Teaching Tools

Formative Exercises

Formative Exercises

Posted by: San Francisco Film Society

Since classroom film projects will vary from class to class, the formative exercises you employ will also vary. Below are a number of short-term projects that will allow students to hone different skills while building towards their final projects. Exercises should always be informed by the cumulative project, so take care to select exercises that support the learning goals you’ve identified during planning. 

More detailed versions of these lesson plans are available for download in the Lesson Exchange


Read a Screenplay 

Students read an entire feature screenplay, ideally of a film they’re familiar with (transcribed scripts of most Hollywood feature films are available via public libraries, e-book services and bookstores). This exercise can be done individually as an assignment or collaboratively as a class, with different students assigned different roles (e.g., one student per character, one to read sluglines, one to read action descriptions, etc.). In either case, students have the opportunity to see how a film is laid out textually, what formatting conventions exist, and how much the finished movie conformed to the writers’ intentions. 

Imagine a Premise and Write a Logline 

Students come up with their own idea for a movie and, in no more than two sentences, write a logline for their movie idea. A logline is one of the most important tools a writer has to promote his/her script to a studio or production company. It is a brief statement of a film’s premise, succinctly identifying the main character(s), the setting, the central conflict of the plot and perhaps the central theme. Loglines should be punchy and compelling; Hollywood executives often decide which scripts to consider based on the strength of their loglines. 

Example: A team of scientists is deployed to a remote island to appraise a prehistoric theme park, a zoo of dinosaurs that an eccentric mogul has managed to bring out of extinction. The scientists’ tour of this groundbreaking facility becomes a desperate fight for survival as a tropical storm and a traitorous employee knock out all of the park’s safety measures. 

Write a Scene Based on Your Logline 

Imagine students were to write the feature script for the movie for which they’ve written a logline. What would the most important scenes be? Students choose one scene from their movie idea and write a draft, including all dialogue, pertinent character action, narration (if any), sound effects, props, etc. Camera directions should not be included in any scene script.

Transpose a Scene 

As a class, watch a movie scene, preferably one with multiple characters and more happening than just dialogue. Each student should take copious notes; feel free to watch multiple times or provide transcripts of the dialogue alone. Upon sufficient screenings of the selected scene, each student will write the scene as if it were part of a full screenplay, focusing on correct sluglines, accurate dialogue and narration, effective action descriptions, sound effects and key props, etc. 

Re-Write a Movie Ending 

Students select a favorite film, or perhaps a film that you’ve watched as a class, and imagine another way in which that film could have ended, rewriting the last 1-2 scenes from the selected film. Dialogue should remain true to character, but the plot can take whatever direction students see fit. 


Frame Comparisons 

Print out (or otherwise exhibit) 10-20 still images, preferably with horizontal orientation (i.e., simulating the cinematic frame) including both dynamic, compelling images and bland, poorly framed images. Discuss each as a class one at a time and try to identify their distinct characteristics. What makes certain images compelling? What makes other images less interesting? Consider the framing, color, texture, and perspective of each image. 

Practice Framing 

Based on your class discussions of frame composition, divide into small groups and, using still cameras (use cut-outs or drawings if cameras are not available), have each group of students capture 5-10 images and explain to the class how each frame composition uses a stylistic principle you’ve collectively discussed. Alternatively, each group can select 5-10 photographs or movie stills and try to re-create them using classmates and available resources. 

Write a Shot List and/or Draw Storyboards for an Existing Scene 

As a class, screen a single scene from a film of your choosing. Students should take extensive notes; feel free to screen the film multiple times, or pause occasionally throughout the initial viewing. The goal is for each student to write a sequential list of every shot that comprises the scene. Each shot description should include a shot size (Close-up, Medium shot, Wide shot, Reverse shot, etc.), any camera movement involved in the shot, and any characters/objects included in the frame. Students can also take the exercise further by drawing each of the shots in their shot list into a storyboard, indicating camera movement with arrows as appropriate.


Create a Flipbook 

Students create their own animation flipbooks, drawing each individual frame one at a time. Small post-it pads (at least 30 sheets recommended) are ideal for this exercise. Starting from the last page, and continuing on to each prior page, students can draw a simple image (e.g., a stick figure) and slightly change the position, size or shape of the image on each of the pages. Images should be limited to the bottom half of each page to ensure the animation is visible when flipped through. The first page can be left blank so that the students can create a cover for their book when they are finished. 

Create a Stop-Motion Clip 

In small groups, students set up a static frame in which to construct a short animated clip using stop-motion techniques. The characters in this clip can be fashioned from any classroom objects, ideally those with moving parts. Since stop-motion animation is time consuming to create, clips should be no more than 2-3 seconds in length and students should be encouraged to create a visual metaphor or gimmick as opposed to a full story. 

Check out these clips by stop-motion wizard PES for object-based stop-motion inspiration: 

The Deep

Game Over



Re-create a Favorite Movie Scene 

Using any filmmaking resources at your disposal (still cameras can yield a photographic storyboard that simulates an actual movie), students remake a movie scene of their choosing. Responsibilities should be divided among students as they collaborate to put together their own sets/costumes/props, do their own camera work (dollying is easily simulated on a rolling chair), and act out the performances. 

Conduct On-Camera Interviews 

Students select a topic on which to interview one of the adult program leaders (filmmaker instructor, classroom teacher, or SFFS intern). This can be done as a class collectively or in small groups. Students collaborate to decide upon and/or execute the following: 

• A series of topic-related questions to ask the interviewee 

• A location in which to shoot the interview (with sufficient light, space, etc.) 

• Background elements to include in the primary interview shot 

• The angle and shot size to shoot the interview subject 

• Any B-roll or insert images they’d like to include (e.g., close-ups of interviewee, objects) 

Practice Green Screening 

Mount a large sheet of green construction paper on a wall or table surface and make sure the entire area is well lit. Set up a camera so that the green surface comprises the entire frame. Students place objects or cutouts of their choosing between the green paper and the camera lens and shoot each image. Photographic backgrounds (e.g., photos of landscapes, city streets, crowds, etc.) can then be digitally inserted behind the foreground element(s) using iMovie, Windows Movie Maker, or other standard motion graphics applications. Foreground objects may be static, animated using stop-motion, or shot in motion. Students should consider frame composition when placing objects against the green screen, being mindful of their intended background(s) and how they want it to look. 


Record and Analyze a Soundscape 

Select a unique environment external to the classroom where you have the capacity to set up sound recording equipment (e.g., the cafeteria at lunch, the gym after school, the yard at recess, another classroom, an administrative office, an adjacent street, etc.). Without making any sound of your own, record 1-3 minutes of continuous sound in the selected environment. The finished recording will comprise a “soundscape” of that place during that time. Listen as a class to the amplified recording and try to identify the source of every sound heard. What sounds did you expect to hear? What sounds surprised you? What sounds were easy or difficult to identify?

Sound Design a Scene 

Using one of the scenes written or drawn by students in a script or storyboarding exercise, create an audio-only scene that incorporates all of the desired or correct auditory elements. Dialogue can be performed and recorded by classmates, sound effects can be downloaded or created in the classroom foley booth (see exercise below), music can be downloaded (or omitted). Students should challenge themselves to record the scene at an appropriate pace for the dialogue and action, as if it were being performed for a camera, instead of merely a microphone. 

Create a Foley Booth 

Using any materials and facilities at your disposal, construct or find a small, enclosed space on campus that is as quiet and soundproof as possible. Students will be creating audio of different kinds of footsteps in this makeshift foley booth. Fill a tray or box top with a variety of materials and have a student walk in place on each surface created, recording each footstep with an adjacent microphone. Materials can include sand/dirt, gravel, water, dry leaves, carpet, etc. Take these various sound recordings and begin a classroom library of sound effects. Listen to each as a class and identify the material used, and think of other possible applications for the raw sound. Other foley effects (besides footsteps) can be created as desired (e.g., pouring liquid, ripping paper, popping balloons, etc.). If appropriate, recorded sounds can also be incorporated into student-made animations or shorts. 


Practice Shot Order 

Consider the following six shots (feel free to create your own as well): 

1) Shot of a woman entering the front door of a home 

2) Shot of a person being wheeled out on a gurney by paramedics 

3) Shot of a man running out the side door of a home 

4) Shot of an ambulance arriving to the scene 

5) Shot of a man sneaking in the side door of a home 

6) Static shot of the home with an audible scream 

First, arrange these six shots in their most logical sequence. What story/scenario is being presented? 

Next, have students choose four of these shots and arrange them in a different order (say, 2-5-1-3 or 4-5-2-6). In small groups, students take the new sequence they’ve selected and determine a scenario that matches that shot sequence. Discuss how the meaning of this same series of shots changed when shots were omitted or re-ordered. 

Edit an Autobiographical Music Video 

Students collect a series of images and/or video clips of their choosing, relating to their own lives. These can be downloaded, brought from home, or shot/recorded in the classroom. Using any editing software available, students practice assembling images to create an autobiographical music video—a video collage of self-related images set to a song (or song excerpt) of the student’s choosing. 

Edit an Action Sequence 

Classrooms with multiple video cameras at their disposal (and editing software) will benefit from this more sophisticated editing exercise. Students are encouraged to work in groups, to ensure that everyone gets a turn working with the visual software or at least helping make decisions. Using 2-3 cameras at once, shoot 60 seconds worth of footage from multiple angles of multiple performers doing something active or kinetic. This could be a school sporting event, dance/music performance, or just something that you stage as a class on your playground. Once the footage is shot, students will be able to practice linear editing and match-on-action techniques. The goal is to cut the footage from these cameras together to create an action sequence that is as exciting and logical as possible. 

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