Creating Through a Camera Lens

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Upper School students communicate through media arts

By Nance Leonhardt

Starting a media program at Catlin Gabel has been a dream come true. Coming to a place where creativity and risk-taking are expected norms for students and valued on par with traditionally quantifiable academic skills made this one of the finest years in my teaching career to date.

My yearlong media arts course introduced students to the nuts and bolts of media production, including digital cameras, lighting and sound recording equipment, and editing tools and methodology. Students produced a variety of projects that helped them practice filming, editing, and storytelling techniques.

Still from a student video by Natalie Ancona ’11

The real meat of the course centered on learning how to define the audience and how to interlace production skills with storytelling strategies to best communicate an intended message. A unique aspect of any arts course is the symbiotic relationship between artists and their audience. The stakes are particularly high in production work, because the audience’s response is the ultimate assessment. Students see firsthand how decisions they make in what they choose to film, how they edit it, and even the type of music they use to score the finished product can make or break the piece’s effectiveness.

Still from video by Catie Coonan’10

These novice filmmakers produced poignant, hilarious, and beautiful films all year. Students made films about everything from the infamous Catlin Gabel goats to an aging grandmother’s reflection on lost love. Catlin Gabel’s new camera equipment joined students on trips to Mali, Mexico, and down the Grand Canyon; shot footage out of a garbage can on the downtown Esplanade; and even found its way into the digital realm of World of Warcraft. When it came time for our end-of-year screening, we were all inspired by the range of work the students had created. Our final exam asked students to participate in a juried examination of these works. Their responses to their peers’ work reaffirmed that they had come a long way in terms of cinematic fluency:

On Catie Coonan ’10’s music video for “Eleanor Rigby”:

“She uses color distortion to tell a story. The character is happiest when the color is bright. When the image is black and white, or in sepia tone, it shows the past. Other people use effects to make the image look cool but Catie’s piece uses distortion to create something pretty to look at and to emphasize the message and story of the piece. She has thought about whether every shot should be in sepia, black and white, normal, or saturated, and the purpose of each choice.”

On Murphy Pfohman ’08 and Ben Graziano ’09’s PSA for safe sex:

“I was struck by the interesting idea of people with signs on them walking around in broad daylight—contrasted with the anonymous feeling of turning all the people who spoke about STDs into silhouettes. With steady camera work, flawless editing, and a fresh message, it all worked well to make a solid convincing piece and is definitely something that will stick with me.”

A class member behind the camera

I thank the students who joined me on this maiden voyage for the imagination, dedication, and hope they brought to their work each day. As with many pioneering journeys, anticipated destinations often required a trailblazer’s innovation and tenacity. This is the way of the artist and as the students learned, it’s hard, hard work.

Nance Leonhardt has taught media arts for 14 years. This is her second year at Catlin Gabel, working with Upper and Middle School students. This year her media arts program will include an advanced independent film production class and an animation class.