to use whatever makes the instructor comfortable with illustrating the three elements.
After using this activity, I refer back to its frames/shots while discussing a later film in a course and/or prepping students for an exam. It seems to be a good idea to provide a little extra reinforcement of the concepts of shot, take, and editing for a reminder to view films closely rather than watch them passively. One advantage of the software or comic approach is ready access to the exercise if instructors suspect their students are engaging in a little too much escapism and not enough analysis. Over the years, I have found students performing more of the latter and less of the former with the help of these steps and a couple of felt tip pens.