Teaching Shorts in Schools

There is no right or wrong way to interpret a short film. They are works of art that hold multiple meanings for different people depending on their experiences, knowledge and way of looking at the world.

Films engage us in a unique and powerful way. They are more than entertainment alone because they hold underlying messages, providing knowledge about the world and subjects that we may never have the opportunity to experience for ourselves. Short films can provide us with the chance to reflect on our own lives. They also make a great tool for prompting discussion about our own and other cultures, societal norms of behaviour, and how we express and deal with emotions.

Short films have much in common with books in the way they tell stories. Both mediums can be discussed in terms of narrative structure, genre, themes, character, language and setting. As when reading a book, we need to use a set of skills to make sense of a story on film. Just as we study a novel, short story or poem, and look at individual features, we separate aspects of the film in order to appreciate more clearly how it has been put together.

We often use these skills without realising it. The meaning within a film is often implied or embedded in the codes and conventions with which film communicates.

The following questions can be asked when working with film:

  • What is the setting and why do you think the filmmaker chose it?
  • What do you think the character is feeling here?
  • What language devices are used to engage the audience?
  • How has the structure of this story affected our experience of it?

These are questions that teachers work on with students every day using written texts. Moving-image texts can provide another way of looking at the same themes and learning about these story elements, which form a significant part of the New Zealand Curriculum for English in years five to eight.

Exercises

1. Exploring themes

After the first viewing of the film, we will explore the key theme presented to us. There are often multiple themes through the film, but we will select one and focus on how that theme is shown through the art of the short film.

2. Exploring Character

In the second viewing of the film, and subsequent lesson, we explore the characters of the film. This gives us the opportunity to discuss their choices throughout the film and how their thoughts, feelings, words and actions give us a picture of what the character is experiencing, and how the filmmaker chooses to present this to us.

3. Exploring Narrative

We look at the short film as an alternative method of storytelling in this lesson, and work to understand the story, and why it was told as it was. This lesson has useful links to the narratives we explore in reading and writing.

4. Exploring the Key Competencies

Using the context provided by the short film, we will explore one of the five key competencies, thinking about how it was shown on screen and how we use this key competency in our own lives.

Hyerle Thinking Maps

Here are templates of the Hyerle Thinking maps mentioned in the exercises.

Glossary

Characters are the people in the story. Sometimes these might be objects, machines or animals too. What they look like, how they speak and feel, are important. What they do in response to those characteristics, and key events, is what drives the story forward.

Dialogue is the words that the characters say. Sometimes a narrator is used to communicate or comment on the action; what characters say (or don’t say) is one of the ways that the film reveals its meaning to us.

Plot is the series of events that happens in the film. Filmmakers carefully select the information and the order in which the audience will see the story. This order shapes our response/attitude to the characters and therefore the theme of the story.

Production Techniques include lighting, props, costume, sound effects, music, special effects, make-up, the use of colour and camera angles. Filmmakers carefully arrange all of these things to create an atmosphere or mood and emphasise certain ideas. Films take months or years to create, as so much time and attention goes into getting all of these things right.

Setting a film in a particular time and place is an important part of the story. Whether the story takes place on a sunny day in Wellington city in the 1950s or the Japanese countryside in a post-apocalyptic future makes a big difference to what can happen to the characters. different settings communicate specific ideas, which have an impact on the atmosphere and therefore the events of the story.

Short Films have existed alongside feature films for more than a century. No consensus exists regarding the exact running-time length of a short film. The Academy Awards® defines a short film as an original motion picture that has a running time of 40 minutes or less, including all credits. Show Me Shorts requires short films to be between two and 20 minutes in duration. Historically, short films were shown before feature films in cinemas. Presently, short films are mostly screened in film festivals and on the internet. They are often considered a fertile training ground for aspiring feature filmmakers.

Theme is the unifying subject or idea of the story. It is often connected to something
a character learns and therefore what we learn. Most films have a number of thematic ideas they explore.

The Title of a film is often linked to the theme. It can sometimes be a pun or another type of wordplay but usually has an extra meaning.