The 60-Second Feeling
When teaching courses or workshops that have a strong media production component, there can be a danger of ‘process’ becoming a top-down directive that stifles learning and creativity before it even has a chance to get off the ground. I endeavor to create a learning approach and environment that supports students in finding their own way to a production process that works for them. To that end, I have had strong positive results with a day one exercise called ‘The 60-Second Feeling.’ The exercise provides a fairly simple way of getting the class to be making, sharing and analyzing media before they have a chance to wonder whether or not they are ‘doing it right.’
I developed this exercise for a course I teach in the Media Arts + Practice Division of the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, called IML 500: Digital Media Tools and Tactics. As a discipline and industry, cinema is rife with practices that define one as an insider, outsider, expert or novice. The course I teach is for masters students from across the University, not just from Cinema, who envision a strong media component within their scholarly work, and so I see a special need to make the tools and practices of cinematic arts accessible, adaptable and inclusive for these learners who come from anthropology, American studies, critical studies, communications and elsewhere.
Many of them arrive at the first day of class with an apprehension about media production technology and what they perceive as a workflow of dizzying complexity. The 60-Second Feeling provides an opportunity to become familiar, in brief, with the full arc of the production workflow within a safely bounded space and time. Students plan, shoot, ingest, screen and critique video projects on the first day of class.
Working as individuals or in small groups, students are given an emotion keyword and a video camera. Keeping their keyword secret from other groups or students, they are given a short amount of time (usually 10-minutes) to plan out how they will make a 60-second (or less) single shot video that conveys this emotion WITHOUT using any words or faces. They are then given 30-minutes to go out of the classroom and shoot their project. When they return, they must transfer their shot onto the computer to be used for playback. Once all the projects are in, the class watches one at a time. After watching one of the projects, students who did not make it guess what the emotion keyword was that prompted the project.
- Paper for prompts - I usually print the emotion keywords on slips of paper and put one in each camera case. Prompts can be any emotion, I try for a mix of complexities. Happy and sad are fine, but so are envy, disappointment, elation, consternation, contentment and remorse.
- Video cameras - enough for each student, or for small groups of students (no more than four students per group). Simple Flipcam style cameras work well. Smartphone cameras also work as long as students have a way of transferring their work from their device to a classroom computer.
- Computer for playback - in a digital workflow, ingestion and media management are integral parts of the process, so it is important that this exercise includes a step that requires students to get their media off of whatever device they shot it on, and onto a computer for playback.
- Screening device - either a video monitor or projector and screen, large enough for group viewing of the finished projects.
Notes on the Process
Although this is generally a group assignment and works well as a team building collaboration, I have also had good results when students carry it out individually if I am working with a smaller class or group.
Limiting the video recording to no more than 60-seconds of a single shot accomplishes a number of things. It begins to create a sensibility about the basic unit of video production, the shot, and it pushes students to think creatively about contiguous time and space and just how much can be accomplished in less than a minute. The prohibition against words and faces also encourages students to think of less-than-obvious ways of conveying emotion. Students will usually gravitate towards either a narrative or formal interpretation of the prompt, either creating a story that conveys the emotion or using formal elements of composition, color and movement to evoke their prompt. Sometimes I will prohibit the use of any humans on-screen if I want to push the exercise towards more of a formal exploration. Strict time limits help students from getting bogged down in their ideas.
Playback and discussion is probably the most important part of this exercise. The ‘guessing game’ element provides a fun and friendly way into a discussion. When students venture a guess about what emotion they think prompted a given project, I ask them to describe exactly what they saw and heard in the project that lead them to their guess. In this way, we begin from day one to develop a shared class vocabulary for group feedback and critique that is grounded in what is actually present in a given media project, trying to stay away from group dialog that veers into individual interpretation and suggestions about what might’ve been or ‘what you could’ve done.’ I offer the class my own attempts at visual analysis, with special care to delineating the arc of each piece. This sense of arc is another important component of the exercise. Even in a 60-second project, there is always a beginning, a middle and an end; there are always distinct movements defined by narrative beats or formal dynamism. Learning to shape these elements and to give due care to each in its relation to the whole is a principle goal of successful scholarly media production.
I have found this to be a useful exercise in a number of contexts besides IML 500. It has worked well with much younger learners participating in summer storytelling workshops (ages 9 through 16). It also worked well with college freshmen in the context of a digital studies studio course. I encourage you to try it out and adapt it to your needs and to have fun making and sharing media with your students from day one.