People's Academy "Sense of Place" Documentary Workshop

Posted by Myles David Jewell

Generally we don't think of Geography classes as using Ethnography, nor as producing documentaries, but Kate Toland's Geography class at People's Academy is going to be doing just that.  Last week I went and visited her class for a second time to talk about how to visually represent a place in a dynamic way and what some formal approaches would be.  My biggest emphasis was on the idea that whatever is in the frame is the ingredients to the story.  If you want to tell a story about a pizza place, and you are just showing the pizza, that is what your story will be.  But if you want to tell a story about the people who own the pizza joint, make sure to show us exactly that.  As my mother always says, "If you're gonna give someone a bologna sandwich, there better be bologna."  

After emphasizing how important shot size is and what type of story that tells visually, I exemplified the importance of moving around a space with a camera to achieve different angles, which in turn tells a more dynamic story.  For instance, if we wanted to tell the story of a classroom, what might be the first thing we see?  Well, we want to know where we are, so show the whole classroom (see pic below):

So after establishing the space in the wide shot from the back of the room, I asked the students what might they see next?  We have a wide shot of the space, showing us a classroom with an adult standing at the front of the class, so what is next?  Logically, we want to get closer, so cut that wide shot in half and go to a medium shot:

So now from a wide to a medium, we'd also want to see the reverse angle, and see who the teacher is talking to, so turn the camera around and show us the reverse:

After the reverse, we can start to create a shot reverse shot, to emphasize an interaction.  

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Below, you can see a short clip where I am talking briefly through this process:

As a final thought, this type of down and dirty how to tell a story using different camera angles and frame sizes is a great way to introduce students to visual storytelling.  As always, more to come on this type of exercise.