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Achievement Curriculum: Module 1: Student Handout

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Media & the Arts

Voices from the Academy of Achievement

James Cameron
Master Filmmaker

What finally attracted me to film in such a definitive way was it was the only place I could reconcile the need to tell stories and to work in a visual art medium, and the desire to understand things at a technological level -- and my fascination with engineering and technology.

James Cameron: There were several light bulbs at several different times, and the first one was when I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time. And the light bulb there was, "You know, a movie can be more than just telling a story. It can be a piece of art." It can be something that has a profound impact on your imagination, on your appreciation of how music works with the images and so on. It sort of just blew the doors off the whole thing for me at the age of 14, and I started thinking about film in a completely different way and got fascinated by it.

[ Interview ] James Cameron

The next light bulb was really just the one that says, "Just do it. Just pick up a camera and start shooting something." Don't wait to be asked because nobody is going to ask you and don't wait for the perfect conditions because they'll never be perfect. It's a little bit like having a child. If you wait until the right time to have a child you'll die childless, and I think film making is very much the same thing. You just have to take the plunge and just start shooting something even if it's bad. You can always hide it but you will have learned something, you know.

[ Interview ] James Cameron

Never give up because it's going to be unbelievably hard. It's going to be a ridiculously brutal, uphill fight all the time, and you just have to have tremendous stamina and self-confidence to power through it. You have to not listen to the nay sayers because there will be many and often they'll be much more qualified than you and cause you to sort of doubt yourself. But, you know, what I learned from those early days was to trust my instincts and to not back off, because when the hour gets dark, you're instinct is to -- or your tendency might be to say, "Well, this is just too hard and no, you know, nobody should have to go through this in order to accomplish X," whether it's a movie or whatever. But to -- in the pursuit of excellence -- and I think you can be in the pursuit of excellence when you're working on a low budget science fiction horror film, if it's how you define it. You have to go all the way. It's that simple. Now I don't mean trample over people. I don't mean turn into a screaming maniac. I mean, you have to be able -- you have to have made the commitment within yourself to do whatever it takes to get the job done and to try to inspire other people to do it, because obviously the first rule is you can't do it by yourself.

[ Interview ] James Cameron

I think that it was definitely a goal of Titanic to integrate a very personal, very emotional, and very intimate film making style with spectacle. And try to make that not be kind of chocolate syrup on a cheeseburger, you know. Make it somehow work together.

James Cameron: The thing that is exciting about film making is to think back to the moment in time right before you had the idea, and think about that at the moment that you're sitting or standing on the set and there are thousands of people around and they've built this huge set, and there are all these actors, and there's all this energy and all this focus, and realize that it's all in the service of something that was made up out of whole cloth, you know? And that's fun. I mean, that's what an architect must feel like when they drive down the street and they look up and see a building that they designed. It's something that you imagined made tangible.

[ Interview ] James Cameron

I know what I've tried to do, which is tell stories that excite the imagination and maybe say something at a thematic level, and maybe something about the human condition with respect to our human relationship with technology, because ultimately I think all my stories have been about that to one degree or another. And to allow people to step through that screen into that world, whatever it is. You know, whether it's the world of The Abyss, or the world of The Terminator, or Titanic, to let people live in that -- create that space for them and let them live in the shoes of those characters for a while. That's what I set out to do, so I think it's really up to others to sort of sort it out, what it ultimately means.

[ Interview ] James Cameron

Francis Ford Coppola
Filmmaker, Producer & Screenwriter

In your own time, usually, the stuff that's your best idea or work is going to be attacked the most. Firstly, probably because it's new, or because they'd never seen an opening of a movie like that, or seen a gangster movie done in this style. So you have to really be courageous about your instincts and your ideas, because otherwise you'll just knuckle under and change it. And then things that might have been memorable will be lost.

[ Interview ] Francis Ford Coppola

Ron Howard
Motion Picture Production

Ron Howard: Initially, when the idea for Apollo 13 came to me, I didn't remember the mission very well. And then, as I looked at the facts, I had a vague recollection of it. I always believed in the space program and the spirit of exploration, but I was not a sort of a space junkie. Initially, I thought, "Wow! This would be a great challenge: to try to recreate for the audience the experience of going into space." And it's a very dramatic story, and that would be interesting. But I was looking at it more as a sort of cinematic exercise, you know, a great learning experience. However, as I began to learn more about the mission, I began to see that it was, in fact, even more dramatic than I realized. And, more importantly, as I began to meet the individuals involved -- not only the astronauts, but also a number of the mission control people who were involved in the rescue -- I began to see that this was really a great story of human triumph. A very emotional story and that you could be very, very truthful. And yet, it was a real opportunity to sort of celebrate what human beings are capable of.

[ Interview ] Ron Howard

Grades 4-6

Careers in Media
James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, and Ron Howard are involved in several aspects of media and film production: filmmaker, director, producer, and screenwriter. Sometimes the same person wears several hats to make their vision take form. Other careers in media include editing, sound direction, special effects, acting, and cinematography. Focusing primarily on filmmaking, research the different career paths available. Develop a multimedia presentation that describes and illustrates the variety of careers. Indicate which career you find the most interesting. Explain why you select this career. Outline the steps would you need to take to enter this media-based profession.

The Reviewer
Filmmaker James Cameron states in his interview that "a movie can be more than just telling a story. It can be a piece of art." What do you think he meant by that statement? Read James Cameron's complete interview in the Gallery of Arts to learn about his ideas. His latest blockbuster movie was The Titanic. Some people thought it was a spectacular story and an artistic triumph in filmmaking. Other people did not agree. Everyone who saw it used their own criteria to rate the movie.

A professional movie or film reviewer writes about a film for newspapers, magazines, or the Internet. He or she presents opinions about whether the filmmaker was successful in telling the story and artistic in the way the story was told. To a filmmaker, the reviewer can be a very powerful person. A good review can mean people flock to see the movie. A bad review can cause people to stay away. It is important that a reviewer is fair and bases opinions on evidence. Consider several movies you have seen recently. Select one that you feel strongly about. Write a review of this film. Then research other reviews of this film. How are your opinions the same or different from those of other reviewers? Describe the ways you feel the filmmaker achieved his or her goals.

Grades 7-9

Capturing the Audience
All filmmakers want to draw an enthusiastic large audience to see their work. They want their films to be commercial successes so they can go on to make more films. But Francis Ford Coppola says that sometimes "the stuff that's your best idea or work is going to be attacked the most." Filmmakers often have to balance the desire for audience appeal and acceptance with their own artistic vision. They might want to make a film that is riskier - one that takes viewers into new areas, but are aware the audience may not be ready to accept it.

Think about teenage movie viewers like yourself. How do filmmakers make sure that their films are going to capture the teen audience? What elements such as, themes, plots, characters, and/or special effects elements must the film possess? Make a list of the things that ensure film success with teens. Then, identify a film that you consider riskier - one was unusual and artistically more interesting. Who was the filmmaker? Was this film an example of his or her best work? What risks did the filmmaker take? What new elements did he or she introduce? Why is this film an example of quality work? Why did it still manage to speak to at least some teens - to you? Use your information and opinions to write an essay comparing a standard formula teen film and a film appropriate for teens that is artistically and technically challenging for both the filmmaker and the viewers.

A Moment in History
Producer Ron Howard had never been into space (and had little desire to go there) but he became very interested in "recreating for the audience the experience of going into space." He used the dramatic true story of the historic Apollo 13 space mission to create this experience in film. Filmmakers have often used actual historical events to take viewers into the past to experience a Civil War battlefield, the life of a Roman Gladiator, or the tragic sinking of the Titanic to name but a few.

Read the complete interviews of Ron Howard and James Cameron in the Gallery of Arts. Both filmmakers created history-based films that had a powerful impact on audiences. They brought a dramatic event to life in a way that gave viewers a new understanding of historic events. Consider the elements that make a successful film that is based on an historic event. What is required in filmmaking to make this re-creation successful? Must it always been absolutely factual in story and character? How do special effects pay a role? Research reviews of successful history-based movies. Select a historical event that you find interesting that has not yet been made into a film. Create a two-page proposal to develop this historic event into a successful film.

Grades 9-12

Humans and Technology - Technology and Filmmaking
James Cameron states that the "human relationship to technology" has always been an important theme in his work. In his film, The Titanic, the story focuses on the human cost involved when so-called infallible technology fails. In telling the story, Cameron also uses amazing cutting-edge technologies to make viewers feel as if they were on the sinking ship. Research either technology as theme in filmmaking or as a tool for enhancing filmmaking. Develop a multimedia essay that illustrates the one aspect of the important role technology has played in media.

The Independent Film
Have you ever wanted to make a short film or video? Do you see yourself as the screenwriter? A director? An actor? The cinematographer? What story you would like to tell in film? Is it a fictional tale or a documentary about a real-life issue or human interest story?

James Cameron advises aspiring filmmakers to "Just do it. Just pick up a camera and start shooting something. Don't wait to be asked because nobody is going to ask you and don't wait for the perfect conditions because they'll never be perfect." Many young filmmakers take his advice and write, direct, film, and promote their own short low-budget independent films. Film festivals are available that feature independent films from local small events to something as successful as the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. Research the independent filmmaking opportunities for young people in your area.

Develop a plan for a short film. Focus on the aspect that you are the most interest in and hook up with others who could work on it with you. Develop a short synopsis that includes them, narrative summary, and intended audience. Develop a preliminary script and some rough storyboards. Run your idea by people whose opinion you trust. See how far your idea takes and as Cameron says, "Pick up the camera and start shooting!"

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