Lights – camera – action!

14 Sep 2010

The arrival of digital media in Irish schools has generated a whole new creative outlet for Ireland’s budding filmmakers.

The Irish word ‘fís’ translates roughly into vision. When you consider ‘vision’ in the 21st century, it is vision that has enabled people like Steve Jobs to envision the iPad, Mark Zuckerberg to envision Facebook and James Cameron to envision the sci-fi masterpiece Avatar.

Think again about vision and you’ll see it is a close cousin of ambition, the same ambition that enabled Ballyfermot College graduate Richard Baneham to work his way through the ranks of Hollywood technicians to become the driving force behind the technical wizardy of Avatar in in turn pick up an Academy Award in the Visual Effects category.

As Irish schoolkids queue up in the cinema to watch the latest blockbuster movie or unpackage the latest gaming sensation Halo Reach for their Xbox 360s in the living room, it would be an awful shame if they didn’t realise that they too could one day be the instigators of such technological marvels.

Irish people have already realised this, whether it’s other Oscar nominees such as Brown Bag Films; the founders of Havok, whose technology enables the effects in top-selling video games and movies such as The Chronicles of Narnia; or entrepreneurs like Dylan Collins of Jolt online gaming who are developing the future of digital media.

Schoolkids making movies

It is for these reasons that the arrival of the digital media in our lives coincides with the FIS initiative as a support to the Revised Primary School Curriculum, which for several years now has sated the appetite of schoolchildren to film and direct their own movies.

Every year hundreds of primary schoolchildren take part in the National FÍS Film Festival to showcase their creations, using whatever digital technology and camera equipment they can get their hands on.

Anne White of the National Centre for Technology in Education (NCTE) who coordinates the FÍS initiative and awards says audiovisual (AV) technology in schools is taking a giant leap into the future and must be encouraged.

“The children can now get their hands on devices such as Flip cameras and MacBook devices and with the help of their teachers and parents can produce everything from movies to animations based on stories they have written themselves.”

White says the onset of digital technology and the ability to learn how to tell original stores and produce cinematography is important in the context of providing them with important life skills they can bring with them into the working world.

“What is really fascinating about the FÍS initiative is that the kids are looking at the world around them, whether they’re talking to the local butcher or historian, and it is tangible for them. They are no longer just watching and commenting, they are producing and criticising their own work, and then publishing their films to YouTube as well as school websites and blogs.

“This makes such a difference to the child in terms of their self-esteem because they have an audience for their work.”

White says she never ceases to be amazed at the imagination and hard work primary students put into their work. “Brilliant drama, amazing creative writing and story-telling that in the past never went beyond the four walls of a school now have an audience.

“The kids are hard taskmasters. They self-critique and won’t publish something they don’t think is up to scratch.

“The whole process allows them to think more about what they are saying and doing; they are fussy about having the right back drop and sound quality. They set a lot of benchmarks for one another. The key thing about all of this is it is providing them with 21st-century learning skills such as problem-solving and critical-thinking skills.”

Background on FÍS

FÍS is a partnership involving the NCTE, the Department of Education and the Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Dún Laoghaire. It began as a pilot in 2003 and was hugely successful, with more than 100 schools taking part every year.

“The whole methodology is interesting. The kids produce a storyboard, choose locations, write scripts and shoot the film. Audience is tremendously important to them and many would showcase their movie in the local hall or cinema. Every November we hold the FÍS Film Festival. It is not a competition but rather a celebration of their brilliant work.”

White says the variety of work is astonishing, ranging from poetry and local documentaries to animations and drama.

“Every year the students reach a new plateau – it is not about standards but growth in their creativity. Their imaginations seem to power their drive and determination to produce film. It is no mean achievement because it requires a lot of time and effort and is a catalyst for collaboration and communications.”

White says she believes the Smart Schools = Smart Economy strategy, which will put digital projectors in every classroom, is a vital step forward. But, she warns, it is a critical first step.

“The digital projectors are a huge development but are only part of the jigsaw. The kids will require the full jigsaw in terms of equipment if they want to have the digital-media skills to explore the curriculum and prepare for the digital world. They need access to digital cameras, tripods, computers to edit their films and other equipment.

“It is important that teachers and parents realise this technology lends itself to many of the different learning styles and it is important they learn to understand these tools. Very often people see these devices as gadgets, but in using these tools there’s immense learning potential as well as workforce skills.

“The kids learn the value of teamwork, co-operation, working to a deadline … critical life skills we could all possibly learn from. The production process in producing films is a huge match with how children will learn and explore the digital curriculum.

“There are some very portable devices in the market that are affordable and we would urge parents and teachers not to be afraid of these digital-media tools,” White concluded.

“The term ‘digital media’ tends to scare people off. But we would argue there is a role for the teacher in guiding the process and helping the children give voice to their creativity.”