New strategies for teaching filmmaking: an interview with OK Keyes

Note: After taking a break from blogging for awhile, I've started up again with thanks to OK for his help with my current filmmaking class. Here's a post from last year:

OK Keyes has been helping me with my video production class for years. He's a PhD student now at Virginia Commonwealth University, and I hope some day the institution where I work will be smart enough to hire him on full time. His expertise in cinematography especially made all of the difference in the class. He kindly agreed to be interviewed for the film doctor blog:

FD--How do you try to resolve the tension in a filmmaking or video production class between teaching students techniques and letting them learn strategies by actually working on their movies?

OK--My teaching praxis is centered around this idea of teaching failure by example, through the process of taking, breaking, and making some Thing. I make mistakes purposefully throughout lessons, to engage students with the experiences they have with technology that challenge my false assertions. Teaching technology is a great opportunity proccess these moments of discovery, the "aha!" moment, that is a shared experience between artists and scientists (a bond that I think often goes unacknowledged, in both circles).

Instead of showing students the "right way" to use the camera, I encourage them to explore different buttons and settings and engage them with questions about their observations. Is the image brighter or darker? Sharper or blurrier? Noisier or crisper? In this way, the class is co-constructing their knowledge of the camera through observation, interrogation, and discussion. As a facilitator, I might suggest the buttons and sites of investigation, but ultimately the students are just as responsible for teaching one another about the knowledge they are creating together in that space.

So to go back to your question about the tension between teaching techniques and making movies, I want to acknowledge that I have grappled with this question for a number of years as a media educator. I have found that if I can help facilitate technological confidence through teaching an investigative approach, then even if the camera stops working or something seems strange with the settings, students will feel less like they are "doing something wrong" but that it is "something they can change." I have found the fear of failure to be one of the biggest barriers in filmmaking, especially with (high achieving) high school students. And so, if I can address that fear while teaching techniques and encourage students to take risks in their filmmaking; then they will trust theirselves (and their team!) while making the film and rely on me less for technical knowledge while in the field.

FD--What are some classic mistakes of beginning film crews? What is your list of terms like "happy histograms" as reminders to keep them on task?

OK--I think the biggest mistake is not having a clear sense of the roles of each group member. Certainly on a student production, there will be overlap, and someone inevitably will have to step in to be an extra or an extra pair of hands for a technical assist. But, I think it's very important to establish what each member is responsible for. Especially, since the mythos surrounding The Director in popular culture very often (although not always) creates an unbalanced power dynamic between that student director and their peers in the creative process. I try to use a keyword association for each role when explaining to students.

Writer - the story (characters/dialogue)
Cinematographer - the image (light/framing)
Boom Operator - the sound (field/foley)
Actors - the performance (emotions/movement)
Editor - the time (pacing/flow)
Director - the communication (translates between members of the cast/crew)

I have found a good strategy in helping to de-center the role of student directors is to position them as the point of intersection - they are the translator. They have to be able to communicate how the cinematographer is framing the image so the actors know if it is a closeup or a wide shot. They need to communicate to the boom operator if the actors are going to move so they can stay out of the shot. They have to be clear and concise in their directions. They are not responsible for the style of the shot, nor the quality of the sound, or even the expressions of the actors, but instead they are responsible for directing all the moving bodies - both cast and crew - through the performance. And keeping in mind, the performance is not just what's happening on screen, but very much what is happening behind the screen as well. An effective director is not one who exerts their sole vision over the entire crew, but one that can allow that vision to be influenced and transformed by the other artists in that space.

In terms of helpful things that the director can suggest as checks is to check with cinematographer. Thus, the cinematographer asks: Do you have a happy histogram? Is there anything I need to suggest to the actors to be in better light? How can I help? The cinematographer can ask the actors to look into the camera so that they can do a "spot check" meaning they can check the focus of their eyes in the camera to ensure the image is clear. The director can call quiet on the set so that the boom operator can check the levels of the actors' voices. I try to encourage the director to trust his crew. The cinematographer should be the one initiating the offer for a "playback" or a review of the footage. If the director is asking to rewatch every shot, then not only does it increase the amount of time to do a scene but it doesn't facilitate trust between the director/cinematographer/actors that the performance is being captured to the best of their abilities. Positive feedback and open communication are really crucial. If anything they should check in with the boom operator, by asking questions like: How is the background noise? Do I need to turn off the AC? Do you hear anything weird? Then, finally, consistency is really key. I recommend the following protocol to start a scene:

Director: Sound!
Boom: Speeding!
Director: Camera!
Cinematographer: Rolling!
Director: Slate!
Assistant: Stands in front of the camera and states the Scene / Shot / Take (Ex. Scene 1 / Shot A / Take 3) and *claps* in the shot to sync the sound.
(wait for person slating to exit shot)
Director: Action!
(everyone waits a beat)
[Scene begins]
[Scene ends]
(everyone waits a beat)
Director: Cut!

This is a good way to get in the habit of making sure that you have a "head" and a "tail" on every shot, as well as keeping track of every shot you have taken. I try to keep students on a "three take" rule, meaning that if you can't get the shot you're trying to in three takes, then it might be time to re-imagine or re-configure it. It's okay to go off storyboards if something's not working. But also if the group is trying to do something technically complicated, I want to encourage that and this rule can always be broken. 

FD--Why did you choose the academic route over working as a full-time cinematographer?

OK--I have always felt a real draw towards teaching, and when I finally had the opportunity to teach media production at the college level, I felt connected to the craft in a way I hadn't in a very long time. There is nothing I'm more passionate about than teaching media arts to students who might never have had access to that knowledge otherwise. In addition to now teaching teachers about media arts education, I am also teaching animation to incarcerated youth at Richmond Juvenile Detention Center, through a partnership with Art 180, a community-based arts program near Virginia Commonwealth University. I see media arts, especially filmmaking, as a powerful medium for self-expression and want to create as many pathways as I can for voices that often go unheard and stories that go unseen.

Plus, who said I gave up being a cinematographer!? I get longer breaks in the winter and the summer, and am still collaborating with several of my friends. We're in post-production on a film called Witch, that I worked on with a group out in Minneapolis called Oxford Comma Film Cooperative, led by the talented Vanessa Magowan Horrocks. Our last feature-length collaboration was a film called Keepsake (2014), which is still making its ways into festivals, which is super exciting! I might be doing less commercial work now, but I find that to be a lot less soul-crushing. It's been liberating to not have to rely so much on freelance work from gig-to-gig to survive, and I feel very fulfilled in the classroom. I get to be more selective about the projects that I work on, and can focus more on telling stories that I think are important and meaningful to me.

FD--How's the GIF work these days? (also, could you send me the link to that gif showing the guy's face morphing due to different lenses?) What is the scholarly importance of GIFs?

Haha! Well... GIFs aren't exactly bringing in the big bucks, but weirdly enough those are the moving images that I've accepted to more art shows and galleries. I have a collection of some of my favourite GIFs that I've made at this tumblr page: (seizure warning). There's a combination of glitched remixes and bullet-time photography, and even some video taken with an open sensor camera that had an Erlenmeyer flask attached as the lens. The short story is that I had a professor in graduate school who told me to "remove the humans" for my work for half a semester; a lot of the GIFs that went on to be shown in shows or used in my media performance work were the result of that process.

I find GIFs really helpful in showing specific scenes from films or techniques for the camera. In particular I have a couple that I love to use in teaching focal length.

I use this one for talking about the face:
I use this one for talking about compression/expansion of background:

FD--What do you see as the future of cinematography?

OK--Oh wow. What a question. I think we are going to see some really, really big changes in the way that people of color are portrayed on film - and I'm talking about in terms of representation but in terms of lighting/film stock/camera sensors. Bradford Young is a cinematographer I've been following for a while since his work on Pariah (2011). With the news that he'll be filming the upcoming Han Solo spin-off movie, I'm very very excited to see how his unique style and approach to color/light/saturation will influence the direction of cinematography for the next generation. I also would suggest checking out the work of Isiah Donté Lee, who went to UNC and was the cinematographer on Burning Sands (2017), which was accepted in Sundance.

In terms of technical, I think the drone becoming cost-effective for a lot of independent filmmakers is going to be a game changer in terms of closing the gap around the way that movement is handled between low-budget and high-budget films. While I certainly have come to appreciate well-composed still frames, I think this has become a type of compensation for independent films, where the director/cinematographer might have opted for a moving shot had the money been there for a Steadicam/tracking/aerial shot. I think the option of movement now means that those decisions can be more purposeful rather than a response to a limitation. In relation to movement, I also cannot stop thinking about the use of GoPro's in As Above, So Below(2014). That was such a big shift for me in how I thought about the found-footage aesthetics and how far they've come in the horror tradition since The Blair Witch Project (1999). I found the cinematography in AASB to be really effective at building an intimacy and vulnerability through the multiple lenses and perspectives in play throughout the film.

I guess, in short, I think there are about to be some really big shifts in the independent scene both in terms of the ways in which cameras treat bodies on screen as well as the type of movements those cameras can make.

FD--Why should every school have a media technology class as a serious part of its curriculum?

OK--Uh... is there a way to approach this question without being too political? I guess, in being careful with my words, I would suggest that American education has never really had a large focus on media literacy, as some European countries do (the UK and Finland come immediately to mind). But the ability to critically engage with media is only made possible once one understands how they are constructed. Think about how we teaching critical analysis of literature... we have to know how to read AND write in order to produce a critical analysis of a literary work. I think we can think of media in similar terms. Most folks understand how to "read" media by watching it. A film course can help unpack some of the meaning, history, and sociocultural context of the work. But it is a production course that teaches one how to "write" media. I go back to the original word for photography - photos (light) graphos (writing/drawing) - writing/drawing with light. In my experience as an educator, I have found that once students understand how media is made - how it is constructed - they can begin to see the ways in which all the media they interact with and consume in their daily lives is also constructed. They engage with it differently because their perspective about it has changed. That is the power of media arts education, in my opinion.

FD--How is the internet useful for new filmmakers?

OK--Something not working? Google it! Need to put together a crew? Post it on Facebook! Want to get hired for a job? Upload your reel to Vimeo! I think there is a great number of ways that new filmmakers can distribute their work as well as build networks and engage in self-directed learning. I have learned so much from tutorials on YouTube, too many to list here. It is also the space that I first started uploading my work in middle school and getting feedback from an online community I participated in. If it hadn't been for that early experience, I don't know if I would have ever been interested in picking up a camera, but here I am! There are also just so many useful tools for filmmakers from storyboard templates, to suggestions for affordable lighting equipment, to script formatters like the Google Doc Screenplay Plugin (which in full transparency, one of my middle school students introduced to me)! I think it's just a matter of pursuing what you are most interested in and seeing where those Google rabbit holes take you!

Once again, I could write a novel about the important role the internet plays in developing self-directed learning skills in young people, but I suppose that's what a dissertation is for! 

FD--Much thanks, OK Keyes, for your insights. I look forward to working again with you next year.