Teaching and screening Shabbat Dinner at Harvard-Westlake

Teaching and screening Shabbat Dinner at Harvard-Westlake

The month started off with a whirlwind week in Los Angeles, where I was invited to guest teach at the Harvard-Westlake video art program. The course was to focus primarily on color correction. Cheri Gaulke and I designed a four-part workshop, which we taught to each of the eight video art classes throughout the week.

What an amazingly gratifying experience. High schoolers are laser-focused and nimble or distractable and doltish, and it varies by the minute, but overall, these students were eager to learn and engage with the material and incredibly creative and driven. I’d love to do it again, and I will this summer at the Harvard-Westlake summer video workshop!

In the first our four lessons, the major take-away was that the director is responsible to have complete and utter control over every aspect of the frame. Though the idea makes sense in principle, it’s another thing entirely to practice it; it often takes seeing many examples to realize what can be done in a frame. My favorite example to tell is from teaching in Kenya, when several students filmed an interview in which 2/3 of the image was a giant USAID logo. Was it intentional? No. But it was still a part of their film.

I went over the basics of three-point lighting; followed to a T it tends to look staged to a modern eye, but it’s a great way to wrap your head around how to light a scene. I showed examples of good and bad lighting, in particular emphasizing that because video has a fairly low dynamic range, harsh highlights and shadows are to be avoided. Then I quickly discussed using elements in the frame to elucidate the relationships between characters, objects, and the viewer.

In the second class period, the students filmed a three-shot sequence. We chose locations that provided a number of difficulties: areas that were too bright or too dark (avoid them at all costs, even if it is helpful to your story), areas where the lighting was too flat (add some lighting using a light or bounceboard), cluttered areas (use close-ups or wide shots), and boring areas (add color or other interesting elements.) We gave them a few props that they had to use and 45 minutes to shoot in.

In the third class period I gave a tutorial on Apple Color, teaching techniques such as Secondary rooms and power windows. Manipulating the colors gave the students a much better visceral sense of why the shooting techniques described above actually work. They edited and color corrected their own projects during the fourth period.

I also had the opportunity to screen Shabbat Dinner for the Harvard-Westlake Gay-Straight Alliance. In the middle of a mind-bending eight repetitions of my opening lecture, after about three hours’ sleep, and returning to a high school I hadn’t really been at for ten years, it was going to be an intense experience no matter what. But seeing the students connect on a level I hadn’t seen before to the film was truly emotional. As the Harvard-Westlake Chronicle said in its article about my week there, “Murmurs of ‘That was so good’ filled Ahmanson Lecture Hall as the projector clicked off and the movie ended to applause.

In the end, the primary audience for Shabbat Dinner is high schoolers; I wanted the film to accomplish and speak to something even though it was not feature length. Hearing that it was true to the high schoolers’ real-life experiences and seeing their faces as they asked for copies of the DVD and even t-shirts was incredible. Ted Hope taught me that distribution of a film is as integral as any other aspect of its creation – in fact, more so, because the ultimate raison d’être of a film is to be watched. So the entire creation of a film leads up to the moment of a viewer experiencing it, and in many ways a film is defined only by that moment. And it was a great one!

Thank you to Cheri Gaulke, Kevin O’Malley, and Alyssa Sherwood, as well as all the Harvard-Westlake administrators and students I taught, for making that week such a memorable one!