A little more than a half-century ago, I taught a course in filmmaking. We in the English Department had been requesting it for several years, and when the administration said yes, we realized that we had no one to teach it. So, of course, I volunteered – never having made a film or taken a photograph in my life. Hey – this was the ‘60s! Previously I did appear in a film made by a student. My character was John Norman Rockwell, and the movie was a comic take-off on the story of John Norman Collins, famous in the Ann Arbor area as a serial killer of co-eds. In the end, the police took me to a place where I had dumped a body, and they arrested me for littering. Hey – we were all young.
In those pre-computer days, we shot films in Super-8. Each film cartridge yielded 3 minutes 15 seconds of screen time. Filmmakers would take it somewhere to be developed, and then they would edit the result together using an “editor,” which involved cutting the film and then attaching the rearranged pieces using glue or tape. There was no sound, unless the filmmaker brought in a tape to play music or a narration in the background. Technology has progressed a bit since then.
My students were mostly guys who were looking for an English class that did not involve any reading or writing. I did, however, require them to show me a script before I would hand over a camera and a Super-8 cartridge. This was a good policy, as I learned when one student’s film script revealed an opening scene of an axe flying at the camera in slow motion. When I suggested that this might be dangerous to film, I was reassured that it would be safe because the slow motion would give him plenty of time to move out of the way.
There were some amazing moments that appeared on-screen. One of my favorites was a blind guy driving a car while feeling his way with a cane he held out the window. Another was a guy whose car got a flat tire. He changed it and left the flat beside the road. The tire wiggled in obvious distress, so the driver got out of the car, gave the tire a hug and put it in the back seat for a ride into town.
The two most common film genres were The Walking Film and The Driving Film, usually accompanied by some sort of narrative describing what was going wrong in the character’s life. Because three minutes is not enough time to resolve many of life’s problems, some of the films ended with the death of the character. Early in the semester, we saw that death in the form of a dummy being dropped off of a parking structure at the university. Very impressive! Several other students repeated this in their films, often using the same dummy. I was most impressed when a filmmaker had the dummy launch from the parking structure even though it had nothing to do with the film taking place in the foreground. Several filmmakers picked up on this. We should have given the dummy a name and a desk in my room.
I tried to expand my young filmmakers’ appreciation of movies beyond the action/adventure stories they typically watched. I showed them a few historical films (e.g. The Great Train Robbery, Potemkin, King Kong), skipping, for obvious reasons, Citizen Kane and Birth of a Nation. Also, since I had access to the University of Michigan Film Library, I brought in some artsy short films. One of my favorites was a ten-minute adventure called “Carrot Droop,” in which the filmmaker had clamped a fresh carrot in a small vice and did a time-lapse over a couple of weeks. We watched the carrot slowly droop. My students were dumbfounded that anyone would make or even watch such a movie. I told them it won a prize of $5,000 in a film competition, and they were aghast. I never did let on that I had totally invented the story about the prize. I just wanted to rattle their brains a bit.
What did my students learn from our exploration of filmmaking? Well, I did have two of my former students go on to some success in Hollywood. Ron Amick's Linked-In page includes:
All Media Story Engineer designing web-based solutions for over 24 years in LA.
As my grandpappy used to always say: ~ Free your Web and your As-pirations will follow.
Web development started for me at Disney and continued at five Los Angeles creative agencies. Mostly WordPress, but other pressing as well, plenty of steam, with or without starch.
I had a whole prior career in filmmaking/post-production management/film&video editing/screenwriting -- so unlike most designer/developer-types, I offer content creation of all kinds. I spell reel good.
Ron learned all of this from me.
And David Goyer, who has had considerable success as a filmmaker – especially Batman and other superhero films – as well as a number of video games. I can claim some sort of credit for his success because he never took Filmmaking from me. No, I only had him as a student in my Humanities class, where we never saw or discussed movies. By successfully avoiding my Filmmaking “instruction,” he was open to learning his filmmaking at the University of Southern California. I’m proud of my non-achievement.
What else did they learn? I hope that they learned that a movie is a made thing. They don’t just happen on a screen, but that people – like them, but with better equipment – made a lot of decisions and put in a lot of work to make the movie happen. I’m probably too optimistic when I say that they may also have broadened that learning to include an appreciation of what goes into making a shirt, or a phone, or a meal. Yes, maybe a leaf or a butterfly just happen, but a lot of our world, including that dummy falling off the parking structure, is a product of our human creativity and toil.