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TPS Middle School Micro Documentaries Featured in the HT

Let the credits roll: Project School wraps up yearlong documentary project


Students from the Project School walked a red carpet outside the Buskirk-Chumley Theater last Monday as they headed into a screening of their own documentary films.

“Project: Documentary,” a yearlong project for the seventh- and eighth-grade classes, had recently wrapped up with 17 different 10-minute documentaries. Like real filmmakers, the students celebrated with a grand premiere of their work, attended by many of the people they had interviewed over the months working on the project.

Tarrey Banks and Scott Wallace, who co-teach the seventh- and eighth-grade classes, rolled out the project at the beginning of 2018-19 as their unifying idea for the school year. The two teachers always pick a big, hands-on project for the school year. For 2017-18, their students created structures like chicken coops, rain barrels and beehives for local families practicing urban homesteading.


“We got a reputation as the guys with power tools, but we wanted to show that design was everywhere,” Wallace said.

They wanted to “flip the script,” he said. What better way — literally and figuratively — than a film-based project?

The first semester was dedicated to studying documentary film and filmmaking. Using pieces like “Chasing Ice,” “Free Solo” and “Which Way Home,” the students learned about the arts of editing and interviewing and the elements of a compelling, watchable story. They studied different genres of documentaries, from personal profiles to issue-oriented pieces.

Then, for the second half of the year, they developed and filmed their own 10-minute-long mini documentaries. The films could be about anything students wanted, as long as they met two parameters: They had to be about a place, person or problem in Bloomington, and they had to incorporate the Project School’s school-wide theme for the year, “Borders, Boundaries and Limits.”

The students found creative ways to interpret the theme and explored a wild variety of topics. Miles Petro, for instance, worked on a feature called “Who Haunts the Waldron?” about a local ghost story: Don Owens, who was supposedly shot and killed in the John Waldron Arts Center when it was still Bloomington’s City Hall.

“It was, for the most part, an untold story that a lot of people didn’t know about in the first place,” he said. In a way, “it pushed the limits of what’s being talked about with the Waldron.”

One film explored political divides; others studied housing issues, or local bookstores and businesses from Vintage Phoenix Comics to the Starlite Drive-In. Another took a look at a local circus school; another, at the anxieties of first- and second-graders as they moved up to third and fourth grade. They interviewed Mayor John Hamilton, a senator, business owners and local leaders.

The students worked with a few filmmakers with local ties to refine their pitches. Banks said the connection helped them understand the real-world implications of their work and what it might be like to do it in a professional setting.

“It was nerve-wracking,” said Irene Kropf-Estell, whose team filmed a feature on the Hoosier Heights rock climbing gym. “I was ready to take their feedback and change my ideas, but also I was nervous that they were going to hate all our ideas. But they were really nice to us, because they knew it was our first time.”

The filmmakers helped them refine their ideas and gave them tips, like emphasizing the importance of lighting and sound.

“It made us more aware of how to set up our lights when we were doing the interview,” Irene said.

Knowing about B-roll — supplemental footage to help add variety to the film — was also helpful, said Sam Law. “That’s how you can make really good cuts in the interviews.”

Of course, filmmaking doesn’t stop with editing the credits. The students also learned about marketing their pieces. They gave their teams creative names, like “Unorthodox Productions” or “Silhouette Studios,” and created logos to go with them. They studied posters for existing documentaries and created their own, which they hung just outside the doors of the Buskirk-Chumley Theater for the screening.

Last Monday evening, about 500 guests took their seats for the screening of the 17 films. Hearing people react to their work in real time with laughter and applause was gratifying on a level many of the students had never experienced before.

Having worked on their projects for more than half the year, they were attached to their products, Sam said. Some of them had stayed after school, or worked into the late hours of the last editing nights, to make their pieces look polished.

“When you work on a project for more than half the year, you can’t really bear to be done with it and put it away unless you feel like it exceeds expectations,” Sam said. “And I think that’s what we really wanted to do here, was show people that even though we’re younger, we can make things that look professional.”


Contact Brittani Howell at 812-331-4243, or follow @HT_InSchool on Twitter.