The barriers in the way to making your own films have never been so low, however the inertia to start often stops a lot of budding filmmakers. This summer, a program in Chicago got 12 kids from diverse backgrounds to team up and make their own film. They used iPhones, Final Cut Pro X and of course some help & knowledge from Sam Mestman.
Sam here. Sometimes you get to work on something that changes the way you view your career, and that’s exactly what happened with me and the rest of the LumaForge team when we got to work with the amazing students and teachers from the Chicago Summer Stories Program this past summer. The way that I will approach teaching filmmaking and video literacy from now on will never be the same. I’m excited about that.
If you want to get good at something, the best way to do it is to fail quickly, often, and cheaply. Mistakes are your best teachers, and every time you make one, there’s a lesson to learn.
The more mistakes you make, and the rate at which you fix them directly correlates to how good at something you’re getting. Unfortunately for most filmmakers and aspiring visual storytellers, you don’t get very many opportunities to make mistakes, at least not with making something that really matters to you.
In fact, everyone expects you to be perfect right from the very beginning, even though you’re dealing with a pretty imperfect industry and poorly established workflow.
On your first film, you’re almost guaranteed to get lost very quickly in cameras, codecs, resolutions, frame rates, NLE’s, metadata, VFX, color and sound workflow and trying to create the perfect workflow with all of them.
A few thousand dollars (if you’re lucky) and a lot of grey hairs later, you’re left with something that’s usually kind of what you wanted, but not really, and a deep feeling that doing that all again was just going to be too hard and expensive. Most people decide not to ever make a movie again after they make one for the first time. It’s too hard and stressful… or they’re deep in debt wishing that they knew then what they know now.
Case in point… About ten years ago, I got hired to make a featured documentary on the “cutting edge“ Panasonic DVX-100 camera that could shoot 720x480 video “progressively” that made it kind of look like film, and allowed you to shoot on inexpensive DV tapes. We were really excited about this and shot 100 hours of tape and edited a feature doc in Legacy FCP.
The whole process involved a lot of waiting, digitizing, mind bending render issues, an inability to find footage, a lot of GRAIDs, and a lot of pain and complexity that no one was ready for. It took a long time, turned out pretty well, but was definitely not a repeatable process that didn’t require someone else’s money in order to learn how to do things properly.
The truth is that if your passion for storytelling requires a lot of someone else’s money in order for you to get good at it.… it’s going to be very hard and take a very long time for you to ever get good at storytelling. It also means that very few people will become good at it, so there will be a very limited set of voices we’re ever excited to hear from… it’s a great way to make sure that the top 1% are the only ones who get a platform to be heard.
A little more than ten years later, we turned everything in that last paragraph on its head with the Chicago Summer Stories Program (CSS). To set the scene, 12 kids from diverse backgrounds from every part of Chicago came together at Flashpoint in downtown Chicago to get a crash course in the future of visual storytelling.
Apple Distinguished Educator Steve Douglass led the program along with Rashaan Meador and LaTeefa Harland Young of Chicago Public Schools. The goal of the program was to come up with a new model for how teachers approached teaching video in the classroom.
Instead of focusing on the ins and outs of complex gear and preparing kids for hypothetical “jobs” that are going to be using completely different technology by the time the kids enter the workforce anyway, Chicago Summer Stories intended to emphasize iteration, practical knowledge, critical thinking, and collaboration with lightweight easy to use filmmaking tools… basically, they were going to get a crash course in how to make a movie with iPhones, peripherals that all cost $300 or less, and editing in Final Cut Pro X.
They worked in an open classroom from headphones in a shared collaborative Final Cut Pro X environment off a LumaForge Jellyfish with (6) standard 5k iMacs connected over a mix of 10 gig and gigabit ethernet and a few of the latest MacBook pros for on set/home editing which could also be used in the classroom and quickly connected to the Jellyfish over gigabit ethernet.
Every aspect of the program was designed to keep the kids from becoming too precious about the gear they were using, and instead focused on telling their stories. On day one, they got a quick once over on Filmic Pro on the iPhone, got shown how to hook a boom mic up to it, make the most of an iographer, how to use a lav with an Apogee clipmic and the Metarecorder app, and then got a crash course in editing with FCPX.
They were then told to each go make a movie over the next 48 hours and see how far they could get. All 12 kids had a finished movie by that deadline. While some were better than others, the reality is that none of them really understood how impossible a feet what they had just accomplished used to be.
The CSS program, and the movement it is meant to spawn, is designed to introduce more efficient ways of crafting stories through video. Upon finishing their 48 hour challenge video, there was no waiting around. They were split into 3 groups of four and each assigned a topic for a short 5 minute documentary around how their topic was impacting Generation Z locally in Chicago. The topics were Activism, Innovation, and Arts and Music, and the students got their hands dirty immediately.
They shot concerts, museums, all around Chicago, in their inner city neighborhoods, and in the Suburbs. They shot protests, small businesses, and did interviews with people all over the spectrum of Chicago. Two weeks were spent in production. Footage was lost, audio was lost, and media was horrendously mismanaged. They brushed the mistakes off and went and shot again and did it better.
They brought things into Final Cut and realized the levels were off or they couldn’t sync their lav mics. They wrote outlines and scripts that were totally impractical and were never going to happen. They argued intensely over creative decisions. They pointed fingers, got frustrated, and made excuses. They threw their teachers under the bus and took feedback personally. They made poor creative choices, and shot with imperfect framing on occasion. They tried things, some of which worked, and some of which were quietly not talked about again. They asked good questions and dumb questions.
They failed quickly, repeatedly, and often… but they also learned and they got better quickly. Without a program like this that offers the ability to fail quickly, cheaply and often, these students wouldn’t have reached the level of collaboration necessary to complete their films. The transformation in the students (and educators) from the first feedback session to the final screening was likely the biggest reward of this experience. That first feedback session ended with everyone feeling like failures and motivated to quit.
Their final feedback screening was met with students cheering one another on and uniting over their shared excitement for having truly accomplished something together. I’ve never been a part of anything like this before in my career. The experience changed how I view education and the power of video literacy in our school systems. It gave me a glimpse into our future and gave me and my fellow adult educators an in-depth look at the collaboration and inclusion necessary to establish workflows in this new era of democratized video.
The 3 short docs, shown below, were the product of 12 kids with iPhones, figuring out how to tell a story visually with people they’ve never worked with before. Are they perfect? Of course not. Are they way better than anything I made (or saw anyone else make) in film school for the budget it was made at? Absolutely … and these kids aren’t in college yet, and they were only using the phones in their pockets. That’s game changing.
The process of iteration, opportunity to collaborate and having access to an incubator in which to learn problem solving skills was far more important than the technology behind all of this. In an era of standardized tests where answering trivia questions is deemed more important than learning how to work through adversity, the CSS program offered a new template for teaching kids the life skills they should be learning, but that aren’t currently emphasized in our education system.
Most film schools operate by teaching their students that filmmaking is about knowing what buttons to press on your gear, and that the best button pushers are going to have the jobs in the industry as specialists. This approach misses the boat completely. Instead of this archaic mentality, the CSS kids got a crash course in learning project management in adverse conditions (dealing with tech and applications you’ve never used), resourcefulness (not being given a large budget or high end gear), managing a chaotic environment you’ve never been in before (shooting on location), and collaborating with people who are different than you (mixing urban and suburban kids from very different socio-economic backgrounds).
As a person who runs a company that is looking for people who know how to hustle and communicate, I know for a fact that we’d much rather hire people with those skills than people who know which bubble on a piece of paper to fill in with their pencil. Situational awareness, presence, resilience, communication skills, and adaptability to new situations are WAY more important in the modern workforce than what random facts you managed to retain.
The world needs more problem solvers, and if you know how to make a film or a documentary with no resources and people you don’t know, it means you know how to solve problems and communicate, and that’s good enough to work at my company or anywhere else that’s trying to make the world a better place.
Learning a new process can be taught. Learning how to look at a problem and come up with a solution that never existed before is something that we expect you to be already capable of doing before you start working at LumaForge, and it’s a surprisingly hard thing to find today. Teaching video storytelling the way we did it in Chicago helps people learn how to do this.
Shoot. Edit. Screen. Revise. Repeat. Shoot. Edit. Screen. Revise. Repeat. That’s the way kids (and adults) need to be approaching filmmaking. It will teach them to develop their voices and visual styles in a way that’s unique to them, and will teach them to have the confidence to approach new situations, technologies and people with confidence and ease… because they will know their process.
Instead of emphasizing all the ivory tower complexity the current industry deals with, here’s how I would approach teaching the world video if I could rewrite the curriculum: Throw 4 people in a room together and tell them each to take a turn shooting someone getting up and walking out of the room with their phone, and have them edit their first movie in iMovie on their iPhone.
From there, have them send that iMovie project to their Mac and have them revise it, add music and have them make the best version of it they know how to make in iMovie, with their last step being to send it from iMovie to Final Cut Pro X, where they can get their feet wet with some more advanced speed, sound, and color correction tools.
After that, make a second film with the same four people taking turns making each other’s movies. Have them connect a boom mic to the iPhone, learn Filmic Pro, and have them each shoot a short dialogue scene in 4k with two people talking and bring that into Final Cut and have them all learn how to edit a short dialogue scene where they learn the fundamentals of editing with J and L cuts.
Next up is a 3 scene short film where you merge two of the groups together, and have them rotate around different set positions, still using the iPhone as the primary camera, but now mixing interior and exterior footage, second source audio, and a small lightweight lighting package. In post, you’ll focus on metadata, organization, media management, syncing second source audio, color correction, and advanced sound.
By the time people are done with that third film, they’ll know the basics of visual storytelling and will know their way around making a movie… and it will have cost them next to nothing to have learned how to do that. They can go on from there, throw in a RED camera, high end lenses, a Movi, steadicam, drone, greenscreen, VFX, or any of the other high end tools the film industry has to offer, and they’ll at least know why and how to use them effectively, and will have a fine appreciation for the craftspeople who are specialists with those tools.
Video is about to take over the world as the preferred way that people communicate with each other. A blog written in English in America is of no use when trying to connect with someone who speaks Mandarin in China. A visual image handled with care and thought will say everything that needs to be said, though. As we fully enter a global world, we’re going to need to be able to cross cultural and language barriers with the visual image. It’s the only thing all of us are going to be able to understand.
So if that’s the case, we might as well know how to make and explain a complex idea through video properly, and this should not be something that only a few people know how to do well. It should be something that every company, student, teacher, friend, and family knows how to do with ease, almost as easily as they know how to write the written word. The reality is that the world doesn’t need more video, but it does need better video, and it needs it to come from different sources and voices. The template for how to do that was laid down this summer in Chicago.
My lasting impression as I watched all of these brilliant, proud, and empowered students presenting their work in 4k in front of a packed house on the Michigan Avenue Apple Store’s 50 foot screen was the feeling that before these kids were leaving high school, they already had everything they needed to go make something even better the next time around. I’ve never had that feeling with my own work for my entire career as a filmmaker. Seems like progress to me.