Empowerment, a Pixel at a Time

Kids Learn Multimedia Movie-making the Hands-On Way

July 26 , 1995

By Scott Rosenberg

The digital scene is full of talk about how computers empower people, and a lot of it is hot air. But at the San Francisco Digital Media Center's D*Lab, where I spent a day last week watching kids make their own movies, empowerment isn't a rhetorical abstraction; it's a hands-on process, full of painstaking detail work, technical roadblocks and the occasional small triumph.

This morning, for instance, Kevin Hollenberg has drawn an antique map on his computer screen, and now he's experimenting with the edges of the page, trying to make it look worn and singed. But what color's right for the burn mark? Kevin keeps substituting different tints.

Whitney Chu has finished a rough-cut of his movie about his family, but some of the still photos he scanned into the computer came out with the wrong proportions, and he's trying to fix them. Meanwhile, the teacher, Chris Axley, works with Whitney to try to relate the film's family portrait to the story it ends with, "The Tale of the Chinese Scholar."

Rio Yanez has hand-drawn a vast, purple-hued urban landscape; now he's trying to merge it with a video that shows him leaping into the air, along with a closeup of his face in mid-jump.

And Ian McDonell, who's working on a piece about his favorite band, White Zombie, has had to take a break. As he mutters to a volunteer, "I had to restart the computer because the lame scanner didn't work."

The students here -- sixth- through 12th-graders drawn from across the city, some paying but most on scholarships -- are learning to use professional programs like Adobe Premiere and Photoshop to tell their own multimedia stories. The D*Lab calls it the Tapestry Project, and its 60 or so students, from a wide range of ethnic and economic backgrounds and many from various "at risk" situations, are racing through a four-week program in three staggered waves.

But mastering the computers and the software isn't, ultimately, the point. To begin with, the kids tend to be pretty computer-savvy already. More than one of the program's adult volunteers pulled me aside to say things like, "Every kid here knows more about computers than I do."

In any case, the technology is mostly a means to an end, explains the program's director, filmmaker Ron Light. The real goal is to give each kid the chance to tell a personal story and learn about self-expression. Computers help because they bring production costs way down, and because the process of digital filmmaking -- what's known in the trade as "nonlinear editing" -- allows a kind of trial-and-error work that speeds up the learning curve. You can make, unmake and remake a sequence without fear, waste or fuss.

While the Tapestry Project is unique in a variety of ways, it's by no means the only program of its kind. The longest-running and highest-profile hands-on multimedia project for kids is Visionary Stampede, a project created by John MacLeod and his Mill Valley-based company, Opportune Press.

The first round of Visionary Stampede gave 130 students from nine high schools in Northern California a chance to produce their own multimedia projects. Their collected digital works are now available on a CD-ROM titled "Visionary Stampede: Dreams and Challenges of the '90s," and another compilation is in the works.

The variety of imaginative experiences collected here leaves the typical commercial CD-ROM project way behind in the mire of convention. From a mock-military drama enacted with armies of baby carrots to pregnantly meaningful adolescent poetry, from nightmare scenarios of a cyberpunk future to anatomies of high-school hallway drug deals, "Visionary Stampede" provides a clear window into the contemporary teenage soul.

The Tapestry Project's students will also have their works published, either on CD-ROM or via a site on the Internet's World Wide Web. But first they have to finish them.

Axley, the teacher, tells me, "I think everybody's going to complete something they're proud of." But the adults find that one of their most important jobs is reminding the kids that they don't have time to do everything.

Kevin's map, Whitney's photo proportions, Rio's video compositing and Ian's battle with the scanner are each only small pieces of the puzzles these budding directors must assemble. Like their equivalents in the professional filmmaking world, the students have to juggle limited resources -- and learn when to say "cut."

At 3:45 p.m., teacher Jeannene Hansen raises her voice above the hubbub and announces: "Everybody hit "save.' I'm plugging something new into the network."

Watching these kids at play on keyboard and screen, you sense that that's just what's happening, here and across the country, as a generation that grew up with computers bends them to its own creative needs.

These young artists are plugging something new into our network. Stay tuned.

For more information about participation in the Tapestry Project, which still has a few spaces open in its final session, call 415-824-9394.

"Visionary Stampede is available for $19.95 from Opportune Press at 415-381-7566.

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