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Audiovisual assignments in decentralized students’ groups

David Álvarez, Professor of Communication and Digital Media at IE University
Blended Learning Innovation in practice

How can we design team activities with students who are in different geographical locations? This article explores a case of study that applies a specific methodology to develop this type of skills through audiovisual assignments.

DEVELOPMENT OF MULTIPLE SKILLS IN AUDIOVISUAL ASSIGNMENTS

Teaching through audiovisual technologies provides competences to students that go beyond communication-related knowledge. Besides developing their technical skills and creativity, it allows them to improve different abilities related to writing, organization, structuring and group decision-making. Students learn to organize different tasks and elaborate a strategy that they will have to implement during filming. Therefore, it is an activity that might be useful to strengthen student’s dexterities related to organization, teamwork and conflicts resolution.

However, the design of this type of exercises has some elements that must be prevented. For this reason, the objective of this article is to report the development of a practical case that can serve as a reference for other educators who have considered designing an exercise with these characteristics.

I teach Visual Storytelling in the Communication degree of IE University. The final project of the course is a fiction short film made by the students in teams. Students develop different aspects of the work throughout the course. The project is structured throughout the semester in three parts: pre-production, production and post-production.

THE THREE PHASES OF CREATION

In the pre-production stage, the teams have to pitch an idea to their peers. This idea must have three clear elements: a character, a conflict and a specific context. Students have to explain the story in class, and see what are the most attractive elements and what aspects can be improved. They have to collect feedback from the teacher and other students, and incorporate it into their work.

Once they are clear about the starting point, they have to write a script. This script has to incorporate a narrative structure adapted to the cinematographic format, separating the actions into scenes, located in specific places and moments. This way of structuring the narration is usually one of the most complex parts for students, since it requires an effort to preview everything they want to tell in a specific space with corporeal characters, also taking into account the temporal needs of the story, including the use of ellipsis or analepsis. If there’s time enough, it is recommendable to test the script again with their colleagues and incorporate the new feedback to clarify and improve the final story.

Once the writing of the script is finished, the group has to develop a shooting plan taking into account how long it will take them to record the scenes, the different locations, times of the day, how many people are going to be involved in each location and how many shots are going to need per scene.

In the production stage, the students have to record the images and sounds they will need for their short film. It’s the time to put all their technical knowledge on cameras and sound recording to use, as well as their creative skills in staging the story they have written in the script. In other words, they will test the script and the shot planning developed during pre-production. Even though they did a good job in the first stage, it’s normal to encounter unforeseen events and problems. Far from being an obstacle, this is an educational advantage, since students will have to develop their abilities to solve on the fly all the setbacks that appear.

Finally, the post-production stage is the phase in which students will have to synchronize and edit the images and sounds captured during production. This is usually one of the students' favorite parts, since they have to creatively resolve the cohesion of the discourse they want to convey with the material that they have prepared themselves. New editing systems allow projects to be shared, and in this way, different team members can work on the same project at the same time.

WORK IN REMOTE TEAMS

When the COVID-19 crisis came in 2020 and we had to confine ourselves, one of the main problems I found when proposing these exercises was that students could not work physically together on their projects. In the pre-production and post-production phases this was not a very serious problem. But in the central stage of the project (production) it was a big issue, since they had to share equipment (cameras, lenses, microphones, recorders...) and could not shoot the scenes respecting the minimum safety distances. At the same time, as this is an international university, many of the students returned to their homes, so it was impossible for them to get together physically and shoot their short films.

In those days there were many professors from other schools and universities debating on social networks about the best way to face these new pedagogical challenges. Since most of these teachers came from film and audiovisual communication schools, the main concern was that the students could not develop properly their technical and creative skills. Most of the conversations focused on the technological resources available. They needed students to be able to manipulate the diaphragm and shutter of their Smartphones, and work in an environment as close to the professional as possible.

However, there was an issue that was not being taken into account: the development of skills related to teamwork. In my case, the training of students does not focus so much on the technical aspects as on the creative and communicative aspects of visual storytelling, with a special emphasis on collective work. Therefore, I was not so concerned about the technical side; in fact, I considered it preferable to lower (a bit) quality standards, and develop other aspects related to creativity and teamwork in the pre-production stage.

WEBSERIES AS A PEDAGOGICAL TOOL

Instead of developing a short film, the decision I made was that each group had to design a web series. When working on a TV series, the first thing that is attempted is the concept of the whole series. This concept is set in a document called "bible", where the unitary concept of the story, context and characters is explained. The bible includes a series of guidelines related to the personalities of the characters, the plot, the aesthetics, the references and the visual concept which must be respected in all episodes. In this way, the production company works from a structured unit and ensures that, although the creative and technical teams change in the different chapters, there is still a homogeneous concept to which they have to adjust.

Therefore, in the first phase of the development of the work (pre-production), the students have to create their own “bible”. From this structured unit developed together in teams, each student has to write the script for their own chapter. The authors will also be in charge of recording the episodes with the resources they have available. Although they were living in different countries, the students could film their own episodes using the equipment they had available, be it DSLR cameras or their own Smartphones.

A series of requirements must be established to facilitate the recording of the chapters: to begin with, the chapters must be self-concluding, in the style of television anthologies such as Modern Love, Twilight Zone or Black Mirror. In this way, we make sure that they will not need the same actors in the different chapters. The duration is reduced to a format that does not place an excessive load of work on the students. We set a maximum of 5 minutes per chapter. Also, the stories should not include more than 2-3 settings, nor should they include more than 2-3 characters. If you need to work on specific aspects related to audiovisual language, other requirements can be added: for example, filming a dialogue for students to practice the line of action. At this point, I also included some technical specifications that I had found in the teacher group discussions.

Another issue that I wanted to work on with my students is research, one of the foundations of higher education. We took advantage of the situation to develop these skills in the audiovisual field, starting with the first stage of development of the idea. For this, the different groups had to go through a specific brainstorming process to develop the concept (“bible”) of the series. This brainstorming process consists of two steps: a first step to bring ideas, and a second stage to define them. To do this, I followed this work methodology.

FIRST STEP: BRING IDEAS

Students are separated into different online conversation groups. Each group has to prepare a Padlet canvas to brainstorm ideas for an anthology series concept. To do this, they have to create one Padlet per group with a moderator in each one. He/she puts order in the interventions and stimulates peers participation, guaranteeing that all the students contribute ideas. Is also the person in charge of writing the contributions and put order in them.

We start with the following question: is there a topic you would like to talk about? Is there a story you would love to tell? A genre you would like to explore? Is there an audiovisual technique that you would like to try? Write it and share it with the rest of the group. At the end of this stage every team has to come with, at least, 2 ideas per student. In this first step, any idea will be welcomed without criticism nor limitations. The objective is to generate as many as possible and fill the Padlet canvas with ideas.

SECOND STEP: DEFINE EPISODES

Once they have written all their ideas on the canvas, it's time to define one of them. They can discard those that are not completely clear, take only the useful or attractive elements, mix them, contrast them... To stimulate the brainstorming, they can work with archetypical plots or update old classic stories to build their storylines. We can take advantage of this stage to develop their skills as researchers, asking them to identify their ideas with existing formats. In this case, I proposed some archetypal narratives with concrete examples from well-known films. The information I give them is very limited, so they have to research these stories to see how they can inspire their own plots. I use the following scheme:

First time: stories about a cathartic situation that happens to the character(s) for the first time. E.g. Juno. Stand by me. The Martian.

Game of Opposites: take a situation and flip it. Examples:

  • The ‘blank’ from Hell: fill in the blank with a non-expected character. E.g. “The nanny from Hell” – The Hand that Rocks the Cradle; “The adopted child from Hell” – Problem Child. “The flat mate from Hell” – Single White Female.
  • Fish out of water: take a person out of their normal environment and place them in a radically different one. E.g. Neurotic New Yorker in the future – The sleeper. Sorority girl studies Law in Harvard – Legally Blonde. Honest narcotics cop in South Central LAPD - Training Day.
  • Stumble Into: an average person who by chance, is thrust into a monumental life-threatening situation they have no control of. E.g. North by northwest. After hours. Eyes Wide Shut.

Love stories: love and desire can be the plot engines in different situations:

  • Forbidden love: love between a couple is impossible or difficult because of external factors due to their family, social or ethnical origins. E.g. Romeo and Juliet. West Side Story. Dirty Dancing. Brokeback Mountain.
  • Fickle and changing love may cause a series of love entanglements, partner changes, impersonations, misunderstandings... E.g. Cyrano de Bergerac. A Midsummer Night's Dream. Mamma mia!

Intruders: a messianic character helps to configure the collective identity of a human group that faces an experience of change. This character can be good or bad. E.g. Superman. Terminator 2. Godzilla. Cloverfield.

Unintended Consequences: an experiment takes place, and something goes wrong. E.g. Jurassic Park. Titanic. Contagion.

Going to Extreme Measures: a traumatic event induces a reaction of the protagonist. E.g. Mrs Doubtfire. Watchmen. This can also derive in revenge stories. E.g. Oldboy. Kill Bill.

Fatal Character Flaws: a character has a great weakness that causes great complications. E.g. Split. What Women Want. Liar liar.

Lust for power: a character possessed by ambition will do anything to achieve power. E.g. Macbeth. Breaking Bad. Scarface. Citizen Kane. The Godfather.

The Martyr and the Tyrant (Antigone): a fair and pious person confronts an authoritative figure in a context dominated by their laws. E.g. Joan of Arc. 12 angry men. Erin Brokovich.

Homecoming: after a long, dangerous and life-changing adventure or experience, the character’s relationship with his own community has changed. E.g. The Odyssey. Born on the 4th of July. Robin Hood.

COMPLETION OF WORK

At the end of the brainstorming, students will have to achieve a clear idea of the concept of their TV series and the plots of each episode. Then, they have to write the scripts (approx. 5 pages per episode) and work on their respective shooting plans. Taking into account the limitations given to them in advance and the resources they have at hand, these plans have to be much simpler than usual. In addition, they have to observe the elements agreed in the "bible" that give unity and cohesion to the entire series. Thus, even if the students are filming in different locations and times with limited resources, at all times they have to take into account the previous work they have done with their classmates. This cohesion is completed in the post-production stage. Here we can propose several work modalities: for example, entrusting the editing of the short film to another student from the same team, so that all of them edit other peer's footage.

The way we dealt with this situation is obviously very open and subject to change. It can probably inspire other methodologies that can promote teamwork in a more specific way in similar situations, as well as in other educational contexts. For example, through the application of the designed brainstorming process using other types of parameters. In this case, it was a very enriching experience that allowed us to cope with a very complicated situation that was given to us.