Note to the Teacher

Dear Mr. Freeman,

(click thumbnail)Mr. Blobbykins, star of the author's son's clay animation project for school.It was nice to meet you at the Middle School Back-To-School Night last week. And thanks for not making us sit in those dinky little desks; I'm not sure how those eighth-graders fit, but a few too many crew meals and craft service tables have ruled out that possibility for me.

It was really interesting to see the school's TV production studio. What did you say it used to be... part of the home economics laundry area? Well, I guess that times change, and one era's idea of "the essentials for daily living" eventually gives way to that of another era.

I think I did a really good job of holding my tongue throughout your entire TV Production Class presentation, given that I actually spend my days doing the very things you're teaching in there. Of course, the parents' class period only lasted six-and-a-half minutes, so it wasn't too hard to behave. Mostly.


But now that Back-To-School Night is over, I thought I'd step forward and say a few of the things I wanted to say the other night. I'd heard that you put in your time at a small PBS station in the mountains, so from one TV guy to another, here goes.

If I were a real idiot, I'd start with a hilarious tirade on the second-rate trash the administrators buy for those kids to play with... that Fisher-Price-meets-Salvation-Army motif you've got going there. But the truth is that, relatively speaking, they may not find things substantially different up here in the "big time." Camera ops, TDs and engineers seldom get to choose new equipment--corporate accountants do.

Plenty of us have been forced to use under-powered, obsolete or just plain broken gear every day. As trite as it sounds, if you can tell a story using that junk, you've learned the essence of your craft... go to the head of the class.

I know that you're teaching them how shows get edited. What I'd really like to hear is that you're showing them how easy it is to distort reality with clever editing, twisting meanings and removing context. How about starting with that video the principal recorded for Back-To-School Night... wouldn't that be a riot?

By the way, I heard that little anecdote about Anthony and Diego taking the camera into the boys' bathroom... pretty funny. Sounds like the vice principal dealt with them pretty sternly, but now it's your turn. They'll need to hear what our industry expects of them in terms of ethics and simple good taste.

Remember, they've been raised on shows like "America's Funniest Horrible Injuries" and "reality" movies where numbskulls skateboard off roofs, so they have no better frame of reference. And don't worry if they don't seem to be listening; they are, and they need to hear this from someone they think is somewhat cool.


Well, this little note is getting longer than I intended it to be, and there are still a few more pearls of wisdom I wanted to share with you, so I'll condense them considerably. Here goes...

Solder all the zoom buttons shut. If they want a closer view, have the kids walk the camera closer to the subject, just like they did in olden days. There's nothing more nauseating than eight minutes of nonstop, simultaneous wobbling, shaking and zooming, and if they get jonesin' for zoom lens acrobatics when they're this young, there's no way we'll be able to train it out of them once they show up at our place in a few years. Do us all a favor.

Cut the camera mics off with a hacksaw, and leave their jagged stumps visible. They've got to learn how to record proper sound, and thanks to automatic level controls and hypercardioids, we're no longer teaching them to choose and place microphones, to mix attentively, and to carefully use compressor/limiters and EQ. Good sound people are like hens' teeth these days, and we've got to start growing some new ones from scratch.

And give the kids a dozen or so old CDs of outdated production music to edit with. Don't perpetuate that myth that it's OK to rip copyrighted material without a second thought; it's bad enough that their clients will some day be asking for essentially the same crass level of theft. Officer Bob, their antidrug police liaison, is trying to teach them to say "no" to illegal activities, and it wouldn't hurt for you to try it, too.

In closing, I guess I just wanted to say thanks for what you're doing with these kids. You and I would both be amazed if any of them ever really went into the production business, but that's not what you're really doing; by showing them how it's done, you're actually training them to be smarter viewers, and that's a great endpoint in my book.

And thanks for playing my son's clay animation project in front of all the other parents, even if the credit roll was twice as long as the animation itself. Brilliant, isn't he?