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The making of Unlocking Young Minds

Out of the blue a friend from my schooldays telephoned late one night to invite my wife and I as his guests to a meal and evening entertainment at the Guildhall in London. The event, he explained, was intended to raise funds for The Hope Centre, a charity he helped to found. This charity uses a revolutionary teaching method to help children with learning difficulties, teaching them a variety of life skills. Having invited us he then threw in a rider – “I know you make movies…any chance that you could make us a movie to show on the night too? “ I could hardly refuse – I’d updated my edit suite not long before and this sounded like a good project to get my teeth into.

During the ‘closed season’ we visited the Hope Centre for a recce (taking plenty of digital stills) meeting with the fundraising committee for the first time. The movie, they explained, was to have a key place in the forthcoming charity evening. They briefed us that the movie was to be ‘seven minutes long, no longer’, so were very conscious of the need to get a lot of information into a short space of time. We phrased interview questions to try to elicit short sound-bites that could be used throughout the movie with or without the accompanying ‘talking head’.

Before each interview we explained our intentions and asked the interviewee to start each response using a rephrased question. So for example to the question “When did you first notice Fred had difficulties?” we wanted a response along the lines of “We first noticed Fred had difficulties when he was three…” This would be far more useful to us than the more natural shorter answer “When he was three”

During our initial ‘recce’ we filmed our first interview for the project, with the head of the Centre Ruth Deutsch a lovely lady, very compassionate and enthusiastic. However it was her enthusiasm that proved to be slightly problematical at the editing bench –each ‘can you tell me in a nutshell…’ answer ran five minutes or longer, and she was seemingly able to deliver an answer without pausing for breath! You may be interested in how I managed to rescue this material.

To extract a useable sound-bite the first step meant cutting very sharply between her words. Next, on an adjacent track I pasted audio ‘room acoustic’ buzz track to either end of the ‘bite’ then crossfaded the audio over a frame or two at the top and tail. The sound was now acceptable but this still left a jarring start and end to the image. To rectify this I use my Canopus Storm speed control to stretch a couple of frames at the top and tail of her associated picture track so that they now ran around a second long. Now the clip didn’t lurch into speech at the first frame. To mask this time-stretching I dissolved from the preceding shot.

Other technical problems became evident from this first shoot – we were shooting in an office with plenty of large windows, so no additional lighting was used, apart from a large reflector used to fill-in the shadow side of the face. I colour-balanced and manually set the exposure. During the interview I concentrated so hard on the framing (giving looking room in front of the subject!) that I did not notice the change in the outside lighting conditions which had started bright and sunny but, by the middle of the interview, had become ominously overcast – consequently the latter part of the interview was significantly underexposed. I did save some of this footage by using the colour correction controls in the Canopus, but the corrected material appeared woolly and ‘flat’. Unfortunately one key sound-bite that ended up in the final movie had been through this process – and every time I view the movie it is like waiting for the nasty scratch to come round on a vinyl record!

I’ve always been a fervent believer in manual control of audio to avoid compressing the dynamic range – until now! I thought I was safe watching the gain in the viewfinder and monitoring using closed-back earphones. However there must have been momentary peaks as the final audio has was slight distortion, so the modulation must have exceeded the 0dB at times. This project taught me to use automatic gain, where needed restoring the dynamic range on post-production.

During the ‘off-season’ we set up interviews with the parents of the children we intended to feature, mainly filming them in their home environment. This added some variety in locations, rather than set the entire movie in the school itself. For example one parent was filmed in her back garden - here, once more, we used a large reflector to fill the shadows.

Pressure was starting to build as we were around two months from the ‘show date’ without even a roughcut to show for it! So, as soon as the educational year started again at the Hope Centre we organized several days to film the children during their lessons. These lessons are almost exclusively on an intensive one-to-one basis and, because of their educational difficulties, the children are very easily distracted, so it was essential to be as unobtrusive as possible. We decided on no additional lighting, and used my Panasonic MX500 camcorder handheld with the Sennheiser M6/ME66 short shotgun microphone. Shooting like this worked like a charm, sitting on the low ‘kiddy chair’ beside the teacher and pupil, but as soon as I changed angles to get close-ups, reaction shots or cut-ins, the pupil’s concentration was broken as they watched me shift position. Nevertheless, by resting my elbows on my knees, and shooting towards the wide-angle zoom setting most of the time may not have given the steadiness of a tripod, but was certainly steady enough to use, and gave the benefit that it was far quicker to change position when shooting.

I started assembling the rough cut – initially a sequence of each child, with the parents and teachers providing information as talking heads. Often the parent’s delivery had long pauses during sentences, so I tightened up the audio of the most useful ‘sound-bites’. Of course this gave rise to a succession of talking head jump-cuts, but it was easy to disguise these by overlaying shots of the child over the dialogue. Each sequence was put together in the same way - the parent or staff member was given a few seconds of initial screen time, long enough to subtitle the adult and to establish in the minds of the audience just who was talking. Once I’d established the person the remainder of their comments was done in voice over. A talking head is not as interesting as an active child, and this way I could present a lot more information in a short time.

Having strung together the individual sequences, one for each child, it was time to analyse the results critically – and the omens were not good! The movie plodded along with a predictable one-paced feel. The key to giving it pace turned out to be the use of parallel action – a number of the sequences showed children being set a task, struggling with it then mastering it. I split each child’s sequence into these sections so that using “parallel action” cutting I was able to establish what the task involved, cut to a different child, returning later in the movie to see the child mastering it. This made for a lot more variety, with shorter individual sequences, and added a several further layers of interest – there was the audience recognition (“ah yes, this was the little girl we saw earlier, who was trying to…”) and it gave a ‘progression’ to the story.

Jodie’s end sequence, where she sings, a capella, “I believe I can fly”, was the most contrived part of the film – the committee were going to bring her onstage at the Guildhall to sing this live on the night of the showing, so the movie had to end on her sequence. As this was shot in a really tiny room, her voice sounded very ‘boxy’. Fortunately Audition came to the rescue with subtle reverberation being introduced as she starts to sing, giving her recording a sweeter more rounded acoustic. I scoured my shots looking for clips of the pupils smiling…many shots had very momentary grins. By slowing these shots not only gave them added screen time, but added to the ‘winding down’ mood.

The finishing touch was to introduce the Hope logo which shows a little boy, silhouetted by the ball of the sun, releasing a dove. I thought it might be a good opportunity to get to grips with After effects by animating this image. One further brainwave was to pull back with the final live-action shot so that this ended up inside the circle that then developed into the animation. Three days later and I had an 8 second image that starts with a disc and develops by the end of the clip into the Hope logo, the dove just taking flight at Jodie’s final line. Of course I had not contended with the requirements of how they would move from my movie into Jodie singing live onstage. Well on the night, as the movie drew to a close, and I could see one or two surreptitious tears being wiped (audience reaction – always a good pointer!). Suddenly, just prior to my prized animation, up came the spotlights and Jodie launched into her song. On that night nobody got to see my animation!

Nevertheless my friend rang me several days later, very excited, to say that they had raised £64,000 during the evening, double what they had raised at the previous year’s event. He said the movie must have been partly responsible, which was a nice thought. He also asked if I’d like the job again this year, which is why, as I write this, I’m just putting the finishing touches to “Graduating with Hope”. And now they are even talking about ‘next year’s film’!

- Terry Mendoza    September 2005

It was one of the UK offical entries to UNICA 2005, Belgium where it won a bronze medal.
Click here to read more about UNICA 2005 and other UK entries.

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Page updated on 09 October 2011
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