Sunday, 30 March 2014

Top tips to prepare for exams

This is just a short post with a few top tips as exams approach!

1. Don't spend ages revising. This may be what you want to hear because you're lazy, but that's not what I mean. My view is that if you don't take things in as you go along, you won't do well in exams (at least not in Media or Film) just because you do a load of work at the end. You need to understand your subject and be able to talk about it anyway. preparing for exam questions about it should be a matter of technique and refreshing your mind about it, rather than cramming loads of information for weeks.

2. Focus your preparation completely. Know PRECISELY what you are going to be expected to do in the exam- how long the paper is, what form the questions take, how many marks are attached to them and how long you are expected to spend on each one. Know what the rules are about the questions- do you have to refer to a minimum number of texts, a variety of media, to examples from a particular period of time- whatever! all this knowledge helps you to be absolutely clear about what you need to prepare and what you can set aside. Look at past papers and past questions- if your teacher can't provide them, go online and find them- all exam boards have old papers you can download.

3. Decide what you feel most confident about using and systematically prepare that material so that you can summarise it, refer to the key arguments, mobilise specific examples to back your points and adapt it to the needs of different questions. You don't need to know EVERYTHING about a topic, but you do need to be able to be FLEXIBLE with what you do know!

4. PRACTICE writing to time. Start with some old questions and set out what your paragraphs will contain as a set of bullet points. Then just write and time yourself. How much can you cover in the time and how well does your argument work? get someone to read it, especially someone who doesn't know about the subject, and ask them if they can follow your argument and if your examples back your points up. If not, go back to what you have written and work out how to fill the gaps. If you do a few timed essays, you will get faster and if you seek advice from readers, you will get better.

5. Have some of your own examples. Don't rely on everything having been spoon fed by the teachers. Applying ideas or concepts to examples YOU have found always helps your answer to stand out from the same old stuff that everyone has half-remembered or half-understood the teacher saying.

6. Don't panic. If you prepare effectively in the short term and have taken things on board in the long term, then you have nothing to worry about. You can only do your best.

7. And finally, get the obvious things right. Know WHEN the exam is- DAY and TIME! I have known students to miss a morning exam because they assumed it was in the afternoon. Aim to be there EARLY- transport isn't always reliable. And have your PENS! When I used to invigilate, it always shocked me that there were many people in the room who had forgotten to bring pens. And during the exam, keep an eye on the clock. There is no value in spending an hour on a 25 mark question and then only half an hour on a 50 mark question. You might get full marks for the 25, but you will probably lose 25 on the 50!

Next time...structuring an answer.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

production work - almost there 2


You have probably near enough finished your production work for this year, so maybe these tips should just be for next year, but I think they have a wider implication.


Last time, I wrote about the value of re-makes in building up your awareness, insights and skills. This time, I want to focus on the importance of doing your job properly and the tension between teamwork and keeping to your role. In coursework productions, print work tends to be done as individual projects, whereas video work is more often done as a team. Personally, I favour teamwork, as two heads (or more) are often better than one; though of course 'too many cooks' can also ruin a project. So how do you strike the right balance?

On a film or TV programme, any look at the credits will reveal just how many people have been involved in making the project happen; and even though there is always a hierarchy in that team, with some jobs being deemed more significant than others, without everyone playing their part effectively and bringing their particular expertise, the project probably wouldn't have happened and certainly would not have been a success. In student coursework, where the teams are much smaller, it is more likely that people do a bit of everything, but it is still important, I think, to have a clear sense of what everyone's role is at any given time.

In the industry,  particular jobs  tend to have quite clear definitions- for example the director, the editor, the cinematographer, the production designer, the producer. The Skillset definitions of each are quite useful, so I have highlighted links to them here. But when you are making something in a small team, it is much more likely that you will all take turns for a bit with the camera, with the editing and so on. Important to this process is that you don't fall out and that any disagreements you have are channelled productively into improving the project. I would suggest that you need to agree a way of working before you start that is acceptable to you all and that you stick to it throughout the project. That way an element of trust will carry you all through the project.

For example, you could agree that if one person is alone editing, they stick to an agreed plan and if they do anything 'individual' that they agree to accept the view of the rest of the group when they come back to see it. So that if the others don't like something about the edit, they agree to 'undo' it. Similarly, you could agree that each member of the group will shoot a particular proportion of the shots so that one person doesn't 'hog' the camera. It is very important not to be too precious about a project- it's not just yours, it's all of the group's.

Similarly, it is important that everyone agrees to pull their weight in a project and not leave it to everyone else to do all the work. There are few things more annoying at the end of a project than seeing someone who did very little end up with the same mark as yourself if you've worked hard throughout! Where you encounter problems of this kind, it is important to address them early on in the process, so that everyone does get fully involved.

So it's important to get that balance between pulling your weight and having the chance to contribute. It's not an easy thing to do, but if you succeed it can make your project so much better!

Saturday, 15 March 2014

production work- almost there! Part 1


In a forthcoming article for MediaMagazine, I argue that there are several key elements in production work which ensure better work and a better experience. I won't go into them all here- you have to read the magazine for that! But I do want to point to two key areas which can help you in this and next week's blogposts.

This week- learning from re-making.

When I started working on the BFI Film Academy and visited the National Film and Television School, I was pleased to see evidence of the project that they do early on for lots of their new MA students- re-making a painting as a set. Students visit the National Gallery in London and study the composition and lighting in paintings by artists such as Vermeer or Rembrandt and then back at the school have to collaborate in building a full size set replicating one of the paintings they have studied. Each group of craftspeople from set builders to cinematographers plays their part in making it as accurate a reproduction as possible down to every last detail.

What pleased me was that this justified tasks that I had set media students over many years and had always argued they learnt a lot from! Whether it be music videos or film openings, adverts, posters or scenes from TV drama, I think there is a lot to be said for re-makes as a way of learning to analyse, to build your technical skills and to make you look more closely and see more clearly.

So here are a few examples, ranging from shot-by-shot re-makes of TV and film trailers and film openings and music videos, to print work, such as adverts and film posters. All of these tasks were preliminary to students working on projects of their own in the genres chosen. In general, such work leads to much better independent projects later, as what's been learnt can be transferred to working with your own ideas. So, pace of editing, framing a shot, where to put titles, how to use sound effectively all improve as skills through effectively 'copying' existing work in the first place. It's actually how artists learnt to paint in the past- copying 'masters'.

Here's an example from the NFTS with the original painting: Interior of a Dutch House by Pieter De Hooch:

see the video reconstruction and development here:

This year, the NFTS MA students are re-making this painting:

Jamie's Dream School trailer re-make:


Juno opening re-make:


Hit Me Baby One More Time re-make:


Trailer for Carrie re-make (original in corner):

re-make a print advert: (GCSE)

TV titles sequence re-made:


Sunday, 9 March 2014

Save BBC3!

This week, the BBC announced that in a cost-saving measure, the corporation is going to do away with BBC3. Apart from the issue of how they explain having BBC1, 2 and 4 but not 3, this raises quite a lot of questions, not least Why? The channel has a strong track record for innovation and for reaching parts of the audience that the other BBC channels are losing out on. It will apparently save nearly £100m a year, which sounds a lot, but when you realise that the BBC spends £30m a year on Formula One racing (to which they don't even have exclusive rights- given they share it with Sky), then the Channel starts to look like a bargain.

Tony Hall, the Director General, argued that the choice was between cutting money for BBC1 Drama like Sherlock or Dr.Who, and cutting the channel. The cuts to the BBC in recent years as a result of the licence fee being frozen have effectively amounted to about one sixth of its budget, so savings had to be made somewhere. The corporation argues that some of the savings from BBC3 will go to expanding the iPlayer's functions and that BBC3 programmes will simply move online. Though this may go some way to catching the same 16-34 audience (29% of whom watch programmes like Bad Education), it simply isn't the same as having a guaranteed channel. And if they do that and that audience doesn't have a TV set at all, just watching catchup online, they won't have to pay for TV licences, which in the end will lose the BBC even more money...

So what has the channel ever done for us? Which programmes started there? 90% of the channel's output is from the UK and EU, with 70% of output being original programming. Some of its programmes have found success there and then been 'bumped up' to BBC2 or BBC1 for a bigger audience. Since starting in 2003, the channel has been responsible for Little Britain, Gavin and Stacey, Being Human, Bad Education, Torchwood, Dr.Who Confidential, The Revolution Will Be Televised, The Mighty Boosh and many more. Though its documentary strands are often no more innovative than those on Channel 4 or 5 these days, it has nonetheless had some success there too with programmes like Our War about Afghanistan. During the Olympics, the channel went over to 24 hour coverage to allow more options for minority sports to be shown; it has also frequently  covered  music events such as Reading Festival.

But the audience won't be letting it go lightly. There was a big campaign all week on twitter and a petition launched which has quickly gathered over 140,000 signatures. Facebook likes for the campaign to save it have reached 200,000. In an age when commercial channels and repeats of old programmes dominate our TV screens, it seems a great pity to lose a channel which offers something different.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Media coverage of football

I've been thinking about blogging about the media coverage of football for some time, but it's such a vast topic, I needed a focus. Listening to Five Live's 'Monday Night Club' while I did the washing up last night gave me the impetus! The panel, including host Mark 'Chappers' Chapman, ex-pro Steve Claridge, journalist Jason Burt and  commentator Guy Mowbray, were discussing the Sol Campbell interview broadcast on sunday and the Alan Pardew 'headbutt' incident from Saturday.

You can hear the podcast of the show here for the next few days.

Sol Campbell's interview can be seen here on the BBC and here on youtube. The Pardew incident and his post-match interview is here.

Campbell's forthcoming book, 'Sol Campbell- the authorised biography', is described on Amazon:

"First ever authorised biography of Sol Campbell. The family life of one of Britain s most celebrated football stars: detailing Campbell s complicated relationship with his father, youngest of 12 siblings, part of a British-Jamaican immigrant household. The love of the game what it was like to play for some of the world s greatest football teams, living a dream; the struggles and highlights. Racism and immigration: how Campbell's ethnicity has affected his career, and what he believes needs to change to make the UK more equal, in football and in society. Sexuality and homophobia: the truth behind the prejudice and rumours . How Campbell dealt with pressures and internal issues at a time when psychological support was lacking in football, with few provisions or assistance."

The interview extract concentrates particularly on his claim that he could have been England captain for ten years but was passed over because he is black, and this made headlines over the weekend, with lots of people coming out quickly and rather defensively to dismiss his claim. On Monday Night Club, several extracts were played and ex-FA boss Mark Palios was interviewed by phone about the idea that the FA is institutionally racist. 

Alan Pardew's loss of temper over an apparently trivial incident when a  player appeared to push him to get the ball for a throw-in, when his team were winning at Hull has had a lot of coverage. From Jeff Stelling's hilarious reaction on Soccer Saturday on Sky Sports through Robbie Savage on 6.06 and Match of The Day, not to mention newspaper headlines. Pardew has a bit of a history of 'losing it' on the touchline- pushing a linesman, swearing at Man City manager Pellegrini and others, but the reaction to him going in on the Hull player headfirst appeared more suited to the outbreak of the apocalypse.   

What struck me in the coverage of both the Campbell interview and the Pardew incident was how much it epitomised the kneejerk style of BBC football coverage in recent times, much of which comes from the choice of format and presenters. On Monday Night Club, the 'voice of reason' was the print journalist, Jason Burt, who tried to put things in perspective with Campbell by suggesting that the important thing was not whether he had actually failed to get the captaincy because he was black, but that Campbell and other black players felt that way and that was how institutional racism worked. He was shouted down by Steve Claridge who clearly had no understanding of the notion of institutional or unconscious racism. Not for the first time, it struck me that Claridge's role for the BBC is to represent the 'ordinary (white) fan', who has an opinion on everything but knows nothing. As a 'journeyman' ex-pro who has played for lots of clubs, mainly in the lower divisions, he is used as a voice of "down to earth common sense". The trouble is that common sense isn't always good sense. Chapman, as the host, tries at a couple of points to get Claridge to see that there is more to it than just his opinion, but quickly gives up and falls back on a pally laddishness about who's paying for the meal after. Campbell's views are ultimately put aside as somehow due to his own personal arrogance- a familiar strategy when dealing with issues around race and inequality. Maybe he is arrogant, maybe he's wrong- he probably wasn't the best choice for England captain, but it becomes an easy way to dismiss more obvious inequalities in football, like the near total absence of British asian players and the lack of opportunities for black players to go into coaching and management. 

The Pardew incident illustrates the same tendency to go for hyperbole and headlines. Robbie Savage's responses in this case (and many others) illustrate the way he too is used by the BBC. He often shouts down callers to 6.06 who question anything he says, with the air of the man who has had too much to drink in a pub and won't listen to anyone. Frequently he uses the line 'have you ever played professional football?' as a way of winning arguments, claiming that the caller couldn't possibly understand unless they had. His analysis on Match of the Day tends to 'state the obvious' and his calls for punishment for Pardew reminded me of people arguing  to bring back hanging. Only briefly at the end of Monday Night Club did a suggestion arise (again from the only proper journalist present) that the particular circumstances at Newcastle United, where the best players keep getting sold without the manager's involvement, might be the cause of his short temper at odd moments where the rest of the time he keeps a lid on it. Of course, it might all come to a head in the summer, when Pardew is apparently going to be part of the BBC team at the World Cup. Imagine him on a panel with Shearer and Savage, who called for his sacking!

So what's my point? Well, given the sheer amount of football on TV and radio,  I am disheartened by the simplistic coverage which the BBC promotes. Of course, there are excruciating pundits and co-commentators on every channel- Andy Townsend on ITV, Michael Owen on BT Sport for starters- but I don't think the BBC should keep going down this road. BBC pundits and reporters should be knowledgeable about their topic and thinking through the wider implications. It is a sad state of affairs when callers ring in to 6.06 to talk about the financial scandals at Glasgow Rangers and the host, Darren Fletcher, says he doesn't know much about it. (On the same programme, he had to be corrected by a listener after he said that Suarez and Henderson were signed for Liverpool by Brendan Rogers).

Football is not a matter of life and death, but it is too important to be left to reporters and presenters who don't do their homework and seem to be chosen just because they are full of banter. And the issues around it are certainly too important to be left to the opinions of buffoons like Savage and Claridge.

For serious, wide-ranging and in-depth coverage of football culture (with an intelligent sense of humour) read When Saturday Comes magazine and visit their website.

And having just written all this, I was looking for the pictures to put at the top and found someone else had said much the same over three years ago! Clearly nothing will change!