Relax, focus, shoot: the Altman approach to legal education multimedia

by Paul Maharg on 17/06/2010

Hugely busy so this is the first post in ages… Recently I was reading a review of a book on Robert Altman, one of my top ten film directors of all time. As an Arts student  in the seventies I was affected by his films more than most others – to this day I’ve never quite understood why, but they stayed with me, and the more I learned about his methods of directing the more I’ve been fascinated by them.  They’ve affected the way I approach educational multimedia, a point that was brought home to me when I was discussing multimedia amongst many other subjects, with academics at the University of Ulster’s Graduate Law School. 

Altman's working method appears much more relaxed than that of other directors.  Instead of blocking the scene rigidly, miking up the key actors, and focusing on the formal patterns of establishing shot, close-up, meaningful comment, etc, he adopted another method.  It consisted of an ensemble of actors, sometimes talking across each other in various numbers, improvisation within a scene's narrative boundaries, each actor miked up to a tiny microphone, so that the babble can be orchestrated later, camera shots that drift between characters, catching them on the move.  Above all, the script is altered, at times created, in the process of filming according to a general structure.  It’s well known that the editing process can completely alter a film, and what ends up on the cutting room floor sometimes is never what was envisaged would end up there.  What is interesting about Altman’s method though is that the actual filming can radically alter the script, making of it something fluid: much more what the actors make of it within a scene. 

When I started out to edit the web resources we put together for the Foundation Course in Professional Legal Skills on the Diploma, I needed to work out an approach to creation and use of the resources. The filming itself, of course, was of a different order to Altman's context, because the plot was non-existent, and no direction was called for there.  But what was important was the cutting, writing and editing of resources, and fluid use of the assets later.  The ‘actors’ were actually legal practitioners, doing what they do in everyday life, and were told not to 'ham up' for the camera, but to reproduce as far as possible what they did in the office or in court.  We used not the cod office sets of training videos but the stripped down set of a class that could be an office, a plain background, deliberately ambiguous at times, so that the viewer could more easily focus on the foregrounded performance, because that's all that there is.  And the performance was as natural, improvisatory, spontaneous as we could make it. 

For Altman, the boundary is the script, the narrative line.  For us, the script, the narrative line, was the purpose of the asset.  I hesitate to use the term 'learning outcome', because this is too scripted and artificial, and doesn't give the impression of the spontaneity of the piece as it developed.  In a sense the learning outcomes were a negotiation between what we want them to be as academics, and what the practitioners produced as exemplars on video or on paper.  We set out with a concept of what the LOs would be; but this inevitably changed as the asset was formed.  The advocacy unit, for instance, was filmed with some resources pre-written, but most were written up afterwards, once we'd seen what the practitioner produced and analysed it in detail.  

The advantage of this system is that it foregrounded not the learning outcomes, but the practitioners' performance.  That performance becomes the ground out of which springs the learning outcomes.  And this is as it should be.  I guess it's the old stand-off between organising student learning and resources, and letting them discover them.  We didn't constrain the practitioners by treating them like actors.  We wanted to see what their professional practice was like, and built the resources around that.  Professionalism was at the core of it.  One of the reasons why actors loved Altman was that he respected them and the performances they gave.  We need to do that too in creating multimedia.  

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