BIG, FANCY Hollywood directors have nothing on Larry Gates. They may be used to juggling various egos and story lines, but at least most of the actors who star in their movies are more than 6 years old.
Gates, on the other hand, has taken on the ambitious task of creating movies that feature 6- and 7-year-olds as writers, actors, camera crew, film editors and publicists. And he is not helping them make just one or two of these movies, he is helping them make 11.
Gates is the digital media specialist at St. John's Parish Day School in Ellicott City. The school, which was recently expanded, has a new media center with six Macintosh computers and two personal computers. The center opened in February.
The expansion also means that the school, founded in 1964, can teach more pupils. In past years, it has had room for preschoolers and kindergarteners. This academic year, a first-grade program was added, and a new grade will be added each year up to grade five.
Gates is helping pupils in kindergarten and first grade make movies. "It really is exciting to be teaching kindergarten and first-grade students technology so new that a majority of high school students don't know it," he said.
Each class is broken into two or three groups for the purposes of the project, creating 11 groups producing 11 different movies.
The pupils work on the project during their normal once-a-week sessions at the media center and once-a-week sessions with the computers. Usually, the sessions are a half-hour, but recently, Gates spent an afternoon with one group of pupils, hoping to film all the material the group would need for the movie, which will be about five minutes long.
Gates and his pupils spent some time outside, then went to the media center. The pupils were first-graders serving as actors, directors and camera crew. They were: Michael Bentivenga, Abigail Blum, Kieran Calambro, Brenden Chavis, Sierra Love and Marguerite Madden.
Each pupil had several tasks. They were acting in the story, but they were also taking turns filming it.
In addition, they were directing each other, and serving as writers by tinkering with the story line.
Gates was doing an impressive job of keeping the youngsters focused on the project at hand, reminding them frequently of the story they had already created, yet leaving room for improvisation.
At this particular point in the story, the pupils were supposed to read a note taped to the wall, then mysteriously disappear, one after the other.
Abigail had volunteered to film, and Gates explained to her the relative merits of a long shot, a medium shot or a close-up.
She selected the medium shot and yelled "action." But the children have a hard time disappearing in a realistic way. They try ducking behind a curtain, but it doesn't go well. Finally, Brenden has the brilliant idea that the kids should simply duck out of view of the camera. It works beautifully.
Later, Brenden said he preferred acting to his work behind the camera. "On camera, you have to do hard work to control the camera," he said. "I like the acting better."
Marguerite agreed that acting was her favorite part, too. "You might get really good and go to Hollywood," she said.
The filming took place three or four weeks into the project, after the plots had been planned. In future weeks, the pupils will sit down at the Macintoshes and edit the film, adding sounds, incorporating photographs and other artwork, and deciding on special effects. The films are expected to be finished by the end of the school year, so each student can take home a VHS copy.
"You'd be surprised how the movies shape up with editing and fun sounds and music," Gates said.
These are fairly ambitious projects. "We're teaching them how to scan things and how to mix art into the footage," Gates said. To make matters more complicated, each group of pupils must work together on all phases of the project. "We're trying to teach them they have to do everything together as a team," Gates explained.
But all the hard work is paying off, he said. "The movies that we are making require imagination, and unlike adults who dismiss ideas as stupid, children place no boundaries on their imagination. They are perfect for the job."