Teaching cinema via videoconference is not as natural as it seems
I have been teaching the practice of film arts in colleges and universities since 1978. Over the years, I have had to learn new technologies and new ways of teaching them, as the tools of cinema have evolved. It seems like every few years there would be new software formats that have changed so much. As technology evolves, so does art.
I teach film at the University of Texas at Arlington, and when it became clear that after spring break that we would not be returning to teaching in person, I was faced with the big question: how do you teach a course like film production that is heavy on hands-on instruction and learning?
I need to teach students, for example, how a light works and see what happens when you refine it. In my middle class, the pupils had to learn and shoot 16mm films. There is no way to do this when they cannot get to campus to get the camera and the labs that process and transfer the film are not in operation. It was going to be difficult.
One of the most amazing aspects of facing these challenges has been how film teachers have come together to help each other. A member of the University Film and Video Association (of which I am a board member) started a group on Facebook called Teaching Film, Media, Screenwriting & Production Online for COVID-19. Teachers shared their resources, achievements and assignments. The specific information was both inspiring and helpful.
The first step was to rework the projects, replacing work that could be done at home with mobile devices and software. For example, in one project, students had to recreate a scene from a classic movie to learn about the language of movies. Students used Legos, teddy bears, family members as actors, and animations to learn the core value of the mission. For the 16mm film project, I substituted a mission where they film an object that has special meaning for them (expressively shooting and lighting) and create a soundscape that, in a non-literal way, evokes that meaning. This replaces a skill (16mm film) with a shooting table.
Using Zoom, I was able to see the faces of some students in my class, but not all. It was clear from the start how income inequality worsened the situation. Some students did not have working webcams. Some had a slow internet connection, so they couldn’t display video with audio. Some students’ computers were not powerful enough to run video editing software. A student who needed a good computer and a good internet connection had to come to school, but the only way to get there was to be driven by her mother, which meant she had to go to school. ‘take time off from work.
The students learned, but maybe not what we expected on entering.
In the short term, we did a good job of learning on the fly. But in the long run, we have to be face to face, learning to control the lights, cameras and audio equipment, helping the students up by being there when they get lost, and helping them get through the situation. Much of good teaching relies on personal mentoring. In cinema, this can only happen to a certain extent online.
What really worries me is the future. I’m concerned that we have a two tier system of high end schools that have a majority of in-person classes while others are mostly online. While there are many things that online learning can offer, spending a lot of time with each student is not one of them.
A college education is as much about learning to think as it is about what you learn. Learning to change, to adapt, to think and, for us, to tell stories is essential. For me, it was the one-on-one moments that the teachers spent with me that motivated, inspired and learned me. This is what I try to recreate for my students. I hope we can do it again. It’s hard to do that, looking at a screen full of Zoom faces.
Barton C. Weiss is Associate Professor of Art and Art History at the University of Texas at Arlington, Founder and Director from Dallas VideoFest, producer of Frame of Mind on KERA and co-host of The Fog of Truth podcast. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.