You Oughta Be in Pictures: An Introduction to Making Videos

Imagine saying to your students, "Let's make a TV show or music video!"

Few projects can engage children like video projects. They're fun, and what could be more gratifying for a child than to see his or her name rolling in the credits, just like in a movie?

Making a video isn't difficult, even though you may have little experience with video yourself. You probably know more about it than you think. 

Video can be one of the most powerful forms of communication, and it offers a tremendous vehicle for learning. Experiencing video production, even in its most basic form, can open new career opportunities and avenues for personal expression. It teaches kids about multimedia communication with action and motion, and it helps them reinforce a variety of other skills, including critical thinking, literacy, interpersonal communication, collaboration, public speaking, composition, storytelling and group decision making.

Studying video has another advantage: It helps teach vital media literacy skills so kids can understand how the many images they encounter every day affect them and so they can observe those images with a more critical eye.

Working with video isn't something you can just jump right into, however. Children must be prepared for it with preliminary excursions into concepts like storyboarding and photography. Each stage can be made fun and educational, and at the end of the project, the children will understand how all the pieces come together to make a video they're proud to show parents, friends and the world by putting it on the Internet. Children as young as age five can make a video with the proper guidance and preparation. Below is an overview of the stages involved.

Recommended Time: 

Plan on working on the various elements of this project for about 30 minutes per day over several weeks. Break it up into modules that make sense for your program schedule and the age of your kids. Younger children will require more time with modeling and practicing various segments.

Goals: 
    • To teach kids about simple video production techniques
    • To explore storytelling in more depth
    • To learn basic photography skills.
Materials and Equipment: 
Digital cameras capable of capturing short video clips (preferable) or video cameras, Computers,
Panel book, Sheets of white paper for drawing,
Assortment of pens, crayons and/or markers in various colors, Oversized pad, at least 2' x 3' (preferable) or blackboard for mapping
Preparation (Before You Begin): 

Making a video incorporates a number of other skills with which you should be familiar. You can introduce them to the kids in earlier projects, or introduce them as part of this one. Either way, be sure that you are familiar with the following:

    • using mapping,
    • using storyboards,
    • the basics of drawing, and
    • digital photography.

You may also want to introduce simple animation techniques as a brief unit to help kids start thinking about motion in storytelling. 

Activity Steps: 

Step 1: Getting to Video With Storytelling

Making a video combines many traditional skills as well as some that may not be so familiar to children. It's important to take your time and prepare kids with the fundamental, nontechnical elements before actually introducing the camera.

Think of a video project as having three parts: concept, storyboard and production. More sophisticated projects with older children might include an editing stage, but that involves technology and training beyond introductory activities like this. In the beginning, have children make short pieces of 30 seconds to one minute. You can get more sophisticated later, if you have the facilities, but children must first master the fundamentals.

Before you start a video project, make sure that children understand what makes a good story, especially one that involves pictures as well as words. Try panel book activities and storyboarding. We also recommend introducing animation and multimedia authoring before tackling video to help ease students into the process. Exercises like these help children not only understand the elements of story better but also improve their language skills and graphic sense.

Step 2: Getting to Video With Sound and Pictures

Also fundamental to video is a basic understanding of sound and photography. Both can be introduced while working with multimedia authoring projects before getting to the video stage.

It's especially important to sensitize children to the impact of sound. Although it's something they know is all around them, they tend to think more consciously about words and pictures than sound effects and background noise. In the video production phase, sound effects will become even more important because they'll have to be reinforced. An actor walking in sneakers, for example, may not make footsteps loud enough to be picked up by the camera's recorder. You'll need a sound effects person on your team to focus on such things.

Preparation and understanding are the keys to a successful video project. The more you do low-tech things, the higher you can up the creative ante later with technology. Projects like this are not just about the tools; they're about inspiring creativity, confidence and learning in children.

When it comes to camera work, don't get too deeply into theory just for this project, but cover the basic techniques of photography. With video, the photographic essentials of angle, pan, distance, level, focus and framing are combined with a new element—movement—of both the camera and the subjects being filmed.

If the digital cameras you used to introduce photography also allow for the capture of short video segments, you won't have to introduce the kids to an additional piece of equipment. Using digital cameras rather than full-fledged video cameras has another advantage: Because they capture the images on disk instead of tape, it's easy to add them to multimedia presentations and Web pages.

Step 3: Concept and Story

Once you're comfortable that the children are ready, it's time to begin a group video project. Start by showing them an example of a short, simple video as a model. TV commercials can be helpful because the good ones effectively combine the essential elements of sound and picture to tell a story in a minute or less.

Find an example—one that's fairly minimalist—so as not to distract or intimidate the children with fancy production values or special effects. In their first video, you'll have them copy the basic structure of the example, so keep it simple. Show the children the example at least twice, each time asking them to pay particular attention to one element of the piece, such as sound or camera position.

Now step the children through making a storyboard of the sample you showed them. In addition to the basic sketches of the action, each frame must include such elements as associated dialogue, camera position and important sound effects. You're basically drafting all the cinematic elements of each shot as thumbnails for understanding the story and how it was told. Do this exercise interactively and ask lots of questions to point children to the elements they may not notice at first.

Once the children understand the model, spend some time helping them apply it to their own projects. The most basic elements of a story of this type are problem, solution and how we obtain the solution. In the case of a commercial, for example, the equation might be as simple as the following:

    • Problem: A person has no furniture.
    • Solution: Buy some furniture.
    • How: Use the store's catalog.

Use mapping to help generate ideas; take a look at a sample map to begin a storytelling project. Divide the group into teams of five or more and have each team come up with other problem/solution/how equations of their own. After a few minutes, have the teams share their ideas with the whole class, and pick an idea to produce as a demonstration video. Once you've selected a concept, storyboard it in detail with the entire class. Let the whole group write it while you act as questioner, coach and facilitator.

tip When helping kids choose an idea for the demonstration—and for their own projects as well—guide them toward practical concepts that are "do-able." Choose ideas for which all necessary props are on hand and that won't require extraordinary skills, effects or technology that is beyond the group's capabilities.

Step 4: Making a Demonstration Video

As we stress over and over again, good modeling is the essence of good teaching. For the demonstration video, you will be the director working with a crew. By producing the demonstration video first, you'll be able to model the various roles in a production crew and show the children what shooting a video will be like.

Half the fun of creating a video is that it's a team project—not just a group of people working alongside each other, but a real team that must totally coordinate all of its ideas, work and efforts in order to succeed. For example, the camera person must learn how to follow the actors, and the lighting person must understand how the camera person will move around. Repeated modeling, practice and rehearsal are essential.

Assemble your demonstration team, and either assign or let the members select their roles. In addition to the director, a production team needs a camera person, a sound person, a lighting person and a props person, along with whatever actors are called for in the script. You can adjust the responsibilities according to the number of people in your group. Some people may be able to play more than one role: For example, one person can usually handle both props and lighting. Conversely, you may want to have more than one person doing sounds.

Don't overlook the importance of lighting, by the way. It's something few adults notice, let alone children, but it can make all the difference in how a film or photograph looks. Spend some time demonstrating lighting effects. You don't need special equipment, just one or more lamps you can move around the room.

Using your storyboard as a foundation, help the demonstration team understand their roles by modeling in front of the class. You may end up deciding to adapt certain aspects of your storyboard, such as lighting, camera placement or where the actors walk. Once your team has figured it out, rehearse a couple of times. Preparation and confidence is everything. Have the camera and sound people practice coordination with the actors, but keep it simple. This is a demonstration to help the entire class feel comfortable. They'll experiment with new techniques once they begin their own projects.

Now that everyone is ready, it's time for action. Have your team shoot the video, then show it to the whole class and talk about it. The teams can now go off and shoot their own films.