Learning the language of film

looking at deer

Back in the bad old days – by which I mean the 1990s – video education in the UK was a surreal experience. The learning programmes used in schools were re-runs of series from twenty years before, often lovingly recorded on VHS by teachers, in the middle of the night, on top of whatever happened to have been lying around on the tape before. This meant that one’s video learning could easily involve watching twenty seconds of a lunchtime quiz show, the fleeting final moments of a late-night movie, and then, once the programme fuzzily began, an unsettling flow of otherworldly images, dizzying early computer graphics, mindbending theme music, dated scene transitions, bizarrely-dressed presenters and unadvisable ’70s haircuts.


by Alasdair MacKinnon


It was an industry that had clearly reached stagnation, and was ripe for a renewal. And this renewal has arrived: with cheap digital cameras, easy-to-use free editing software and online sharing it is conceivably possible to record and distribute videos instantly from anywhere in the world. Video education is no longer the preserve of permed, slightly dusty presenters; it has become an enterprise of the masses. Informal video learning has become one of the most appreciated functions of Youtube – for instant advice on any number of subjects, it is frequently the first place people turn. Meanwhile, teachers can assemble their lessons from a vast array of online materials, including news sites and web archives, to provide the engaging hook that will inspire their pupils.


What hasn’t changed, though, is the language of film itself. Film-makers still need to understand the principles of storytelling, montage, editing, the rules and architecture of audiovisual material that apply as much to the five-minute youtube clip as to the multi-million dollar blockbuster, and from your home-made teaching video to a slick edutainment series. The language, the way meaning is conveyed through film, is diverse but universally applicable.


Film has from its very beginnings been used to educate, and so the theories and techniques behind educational video go back a long way. Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein’s methods of montage, for example, describe a dialectical method of editing in which intellectual substance is created by the combination and collision of material. It is through editing that film becomes imbued with meaning greater than the subject matter of each individual shot.


Educational video will also frequently rely on voice-over – often necessary to explain the images seen and the links between them, or tell a story. Billy Wilder, director of Some like it Hot and Sunset Boulevard, gave a great maxim on this technique: “when doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.” Nearly everyone has been bored stiff by a presentation in which a speaker just reads out what is written on their slides; a voice-over that merely describes what is already evident from the picture is equally as unengaging.


It is out of basics such as these that a good film grows. The audience’s interest in an educational film is not necessarily piqued by high production values (though of course, they help) but by the quality of the story and the way it is told, the way thought is provoked. These do not necessarily need a big budget – but they do require skill. That’s why Video EDUCA at OEB runs its video labs: so that film-makers can learn the techniques of Sound, Editing and Camerawork from award-winning  independent film-makers Erik Schmitt and Johannes Louis. And that’s not all: other sessions this year will take you through the use of archive footage and student-created video in learning situations.


Visit the Video EDUCA labs and find out more about educational film-making! The full programme for Video EDUCA is available here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.