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How to create an inclusive, collaborative classroom model for film students

Posted on: September 3, 2021

In this blog, Thomas Robotham, author of Cinematic Storytelling , explores how creating a supportive and inclusive classroom environment helps film students to understand that collaboration is essential for successful filmmaking.

Craft orientation brings hierarchy into the classroom

Undergraduate film production classes are primarily craft studies, embedded in an academic matrix. Performative skills travel alongside information exchange and analysis. This is part of the lineage of arts and crafts, where a culture is passed on, based on professional practice. A precept of film culture is the hierarchical organization of production. We pass this along when we teach.

As professionals, many of us have worked on sets where the organizational structure facilitates teamwork, cooperative energy, and a shared sense of creative satisfaction. We’ve all paid dues on projects where the vibe is uncooperative and everyone feels isolated.

The question for teaching is how to harness the collaborative potential, while restraining the negative dynamics that come from hierarchical organization. An inclusive, egalitarian atmosphere may not be absolutely essential on a movie set, but it is in a classroom.

This is my classroom experience with students at the intro and intermediate level. These classes tend to be exercise and project based. Structured division of labor is part of the classroom experience. I have found that a collaborative model encourages engagement from the most assertive to the most reticent student, from the gear-obsessed to the critical thinker.

Conversations to address the hierarchy

At the start of a semester, we discuss the production hierarchy. This is a teacher-led chain or distributed conversation.

  • An initial, structuring question goes to one student, follow-ups to the next, and so on.
  • No one holds the floor to the exclusion of peers.
  • If someone is stuck and starts to feel exposed, I offer options to choose from and ask why they made that choice—not as a matter of right and wrong, but to understand intentions and present implications.

Using this method, students get used to contributing without feeling foolish, and to having distributed conversations, much like generous collaborators on set.
It’s important to keep the conversation practical, focused, and moving along. I offer a definition: Hierarchies are common in fields that require coordinated action under stress. Then I ask questions like:

  • Are film sets life-and-death, like war or ICU’s?
  • Or are they more like a musical band or sports team, with a shared upside and less fearsome downside?

Together, we make a list of key roles, such as the producer, director, cinematographer, sound mixer, production designer, actors, A.D., plus writers (pre) and editors (post), for a total-process orientation.

  • Ask for definitions of key roles. Identify definitions that are authority based—who gets to tell others what to do. This would be illustrated in the standard, layered, organization chart.
  • Shift to a responsibility-based definition, which could be illustrated by raising a big tent, each person holding their respective pole. No one can drop their pole—their responsibility—to grab another’s without causing the entire project to fail.
  • Ask what core responsibility each role must uphold for the sake of the total project, and define in simplest terms, that can be unpacked.
  • Examples: the producer is responsible for the business of the project; the director for the storytelling; the cinematographer for the motion picture; etc.
  • Fold back in all the student ideas, demonstrating a path from their thoughts to a common understanding. This helps the class anticipate an inclusive and collaborative approach.
  • Don’t focus on the right or wrong of student comments, but on how the ideas shape the discussion by opening up productive pathways or closing off unproductive ones.

This demonstrates creative exploration—entertaining any idea and following the productive ones. Students get a sense that competition is not internal to the group, but directed toward meeting or exceeding shared goals.

Collaborative and individual development

Collaboration makes complex tasks like filmmaking possible. But there is also each student’s need to develop their individual craft.

For example, during class exercises, the group shares responsibility and no single individual is THE director or cinematographer. WE are that entity, and fulfill any individuated tasks as representatives of a shared set of decisions. Each individual student stretches out as THE key creative in their own homework and independent projects.

  • The individualistic model could be illustrated by thinking of one artistic corpus, like one big bird that won’t fly right unless the singular brain tells all the body parts what to do.
  • The collaborative model might be more like a flock of birds flying in formation, many minds and bodies heading in one direction, each bird thinking and acting in concert.

The way I see this, class exercise time is flock time. Long term, group projects are weighted toward flock time. Homework and independent projects are individual creative time.

Turn-taking, group role-sharing, and the shared vision
There are two basic ways to provide fair and equitable access to limited resources.

  • Turn-taking, creating equitable experiences over time.
  • Sharing, like a meal, with equitable apportioning in a group activity.

Turn-taking seems to work best with bite-sized skill subsets, or small building blocks, that can be tried rapidly, giving everyone a turn in one class. For example:

  • Initial practice with following action on camera.
  • Picking where, in a monologue, a central character trait is revealed.
  • Chores, like set-up of camera or work space.

I don’t use turn-taking in the full embodiment of key roles, at this level, for these reasons:

  • Students can easily find themselves left out and sidelined. They don’t yet know enough to learn vicariously, as we might in a master class.
  • Students may get only one turn at a key role during a semester, for unequal experiences.
  • Early in the semester, exercises will be “baby steps”.
  • Later on, overall skill levels ramp up, but students who’ve had their turn may disengage.

Instead of turn-taking, we use group role-sharing, more like a group meal. The distributed conversation model is the essential ingredient in full class engagement.

  • The teacher introduces appropriate thought processes, considerations, and options, getting the ball rolling.
  • Devil’s advocate and Socratic questioning allows the teacher to move from one student to the next.

Representing group vision in role-play

Every class exercise will need an action plan, to execute after shared discussion. Eventually, we arrive at a set of actions, designed toward an intentional outcome. In other words, a shared vision.

In an intro production class, this could involve a directorial prep exercise, finding major beats in a short scene. We can play out how we, as a group director, could make choices, how options could be valid, and how to settle on a set of coherent decisions.

The physical exercise—blocking according to beats—lets us see and feel our shared vision in action. Perhaps two students play actors, one plays the AD, one the camera operator.

The rest are not sidelined. They are led in active analysis of how the decisions feel and what options could be explored. During wrap-up, the group discusses how the lessons of the day could be articulated concisely and used in their own work.

In an intermediate cinematography class, we can arrive at lighting decisions together—as the group cinematographer. When we light the set, all are doing their individual tasks by representing the group’s vision. Everyone with free hands is providing feedback, contextualized by the teacher. The same wrap up occurs.

Shifting responsibility throughout the semester

Early semester exercises place teaching responsibility on modeling role-play thought processes. As the semester rolls on, this responsibility is progressively shifted to the student group. The teacher’s role in leading discussions will retreat as the student group advances. I focus on providing trained perceptions, working as a sounding board to help address added complexity.

Everyone feels this responsibility-shift happening, fueling student engagement and attachment to group progress. Students are never sidelined and always important to exercises. We rise or fall through coordinated thought and action, just like on set.

Long term project role balancing

Sometimes, curriculum demands that one or two group projects fill the semester. It gets harder to dampen the negative, exclusionary aspects of hierarchy. I double down on the concept of group vision for group projects, and on representative role-play.

  • Major decisions can be approached through the group-vision process, giving everyone a seat at the table.
  • Groups are required to create a vision statement for key roles and adopt this as a shared vision.
  • Students commit to representing the shared vision on set, when each student is taking on one or more necessary roles.
  • Distributing the stakes for group members helps to foster shared ownership.

The biggest tool in that effort is the separation of writing, directing, cinematography, and editing roles. If they work with one person’s story, someone else’s storytelling, another’s lighting and camera plans, and another’s final selection and order of footage, then all can have a stake. It isn’t perfect, but it helps.

Honoring craft and our students’ individual pathways

I try to honor the various crafts I teach by emphasizing the positive, collaborative aspects of the hierarchical model, de-emphasizing the exclusionary, power-concentrating aspects.

In all of my introductory and intermediate classes, group communication—the distributed conversation—is punctuated by action plans. Students buy-in on shared vision. They represent shared visions when they divide up to get things done. Creative decision management is progressively shifted from teacher to student group. In this way, I try to break down the hierarchy, emphasizing the collaboration necessary for successful, creatively ambitious filmmaking.