Capturing the imagination – a photographic remake

It is normally a pretty good sign if some colleagues in the staff room know about a project that you are working on before you’ve told them about it. It means that pupils themselves are talking about it!

This was the case last week. I had taken my fourth-year classes (15-16 year olds) to our local museum, the Jan Cunen Museum, to see an exhibition by the Dutch photographer Micky Hoogendijk. Most of the work on display were quite large-scale portraits with varying degrees of digital manipulation often in the form of overlays of other imagery imposed over the head or face. Three works stood out though as slightly different. These particular photographs didn’t have the same manipulation, but they did have a historical resonance with seventeenth century Dutch art.


We talked about the set of photographs whilst at the museum, the clothing, the poses, the use of light and the restrained expressions on the faces. The linking with seventeenth century art was strong and something the pupils later explored in a homework assignment.

Whilst the Hoogendijk works don’t seem to have been based on specific images from the past they offered the pupils a contemporary route back to artworks that they often pass quickly over in other circumstances.

The photographs also offered me a chance to make use of a practical assignment that I have used in the past. This involves a photographic remake of an art historical portrait where the pupil plays the part of the subject of the portrait. It is a relatively straight forward assignment to explain, and maybe this helps in the way that it seems to have captured the attention of my pupils in the last couple of weeks.

I provided a large selection of images for the classes to search through to find something that they thought that they could work with. I gave strict instructions for the photographs that they were going to take, and these were going to become my marking criteria when evaluating the work:

  • The pupil really has to play the part, the expression involved and displayed was important
  • Composition and the arrangement of figure and attributes were important
  • The use of light in the painting had to be followed as much as possible in the photograph
  • The pose of the figure should be used as a basis in the photograph
  • The clothing can be updated but should show a relationship to the original painting   Providing the framework
  • Cardboard box office
  • Related posts:
  • All photographs shown above are included with the pupils’ permission.
  • Looking back on the results that were finally handed in, I feel that the effect of that having seen high quality photos in the exhibition had a positive effect. I feel that it made them approach their own work in a more ambitious way. It definitely seemed to help them in taking a step away from the idea that this was just going to be a relatively unconsidered snap shot, an approach that is the dominant feature of most of a teenagers photographic output.

Beyond these instructions I left my pupils to it. Sending them off with a two-week deadline to produce this practical homework assignment. Although I did also stress that this was perhaps not an assignment to work on in a hurry on a dark Tuesday night…..they were to try and make use the of the natural light that the weekend offers.


Looking back on the results that were finally handed in, I feel that the effect of that having seen high quality photos in the exhibition had a positive effect. I feel that it made them approach their own work in a more ambitious way. It definitely seemed to help them in taking a step away from the idea that this was just going to be a relatively unconsidered snap shot, an approach that is the dominant feature of most of a teenagers photographic output.

All photographs shown above are included with the pupils’ permission.

Related posts:

Photographic frames of reference

Cardboard box office


Don’t change a winning team…..a classroom film project

Or if you prefer, ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it’. There is a great deal in education that is in a constant state of flux, we hear much about the atmosphere of constant change in our schools. There are many good reasons to remain critical of our classroom practices, to improve and refine. Maybe as a result of this situation is comes as something of a relief when you have a lesson element, or in this case a series of lessons, that works so well within its aims that you feel little need to adjust it.

This is very much the case with the ‘remake’ project that use with our film module that we teach to our fifteen and sixteen year olds. This practical assignment follows on heels of a more theoretical part that has involved discussing various film making practices and skills and watching a movie in class together. In recent years we’ve spent time in class discussing the boundaries of truth and fiction in movies and have made use of films such as:

But to get back to the film making practical, the set up is simple and involves taking an existing short film as the basis and dividing it up into short fragments of, say fifteen seconds. Each group involved is then asked to analyse the fragment that they are allotted, with particular attention being given to what exactly the camera is doing. Are we talking about a zooming or panning shot, a close up perhaps or a birds eye view and how long does each shot last exactly? Having recorded all the camera work detail in a storyboard the groups get down to filming the action as precisely as they can (quite a challenge for some groups!).

This year we’ve been working with one original film, five different classes and something like 120 pupils. 18 groups were formed and each had to deliver just 13.5 seconds of edited film that remade a section of Love Sick, our original short film by Kevin Lacy. Love Sick is very well suited to the project because the storyline is simple and very visual. The that fact that all our actors involved in the remake change every 13.5 seconds can potentially produce quite a lot of viewer confusion, but given this simplicity I think the result still bridges these continuity problems quite well.

Once I have all the fragments, I put them in the right order, take the original soundtrack and add that to the pupil version. Normally there is a little extra editing needed at this stage to try and make sound and image match up as well as possible, but I try to keep that to a minimum. Using the original sound sidesteps the thorny problem of pupils trying to record sound with their mobile devices and in practice works as a sort of glue in holding all the fragments together.

To say that the pupils are keen to see the film at the end of the production is a bit of an understatement! They are desperate to see it! And it provides an entertaining and often very funny element of a diploma presentation evening that we have with the classes at around the same time that the project reaches its conclusion.

Last year’s project

Swept along by a film assignment – feel free to use the idea!

Teenagers love a movie. A good film during lesson time is, in the eyes of many of many pupils, about as good as it gets. Because of this I normally start the broad art and culture awareness course that I teach to my fourth years (15-16 year olds) with a module on film making.

The series of lessons is built up essentially of three separate parts.

  1. A few theory lessons that look at the history of film and explore the craft of the filmmaker, along with a little shared group analysis of filmmaking techniques.
  2. We subsequently watch a movie in class, discuss it as a group before the pupils write their own analysis and evaluation report of what we have seen. I use various films for various classes, favorites from the last few years have been Senna and Amy from Asif Kapadia, great for teenagers with an aversion for documentary films. Alongside these two, Catfish and The Babadook have also been greatly enjoyed.

For a little more reflection on watching films in class, take a look at the links below:

Three film, three reactions

Finding the right film

  1. The final part of the module is a practical assignment. The aim of this practical is essentially to get the pupils out of the classroom, and to experience in a more conscious and hands on way, the possibilities of camera use, and alongside this, the importance of the edit.

This third part, the film practical assignment, is without doubt one of my favourite activities of the year. To start with it is a little complex to explain to the class, but once they have got the idea they just love doing it.

The assignment

In bullet points, this is the working process:

  • I choose an existing short film (one that is about five minutes long)
  • I divide my pupils up into groups of about five (often this is done across three or four classes together)
  • I divide the film up into sections (the same number of sections as I have groups)
  • I allocate each group a section (normally 20-30 seconds long)
  • The groups produce a detailed story board of their fragment. This involves making screenshots, notes about what the camera is doing, notes about the performances being given and very importantly exactly how long the individual shot lasts
  • The pupils then head off to reproduce each individual shot as precisely as they possibly can
  • The pupils then edit their own work to result in a fragment of the exact same length as the original section that they had been allocated
  • The groups hand in their piece of work.
  • I then join all the fragments together in the correct order
  • I rip the soundtrack of the original film and drop this onto the pupils’ version, add some titles at the beginning and the end and the job is then essentially finished.

This year’s pupil film:

Based on the following original:


A few footnotes

For someone with a little knowledge of even the most simply video editing software this is not an overly complex project. However there are a few things to watch out for. Most importantly is the choice of original film. Script that is spoken ‘on camera’ makes the process a lot more complex. The marrying up of the sound of the spoken text from the original and the pupils mouths is difficult and often requires numerous small adjustments. To limit this, choose a film with a narrator, or simply one with the absolute minimum of speech.

This is an incredibly fun assignment to do. It is a carefully framed up activity, and leaves the pupils with a very clear task to carry out. The results can be fantastic and leave the pupils desperate to see the final version, that in my case, is often made by a group of close to one hundred pupils.

We show the finished product at a social event where both parents and pupils are present. It is a great hit every year!

Below are links to the same assignment from previous years:


Lovesick II

Black Coffee II


Photographic frames of reference

Establishing clearly defined areas of creativity when working with young people is something I’ve posted about before, it is something that, as an art educator I feel quite strongly about. This week I’m being reminded about again through an assignment that I have set.

The assignment is part of a photography module that I am working on with my fourth year class (15-16 year olds in the Dutch system of education). We’ve spent time in the lessons looking at examples of good portrait photography, the pupils have compared photographs and written about them.

But ultimately the core of the whole project is getting the pupils to take their own photographs and trying to insure that the photographs are more that the bulk of the photographs these teenagers take in the average week.

This is a generation that take so many photographs. This is fantastic in so many ways, the freedom to experiment, the minimal cost involved and the ease with which they can share their creative discoveries. The big down side though is that they rarely stop to think about what it is that they are doing, everything is a snap shot, instantaneous and so often just for amusement purposes.

With this in the background, it is actually often quite difficult to get the sorts of photographic results that you might hope for. The assignment that I have been experimenting with is essentially a portrait assignment, not so much about ensuring that the portrait photograph discloses something about the subject, it is simply more about encouraging the pupils to look carefully and critically at there’s on that they are photographing, consider how they are framing them up and how that they are controlling light.


The assignment is based on an idea that I came across on the website although I have also seen work by other photographer doing similar things, such as the Dutch photographer Hendrik Kerstens.

For the project I gave the pupils a selection of five Vermeer and five Rembrandt portraits to use as a basis. They simply had to create their own photographic versions of the portraits. It was not so much about dressing up or gathering attributes to fill the picture, but more about creating the ‘look’ of the painting, simulating the glance, creating a comparable composition.


By allowing the pupils to play the role that the original offered seems to have removed a lot of the self-consciousness that might otherwise get in the way. They step in front of the camera knowing what they have to do. The endless possibilities that the camera normally offers is framed within some limitations, but these limitations allow the chance to focus on the issues I want them to focus on. This is the strength of the project I feel.