New Film Classes Bring Classic Hollywood to Woodward

This year, Woodward has three new classes related to film and film history in the Upper and Middle Schools, which is a very exciting new endeavor for the school.

Earlier this fall, Upper School students in the new Film History class learned about early silent-era films by mimicking their style. This film is titled "The Wallet" by Charles Brayton '22 (and you can check out more of the student films at the very bottom of the post).

To learn more about the film classes, we spoke with teacher Nicholas Widener '09.

Beyond the Gate: Tell us a little about your background with photography/film.

Nicholas Widener: It seems I’ve always had an interest in film. My father always took my brother and I to movies and had us watch old movies on TV. His love of old films and moviegoing had been passed down to him from his father. I think that within our family there’s a deep appreciation for the art of film. You might say it is in our blood. Many times I have gone to see the midnight premiere of a film, giving up a good night's sleep to ensure I saw the movie as early as possible. I would say not all of my friends understood why I would be so anxious to see the movie...I took a lot of ribbing for being a cinephile.

While in the Middle School, I took a video class with Mr. Vogt, and what I learned and the opportunity to make films resonated with me. In the Upper School, I took video classes with Mr. Broad all through high school, and I even had the opportunity to co-anchor WA Live my senior year. During this time, I was able to make a number of short films, and I have to say, it was always a very exciting way to express myself. The medium felt like it was expandable in any direction you pushed it. 

Shortly after I graduated from Woodward, a fellow Woodward alum, Chris Pryor ’08, and I decided to try to make some more serious films. Our first longer feature was autobiographical, and we were looking for George Clooney. It involved the epic film “Batman & Robin” and the sunken city of Atlantis. Though it sounds totally unrealistic, it was serious stuff to us. We moved onto other actual serious films about a pickpocket, a broken relationship, and a heist gone wrong. In several of our films, Woodward was a major location for our film production. It was really amazing to have some of our work screened in local film festivals. It was a great opportunity, but at the same time I had a lot of fun working with several other Woodward graduates and friends who helped co-produce these films. 

My co-producer Chris Pryor moved to Los Angeles to pursue a film career, and I began pursuing more photography opportunities. I took up photography in a serious way, and I found that I loved it just as much as film. It felt good to be making art that was more solitary and contemplative. I made a decision to pursue a minor in photography at GCSU, and that eventually led me to SCAD where I pursued an MFA in photography. A great thing that brought my love of photography and Woodward together was that I was able to host my thesis show in the same gallery that as a Woodward Middle schooler my work had been displayed. The show was called Both Sides of the Old Road, and it was displayed in May of this year.

Both art forms are engrained in me, and I am so lucky I am able to share the knowledge I have accumulated with my students in the new film program and through my middle school video classes I teach. 

BTG: Is this the first year of the film class? What went into creating it?

NW: It is always exciting to be a part of something new, and this is of course true with the film program. The program will start with two new Upper School Classes: Intro to Storytelling and Film History. And one new Middle School Class: Introduction to Film and Video. 

When I was first approached about teaching some new classes, I immediately began to think about what I would have enjoyed learning as a student, as well as what I wanted to teach. This helped me formulate curriculum for the new classes. 

The Intro to Storytelling class was based upon some elements of filmmaking I learned on my own through my early short filmmaking process. The good film does not exist without first having a good script. As I analyzed what I wanted for the class, I knew I wanted to delve deep into the script writing process and take it to its logical conclusion...a short film produced by the scriptwriter. 

The streaming era we are in makes it increasingly difficult to sift through content in order to be able to find important, thought-provoking films. I thought a film history class would help students develop a keen eye for well-structured and innovative films and to learn how film has evolved through the industry's history. 

The Middle School class is a combination of new and old elements. I have been teaching a semester long video production course in the Middle School for four years. In that class students concentrated more on creating content for the morning show. In the new class, they will develop skills that will help them as they move on to the Upper School to pursue film and video. Of course, I always want them to develop a passion for the art as well.  

BTG: What are you hoping students take away from the class?

NW: For every class I teach, first and foremost I want them to walk away from the experience being more knowledge about film production and film history. It is about being literate in these areas, if you are going to take the next step. I think film is the ultimate art form, because it is a combination of every other medium, the ultimate text, and we are seeing content of this nature now more than ever. But I have to admit I am a constant film critic. I believe we need to be able to know how to read and interpret the films to fully enjoy the intent of actors, directors, etc. Just having a Netflix subscription doesn’t make you any more knowledgeable about film. After you watch the film, I always like to talk about it and even dissect it...this can be annoying to some, who might say, "it's just a movie." It is always more than a just movie. 

I also hope each class develops a critical eye and their own sense of taste. I have students critique their classmates’ projects in order to understand how others perceive their work. It’s also important for them to be able to learn how to voice their opinions on both films we watch in class and films they create. While in college, I had the unique opportunity of going to the Cannes Film Festival as a study abroad program. The film critic from the Chicago Tribune, Michael Phillips, gave our group this advice: “whatever you think about a film, you are right. As long as you are able to articulate it, you are right.” Those words and advice have stuck with me and are a part of what I pass on to my students. 

I’ve also been starting every class period by playing pieces of film soundtracks and showing stills/scenes from films. Developing a wide variety of taste within film is important, too. Just like our actual diet, a varied media diet is good for our film intellect. The “Mission: Impossible” series of films is one of my favorites. They are the absolute best in terms of action, stunts, and downright absurdly awesome shots. Tom Cruise is always top-notch and believable in these wildly exciting films. But I don't stick to just this genre I also love films like “Blade Runner,” “The Tree of Life,” “The Milk of Sorrow,” “La La Land,” and “Vivre Sa Vie." 

BTG: What sorts of projects will the students create throughout the year?

NW: The Intro to Storytelling students are focusing on telling stories that are interesting and filled with real emotions. We began the year by creating a memory map from important childhood memories. Students crafted a story from one of those memories, and they are working on a script based upon their chosen memory. We’ll continue in this vein, developing more scripts based upon personal stories with strong, relatable characters at their heart. By the end of this semester course, students will have fully realized one of their scripts by putting it into production.

The Film History class will be creating films based upon which era of film we are studying. So far, we have made single-shot silent films. The students edited these in the style of early 1900s films to get a better idea of how films were created at that time. With each new era, we will advance our techniques in class and learn about the different advancements and styles of film. Currently, students have written a script for a silent film that will include edits, intercutting and intertitles.

The Middle School students have been learning how to operate a camera by practicing different angles and shots. They have also started their live TV news show in the mornings. Throughout their class, they will create different videos for announcements such as PSAs, interviews, and comedic skits. Students will also learn how to write a basic screenplay and shoot a short film.



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