Calling the Shots!

Thinking filmically makes a lot of sense when you are teaching children how to write because it helps their imaginations to plop, puff and explode like geysers.

Thinking about an event as a series of shots is a fantastic way of building a story. Television and film are among the first cultural experiences of most children in the UK in the 21st century and from an early age they have learned the codes and conventions through which moving images tell stories. It makes sense for teachers to capitalise on this and many do.

Using the medium of TV and film is perfect for developing and inspiring children’s creative writing because it helps them visualise scenes, character, atmosphere and emotion. It also helps them find the words to transfer those images onto a page.  To make this happen children have to take on the role of producer and director and when you are only 8 years old that’s quite an ask. For teachers this might come a bit more naturally but still, it’s a tall order.
Enter Nick Handel. He’s got 35 years in the business working for the BBC. As a former producer he knows his onions and he’s written Calling the Shots! a magnificent new book and DVD resource that helps children understand how film and TV use a variety of techniques to make stories, skills they can use too.

Nick presents the DVD and pops up in between 15 short films explaining that he doesn’t think in sentences but thinks in ‘shots’ and that these shots act as the building blocks to construct sequences or scenes. Shots are like the pieces of a jigsaw that help paint the picture and Nick says that seeing shots in your mind’s eye makes describing much easier. Each type of shot has a different effect on the audience. This ‘movies in your head’ approach is a very effective way of unlocking vocabulary as it promotes creative thinking.

The book and DVD work hand in hand and offer very practical ways to improve writing. The book covers 17 units and includes an impressive pile of fun and creative exercises that explore exciting concepts that children can apply to their writing. Units include different types of shot, picturing shots, six-shooters, on location, writing and directing characters, sound, lighting, stage directions, high and low angels, and movement. There are also units on going solo, writing a movie and a beginner’s guide to practical movie-making. These are the techniques that are worth their weight in gold to a young writer. 

The units have been written in an informative and informal style which makes them very interesting   to read but also very easy to absorb. In fact, they mirror the natural, informal and fun presenting style of the author found on the DVD. I found that his happy, easy-going and enthusiastic approach came across in his writing so much so that I could hear his voice as I read the resource guidance and notes. He is a natural teacher. Each unit explains what concept is under the spotlight and then goes on to explore in more detail using the film clips. The unit notes provide plenty of guidance about how to use the film in terms of discussion points and what to look out for in terms of the finer detail. There are notes for whole-class activities as well as independent activities and include first-class photocopiable resources and worksheets that get at the heart of each concept. The book contains curriculum-matched grammar activities as well sample material for your interactive whiteboard. It’s quality stuff.

The films themselves are a collection of quirky film dramas that are bound to kick-start a range of thoughts, feelings, emotions and responses. There is ‘Arrosuer Arrose’ a 50 second comedic gem from 1895 released by the ground-breaking Lumiere brothers to specially-shot mini-dramas performed by professional actors and actresses including Sarah Hadland, better known as Stevie from BBC ONE’s ‘Miranda’. As you would expect these films are professionally shot and even have original music composed and get the creative juices flowing. The films are also short so are perfect for lessons.

What I think the films will do is help make children more observant and as some of the clips include words and captions, they will really get a sense of how each shot is constructed and joined together to form a sequence. Ultimately they get children to reflect and react systematically on the process of writing themselves, to understand and analyse their own activity as writers.   

It’s not until you start thinking in shots yourself do you begin to appreciate that your own writing tips might not have gone far enough. Children’s writing can often be a bit one-dimensional but thinking in shots makes for stronger, more active and three-dimensional storytelling. This resource truly puts writing in the frame.  Whilst there is no shortage of excellent short story film resources available to teachers ‘out there’ for inspiring writing that aren’t any that focus specifically on the techniques of production which is what makes this resource so unique. 

Our Verdict

Thoughtful and thought-provoking

Calling the Shots! is pitched as a KS2 creative writing resource but I think it would be just as valuable for KS3. It is a very thoughtful and thought-provoking project, a labour of love that thinks inside and outside the goggle-box and proves that you can use children’s interest in TV and film positively. It’s also a fun and inventive resource that offers something genuinely different for helping children develop their writing; this is cineliteracy at its best and is must-have for primary schools looking for a fresh approach to creative writing. Despite children being media-aware they have quite a flimsy knowledge of how films are made which is why this resource plays an important role in engaging them in the creative process by teaching them the tricks of the trade.
One thing is for sure, this resource will make you look at TV and film in a completely different way. You will watch with a more informed and critical eye and appreciate content and composition far more. Watching a film isn’t a passive spectator sport but a full-brain workout and when used as a stimulus for creative writing the sky is the limit. Calling the Shots! fulfils valuable literacy objectives with real insight, humour, and style and will help children write their stories with far greater structural authority, confidence and vision. Give it a shot.

Pie Corbett