6 Things I Learned About Project-Based Learning From Making a Sci-fi Action Movie

I recently had the chance to work with a group of teachers and students to plan, shoot, and edit an eight minute film. At the start of week I admitted something a little bit scary to the students, "I've never done this before, and I don't know for sure that we can pull it off." Then we all rolled up our sleeves and got to work.

Not only did we make a pretty cool short film but I also learned a few things along the way. So here are the six things I learned about project-based learning from making a sci-fi action movie.

1- Creativity is Contagious - Something really powerful happens when you say to someone, "You're really good at [thing you're really good at], can you help us?" From staff volunteering props to our graphic designer working on CGI elements this project took on a life of its own. Kids who never thought of themselves as 'theatre' kids were suddenly working lines and talking about their performance. At it's core project-based learning is about having something to authentic to say, sharing your ideas with others, and engaging in a dialog. Creativity feeds creativity and being a part of something bigger than yourself is powerful.

2- Networks Matter - There are stunt sequences in something like 70% of our movie. Small problem: not a single person on the cast or crew had ever ever choreographed, directed, or edited a single fight scene! We had to find a way to get advice and mentoring. After going back to our professional networks I realized I had an old college friend who is a professional stunt choreographer working in L.A. After a few emails she offered to not only give us advice, but also to choreograph all our fight sequences and to Skype with the cast and crew during production. A huge deficiency in our production turned into one of the highlights of the week! Not only did we achieve a cool result, but we also modeled the power of networks for our students.

3- Starting is Hard but Doing Gets Easier - One of the big concerns I hear about project-based learning is the amount of time it takes. I'll admit: starting this project was incredibly difficult. Because we were beginner film makers we didn't know what tools we needed and we didn't have a road map to follow. We figured the way forward was to trust our team, bring the students into the conversation early and... take the plunge! We abandoned a few things along the way and improvised a few other things in the middle of production but because we had a clear script and goal in mind we were able to keep moving forward in service to the film. By the end of production we felt like a well oiled machine!

4- Students Know What's Good - One of the most satisfying things about this project was having a built in barometer for what was good and what wasn't working. Every morning we would watch the rough-cuts from the day before and we knew right away what was awesome and what needed work. Let students help you assess the success of the project (way before the end of the project) and they will keep you honest.

5- Count on your Champions - For most of the shoot we were either outside or in an unheated building. This project was cold! When the going got rough there was one student who could always be counted on to gush enthusiasm for the project. Another student was our logistical guru who always knew what was next and what was needed. Not everyone wanted to be in front of the camera, but by giving real responsibility to students who were ready for the role created buy-in from the entire cast and crew.

6- Finish It - Yep there is a big plot hole in the movie. If you're reading this before watching the movie I won't give anything away but you'll know it when you see it. In the script and in our minds we knew why it worked but in the final version of the film we didn't adequately sell the idea to the audience. A few days after we finished the movie we talked about going back and reshooting a few scenes but in the end we decided to leave the film as it was. Having a hard deadline to work toward was incredibly helpful and having a final product to show to the entire school was thrilling. By deciding to be done we were able to look back and reflect on what we would do differently for the next time.

Did we pull it off? We did indeed plan, shoot and edit a short film in just five days. It was a little crazy, tons of fun, and full of learning. I learned about how to make a movie and I was reminded of the kinds of transformative experiences that can come from project-based learning. What do you think, did I miss something? What have you learned from project-based learning? Let us know in the comments!