Filmmaking equipment and spaces
As with film viewing, the learning context should determine the choice of equipment and how spaces are set up and used. Younger children are most likely to be working in groups, making films as teams; as students progress through the school there will be an increasing emphasis on individual work and higher technical quality.
On the right we list suggested cameras and other filmmaking equipment. (You may need to wait a few seconds for these to load.) These links are provided by MediaEd and are not part of the original Using film in schools document.
You need a video camera of some kind. It could be a camcorder, a still camera or a mobile phone. You can make films without a computer, using ‘in-camera editing’: planning the shots carefully, then shooting them in the right order.
To edit your film, you need a computer with editing software. You need to check that your cameras and computers will work together (see below). You may also need tripods, microphones and headphones.
Group size will determine the number of cameras and computers you need. As a general rule, 3-5 students can work effectively as a filming team. If groups are larger than this it is hard for all members to participate effectively.
Many schools use locations within the school, such as corridors or playing fields, for filming. This can be limiting as it will often be obvious that the scenes are shot in a school. If space permits, you could have a room set up with standard props which could be used in a number of student films. You could use a drama space with filmmaking props stored in an adjacent storage space.
Hazelwood College in Belfast has adapted an ordinary classroom as a basic studio set for filmmaking as part of CCEA’s Moving Image Arts specification. The room has a hospital bed at one end, a ‘living room’ sofa and chairs at the other end, and a green ‘chromakey’ screen.
There are several different camera types and recording formats. Image quality, reliability and ease of use varies between makes and models. Consumer guide magazines and websites are useful for assessing image quality and reliability, but may not cover other criteria which are important for education..
Camera prices range from under £100 to several thousands. It may be better to buy a number of cheap, simple cameras rather than one or two more expensive ones: they are usually easier to use, a whole class can be working with them at once, and because of their cheapness it’s not a disaster if one is damaged or stolen. Another strategy is to have a set of cheaper cameras which can be used by all classes, and a few better-quality cameras for production work by older students .
You should check that the camera records in a format which your video editing software can handle, or which can be easily converted (see below). Look on the software manufacturer’s website for a list of compatible cameras. Some cameras come with their own conversion software.
Thomas Hardye School in Dorset has bought basic video cameras costing under £100 each. Because they are cheap and simple, the school can afford more cameras. Staff are more confident about using them, so film gets used across a wider range of ages and subject areas.
Basic cameras (up to £100)
Most new cameras in this price range have an upright shape, a fixed screen and simple controls. They record onto built-in memory or removable memory cards. They are easy to use, making them ideal for younger children, or for students to take out of school for documentary projects or video diaries. Some don’t have image stabilisation or microphone sockets.
Recharging is important: some models have built-in batteries which you have to recharge by connecting the camera to the computer or a special USB charger. This is very inconvenient if the battery goes flat when you’re in the middle of filming. It’s better to have interchangeable batteries (preferably standard AA or AAA batteries) so you can carry spares.
MediaEd note: Flip have been the product leader in this field, but the Flip camcorder business is to be closed down by its parent company Cisco.
Mid-range cameras (£100-£500)
When you spend over £100 you have a wide choice, including higher-specification versions of the basic cameras mentioned above, and cameras with a standard camcorder shape and fold-out screen. Cameras with fold-out screens are better for group use. Most cameras in this price range either record onto memory cards, an internal hard drive, or both (see below).
Medium to high-end cameras (over £500)
Once you pay over £500 for a camera you should get very good image quality and a full range of manual controls. Size and shape is important. Larger semi-professional cameras are heavier and can be unsuitable for some projects, but they will normally give better image quality (particularly in poor light) and sound, and the controls will be bigger and easier to use. They should also be more durable.
Some handheld devices (such as mobile phones and digital audio players) include video cameras, and some even have built-in editing software.
Many digital still cameras can record video. You can get compact still cameras which record basic ‘VGA’ video for under £60, and compacts which record in high definition for less than £200. They are often smaller than equivalent video cameras, and may have a wider zoom range. But they can be awkward to hold steadily, and they usually have limited sound recording capabilities.
A few single-lens reflex (SLR) and system cameras, starting at around £500, can record high definition video. Because they have large image sensors and can use high quality interchangeable lenses, they record much better video in low light and it’s easier to achieve ‘shallow focus’ effects. But they are awkward to hand-hold and focus, and sound recording can be poor: many SLR filmmakers use separate digital audio recorders, matching sound and image in the editing process.
MediaEd note: All the cameras we have suggested are Canon SLRs, though Panasonic make some more compact ‘EVF’ (electronic viewfinder) cameras. Canon’s advantage is that they can accept older non-zoom ‘prime’ lenses which are better for manual focusing, including ones from other manufacturers if you buy the relevant adaptor on eBay. For accurate manual focusing you also need an additional viewfinder like the expensive Zacuto Z-finder or the cheaper (but non-adjustable) LCDVF.
Miniature video cameras
You can get cheap video cameras which are specially designed for ‘spy’ or sports use. They range in price from around £60 to under £10. These cameras have limited features (they don’t have screens or zoom lenses, and some will only record in VGA quality at a low frame rate), but they are useful in situations where a very small camera is needed or the camera might be broken or stolen – eg for sports, product testing or science experiments. The cheapest versions are fiddly to use and are unlikely to be very durable.
Most new cameras record onto memory cards or hard drives. They import faster than tape cameras and you can easily choose to import only the clips you want. However, many schools are still using video or animation software which is designed to work with digital tape cameras.
Card and disc-based cameras normally connect to the computer using standard USB cables. You can buy USB card readers, so you can import footage from a card without using the camera. Tape-based cameras use different Firewire (IIEE1392) cables.
This is becoming the most popular recording medium. Some cameras come with built-in memory, but most require you to buy your own cards. SD (‘Secure Digital’) is the standard format. When buying cards, check that they are compatible with your camera and have a fast enough ‘speed class’ (check the camera manual), and that they have a big enough capacity: video (particularly high definition video) can rapidly fill up a small memory card.
Some cameras come with built-in hard discs. They are more expensive than equivalent card-based cameras, but hard discs are cheaper per unit of memory. Despite this, in schools it may be more manageable to use a separate memory card for each project or group.
Some cameras with hard drives offer the option of using memory cards as well.
miniDV digital video tape used to be the most common format for video cameras used in schools. It’s now becoming rare, and cheap miniDV cameras are no longer made. miniDV can only be imported in ‘real time’ (so 10 minutes of video will take 10 minutes to import).
Many schools are still using video editing software which will only work directly with miniDV cameras connected using a ‘Firewire’ (IIEE1392) cable. But you may be able to use separate software to import video from a USB camera and then convert it .
Not all computers have Firewire, so you may need to buy a Firewire card to use a miniDV camera. Some laptops can’t be fitted with Firewire cards, and Firewire to USB converters don’t seem to work with video editing software.
Some animation software is designed to work with Firewire cameras, but if you don’t have these, you may be able to use USB webcams instead.
Most cameras record in VGA, standard definition (SD) or high definition format. For reasonable image quality you should avoid any camera that records at less than VGA (640×480) resolution. Some editing software can only handle standard definition (SD).
High-definition footage usually looks better than SD, but you should consider whether you actually need it. It takes up much more disc space than standard definition and requires more computer processing power. There are several different high-definition formats and you should check that your editing software can handle the specific format that your camera records.
Cameras: points to consider
- How big is the internal hard drive or built-in memory?
- Does the camera have a good built-in microphone?
- Does it have a microphone socket?
- Can you plug in headphones?
- Does it have good image stabilisation?
- How good are the images in low light?
- How wide can the camera zoom out? Can you get wide-angle adaptors to fit it?
- How easy is it to use – are the controls fiddly? Is the screen big enough?
- Can you connect it to an external monitor?
- Does it let you set white balance, exposure and focus manually?
Using a tripod will usually make a big difference to image quality. With a tripod, shots will be steadier, students will take more time planning their shots, and they will find it easier to work in groups.
A wide range of tripods is available. For video you need a tripod with a ‘pan and tilt’ head; more expensive tripods have ‘fluid heads’ for smoother movement.
If children are sufficiently disciplined to frame their pictures carefully and hold the camera steady, working ‘handheld’ can allow them to experiment with unusual shots and camera positions. But using handheld cameras without having practised framing will usually result in unwatchable, shaky and chaotic films.
Supporting moving cameras
To get smooth ‘tracking’ and ‘crane’ shots you need suitable camera supports. You can film simple tracking shots by mounting the camera on a wheelchair or skateboard. A Fig Rig (a ring of tubing with a camera mount in the middle) can make handheld camerawork more fluid, and easier for students with motor impairments. For industry-focused courses you may want to consider getting a professional ‘dolly’ and a ‘jib’ for crane shots.
Sound is very important in film, and a film soundtrack can consist of many separate elements and audio tracks. For serious filmmaking you need equipment that will let you make films with good sound quality, whether you record it live or add it later.
It’s hard to record live sound well unless you have separate microphones and are prepared to take some time to get the sound right. For many filmmaking projects, you may not need to use live sound at all.
You will often get better results if your students concentrate just on the images while they are filming, and create the soundtrack on the computer, using sound effects, music loops and voiceover. You will need sound editing or music creation software for this (see below).
Most cheaper cameras have poor built-in microphones. To improve live sound recording, you can use a separate microphone. There are several different kinds:
- a camera-mounted video microphone may give better sound quality than the built-in microphone, and it will be more ‘directional’ (picking up more of the sound from the direction it’s pointed at, and cutting out other sound.
- handheld microphones can be used for interviews, or held just out of shot for closeups.
- lavalier or ‘tieclip’ mics are good for interviews, and are the cheapest way to improve the quality of recorded speech. They can also be useful for recording live music. Make sure the ones you buy can take batteries: some will only work if they are plugged into a socket which provides power.
- boom-mounted directional microphones are the standard solution for professional drama production. One student will need to hold the boom and point the microphone at the sound source, making sure that it doesn’t dip into the shot. These can provide very good sound quality but are quite complicated to use well.
Better-quality professional microphones use ‘balanced’ three-pin XLR plugs. Only expensive professional cameras have XLR sockets, though you can buy XLR to minijack adaptors.
Windshields are essential for outdoor filming. Many microphones come with simple foam windshields, but the most effective ones are furry.
Few schools use radio microphones, which are expensive and complicated to use. Digital audio recorders (see below) can be used instead.
Digital audio recorders
Digital audio recorders, costing from £100 upwards, are small portable devices which record high-quality audio. (They should not be confused with basic digital memo recorders). Most record onto SD memory cards or built-in memory. They can be useful for recording live sound while filming
They can give better sound quality than recording into a video camera. Because they aren’t attached to the camera, they allow more choice of microphone position: for example, you could put one in an actor’s pocket attached to a tieclip microphone. Synchronising image and sound is fiddly and is only practical with fairly sophisticated video editing programs. You’ll need to use a clapperboard while filming.
These recorders can also be used to record music, voice and other sounds for creating soundtracks on the computer.
When recording live sound, you should use headphones to monitor the sound while you film. This is particularly important if you are using an external microphone, as often the sound level is too low, there are unwanted background sounds, or the microphone has not been turned on. You should consider headphones which allow you to limit the volume (to protect students’ hearing) though these are more expensive.
Green screen, or ‘chromakey’, is popular in many schools. The subject is filmed against a special green background. The editing software replaces the green with another image, so students can appear to be acting in front of any kind of background or flying through the air. Green screen is particularly useful for animation backdrops, where animated characters can appear to be interacting with ‘live action’ footage, eg walking around the school or in the town high street.
For filming, you need a backdrop of the correct green colour. You can buy chromakey green paint, green material, and elasticated panels. If you are setting up a dedicated space for filming, you could consider painting a wall chromakey green. You need dedicated, directional lighting for good quality images: normally the background needs to be more brightly lit than the main subject.
Most schools don’t need professional film lighting. For higher-level and vocational courses it may be important, but it is complex and difficult to use and can be dangerous. It may be better buy more expensive cameras, which can produce better images in low light, instead.
You can use basic equipment like torches or desk lamps to experiment with lighting. If you need more light, you can use builders/DIY lights (these are cheaper than film lights, but pose health and safety issues as they get very hot). If you have a room with ordinary bulbs, you can provide more light by temporarily replacing them with higher-powered energy-saving bulbs. Some filmmakers use these bulbs with Chinese-style paper lampshades. These are safer than film lights because they are much cooler, but with any kind of mains-powered lighting you need to be aware of trip hazards.
Reflectors are useful for filling in heavy shadows. You can buy folding elasticated reflectors, or you can use sheets of white insulation board, or hardboard panels with aluminium foil glued to them.
Traditional film lighting uses three lights: a main or ‘key’ light, a ‘fill’ light to provide some light in the shadows, and a backlight (or ‘rim light’) to illuminate the edge of the subject so that it stands out from the background. You can imitate the effect of some of these lights by using the DIY suggestions above. For example, a torch or builders’ light – positioned well to the side of the subject – can provide ‘low-key’ lighting for a thriller scene, and a reflector can substitute for a ‘fill light’.
You can buy professional lighting in sets, either as tungsten lights (‘redheads’) or as cold LED lights. LED lights are more expensive and cooler; LED ‘arrays’ are good for producing even, soft lighting. You can get ‘softboxes’ to produce this kind of lighting with tungsten lights.
There are major health and safety issues with lighting:
- Tungsten lights run very hot and can burn fingers and cause fires
- Bulbs can shatter, so lights should never be used without safety glass
- LED lights can cause permanent eye damage and should always be used with diffusers
- Students can trip over stands and cables, and lights can fall over onto them.
Most computers can be used for basic video editing, but professional video editing software requires computers with quite a high specification: check the system requirements.
Laptop or Desktop?
Desktop computers are best for vocational courses and higher-end video editing, as they can often be upgraded with additional video cards and hard drives, and may be able to use bigger screens which will make it easier to use complex software.
Laptops allow for more flexible use of spaces, and they can be taken on field trips. It’s also easier for groups to work around them (they should be provided with mice). If you are planning to use sets of laptops you should consider buying specialised cases. You can get trolley cases, suitable for moving sets of laptops to a secure storage area or between teaching spaces. You can also get much more rugged cases designed for transporting sets of laptops in vehicles.
You can use most computer monitors for basic video editing. When buying monitors, you should check your editing program’s minimum requirements. Most programs require a minimum resolution of 1024×768 but will be easier to use with a bigger screen.
If you’re buying displays for professional editing programs, your monitor size should be at least 17 inches. You can also consider colour depth (how many colours the monitor can display: the greater the depth, the more realistic the colour should be). Professional video editing stations normally use two displays. However, higher resolutions, greater colour depth and using two monitors requires more computer power: check that your computer can handle them or can be upgraded.
Microphones and audio interfaces are useful for recording voiceovers and connecting musical instruments. Portable hard drives are useful for transferring media between computers, and collecting students’ completed films. USB music keyboards can be used for creating soundtracks.
Most computers come with basic video editing software pre-installed or available as a free download. The most recent versions of these software packages will work with a wide range of video formats and definitions. You should check that the software is compatible with any camera you are planning to buy.
Included (‘free’) editing software
Both main computer operating systems have an editing package aimed at consumers. These use a single main window for viewing the image and are relatively easy to use .
Intermediate editing software
For £50-£60 (cheaper for volume licenses) there are several different programs which are more sophisticated than the free packages. Most use a two-window layout (where you view your original source material in one window and the film you are creating in another window) and a ‘timeline’ (where you can view your film as a series of clips and sound files). Complex projects are usually easier to manage with one of these programs. They vary in features, ease-of-use and reliability.
Professional editing software
Professional editing software packages (around £200 upwards) all use a timeline-based interface and are the best solution for vocational courses and complex projects. They can usually accept a wider range of video formats than basic or intermediate software. They will take longer to learn, are more expensive, and are not suitable for the youngest pupils.
Other software for filmmaking
You can also buy software applications which allow you to add effects, titles and motion to your videos. Professional ‘grading’ software allows detailed colour matching and effects.
The major professional editing packages already include some of these features, so check the features of your editing package before you buy any extra applications.
Audio editing and soundtrack creation
Audio editing and soundtrack creation software is very useful. Some computers come with bundled (included) audio software, and there are also some free open-source audio editing tools. Some pro video editing packages also include audio software.
Sound software can include some or all of these features:
- Basic audio editing, eg adjusting volume levels, splicing together different sections of a recording
- Music creation, using loops and sound effects included with the software, or using MIDI instruments and/or real instruments and vocals
- The ability to import a video track so you can match your soundtrack exactly to your film.
A media department will need a strategy for managing and backing up students’ video work while they are making their films, and archiving their work and deleting the working files when the films are completed. Uncompressed video files are too big to edit over a network, so your computers must be set up so you can save to a local drive. You will need a lot of disc space while editing, as video files are very large. Normally the finished film (the exported end product, which can be viewed and distributed) will take up much less space.
Points to consider
- Where will users’ video files be saved?
This could be on the main system drive, a separate partition on the main drive, or an external hard
drive. Set up a logical system for naming and saving files and ensure that students stick to it.
Many video programs create a ‘project file’ which doesn’t contain the original media – it just ‘refers’ to it. This can cause problems if the project or media files are moved. It’s simpler if the project and media files are kept in one directory and can be moved together if necessary. Some programs store them in different locations by default: you may be able to change this using the application preferences.
- How will users’ work be backed up?
Obviously it’s important to back up coursework. You could do this by backing up files to a network drive at the end of each day. You can also get students to keep backup copies of their work on their own hard drive or memory stick. This is not a good strategy as the primary backup, as files may become lost or corrupted. (Memory sticks are not very reliable).
- When will users’ work be deleted?
At some point you will need to delete students’ work from your computers. Some schools do this once a term, or at the end of each project. Before you do this you need to ensure that the finished film has been exported at the quality required, and that you know where your copy is located. You could archive completed films on DVD-ROM.
Bandwidth and storage
You need sufficient bandwidth to move large files across the network (eg for backing up students’ video files to a network drive) and for viewing films. You will also need enough storage space for backup and for keeping video files. This is particularly important for courses such as the Creative and Media Diploma, where students need a space to keep video ‘logs’ of their activity. If film and media activity is concentrated in one area, you could consider providing a higher-bandwidth network just in that part of the school.
Mixing operating systems
Some schools use one operating system for filmmaking or creative activity while the rest of the school uses a different OS. Properly set up mixed networks should not cause problems, but if you are selecting an ICT provider and you want to use a different OS for filmmaking you should check whether the provider has experience of supporting this mixed environment.
In this situation some schools prefer to have a separate network for the filmmaking computers. This has some advantages if the main school network isn’t set up for mixed operating systems, but it’s important that the filmmaking computers can access the Internet, both to access online resources and for software updates.
Schools use different approaches for setting up sets of computers for video editing in a classroom, depending on the learning context.
Some teachers prefer to have the computers around the periphery of the room. This makes it easy for the teacher to see what each student is doing and to move between students. It’s also the easiest place to locate power supplies and network connections. It’s less suitable for situations where the students imitate a process that the teacher is demonstrating on the whiteboard (eg showing them basic editing operations and where to save their work). It leaves a large open space in the centre of the room which can be used for demonstrating and practising filming techniques.
Others prefer a traditional classroom set up with computers in rows, and the teacher either at the front of the class, or at the back of the class where they can see what students are doing on their own computers.
If students are to work in groups, it may be easier to use laptops with the students working around larger tables. Using mice makes it easier for all group members to participate (eg with a rule that they take it in turns on the mouse) and lets them position the laptop where they can all see it.
Managing sound while editing
If several students are working individually in one room, they can use headphones. These should be on-ear headphones (with pads which can be cleaned): students should not share in-ear headphones. An alternative is to ask them to bring their own headphones, which can minimise the risk of transmitting ear infections. You should be able to regulate the volume level, or give students clear instructions about limiting the volume.
For pair and group work, students need to be able to hear the soundtrack and talk to each other. This is easiest if they use speakers rather than headphones, but if there are several groups working in the room they may not be able to hear the soundtrack over competing sound from other groups.
Pairs of students can use two-into-one headphone splitters, and you can buy splitters with five or more sockets, but using headphones makes it harder for the students to interact with each other.
With laptops, if groups are able to work without supervision, they could go off to work in separate quiet locations (eg the library, or group rooms). Music practice rooms can make ideal spaces for sound editing.
|Camera||Compact camcorder, phone or still camera with video mode
|Pro or semi-pro, SD, miniDV or HDD|
|Spaces for filming||Classroom, spaces in the school, locations around the town||Classroom equipped as studio
Chromakey screen (£60 upwards)
|Sound recording||Don’t record live sound
Use the built-in microphone
|Basic mics/tieclip mics plugged into camera (£30 upwards)
Headphones (£20 upwards)
Digital sound recorder (£100 upwards)
|Professional video mics, including directional boom mics, headphones|
|Camera support||Basic tripod with pan and tilt head
|Midrange tripod with pan and tilt head
|Professional tripod with fluid head
DIY builders’ lamps, homemade reflectors
|Set of tungsten ‘redheads’, elastic reflectors
|Tungsten or LED lights
|Editing hardware||Standard school computers||Computers with extra memory, faster processors
|Standalone computers with two external displays
|Editing||Free software included with OS||Semi-professional software (£40-£50)||Professional editing software|
|Additional software||Free sound editing software||File conversion
Basic sound editing and creation software
Newbuild or refurbished spaces for filmmaking
In a primary school, a single flexible space is probably the most suitable space for filmmaking.
In a secondary setting, particularly for specialist courses, you may want dedicated spaces: perhaps a large studio space for group teaching and filming, plus ‘breakout’ rooms for small-group or individual activities such as editing.
If you are aiming to emulate a TV studio you may want a separate control booth. The size of the control room should be determined by the amount of equipment it will contain, and the number of students (plus teacher) who are likely to be working in it at any one time.
The best shape for the main room is a simple, flexible rectangular or almost square shape. A large room with a high ceiling will offer more choice of camera positions.
If the room is to have windows, they should be at the side of the room and fitted with blackout blinds. A smooth floor surface is important for using tripods and dollies. Carpet is best avoided (particularly in spaces used for animation as modelling clay gets everywhere) but you may want it as part of the set in one part of the room.
Acoustic separation is important for filming. This can be achieved by using the same techniques as mentioned in the film viewing section, and by ‘box within box’ construction where the walls, floor and ceiling are physically separate from the structure of the building. It’s also important to avoid buzzing and noise from lights or services.
The breakout editing rooms should be located off, or close to, the main room and with good acoustic separation from the main room and each other. All these rooms will require adequate provision of network points and electrical sockets. Cables will need to be run between a control booth and a studio space.
Stop-frame animation can include clay animation, drawn or cutout animation, sand animation, cel animation (drawn animation using several layers) and ‘pixilation’ (where real objects or people are animated). Clay animation is probably the most popular kind of animation in schools. You can also do ‘computer animation’.
Basic requirements for stop-frame animation
You need a camera, animation software, a tripod or other camera support, and a space or surface on which to set up your models, objects or drawings.
You may also want lights, a flatbed scanner (for scanning drawings or other images), a graphics tablet (easier to draw with than a mouse) and a chromakey background.
Most stop-frame animation software requires the use of a USB webcam or a miniDV camera (see below) and may not work with digital still cameras or disc/card-based cameras.
Webcams are cheap and easy to handle but you should check that the specific model is compatible with your stop-frame software. Some webcams have flexible stands which mean that you don’t need a tripod.
If your school has miniDV cameras (and your computers have Firewire/IIEE1394 sockets) you can probably use these instead.
Stop-frame animation software
Stop-frame animation software is relatively cheap and it’s much easier than trying to animate with standard video editing software (though there are ways of doing this).
Important features include ‘onion-skinning’ (which allows you to view several frames overlaid on each other) and the ability to delete frames. Chromakey (green screen) is also useful. You should be able to export your animated sequences in a format which your video editing software can use, so that you can edit sequences together and add sound and effects.
Spaces for animation
Clay animation can get messy so a carpeted room is not suitable.
For each animation station, you need space for your computer, connected to a camera on a tripod or stand (which you should be able to move). You may also need space for lighting. You can use ordinary desk lamps to light animation sets (though beware of heat and trip hazards). For tabletop animation a mini-tripod can be useful (unless your camera has a built-in stand).
For drawn animation, you can use an ordinary tripod with the camera pointing straight down, a copy stand (which positions the camera vertically and has lights) or a professional animation stand, which has pegs for accurate positioning of animation ‘cels’.