Learning How to Play Again in Multi-Media Production

When it comes to apps, programs, and hardware, no one seems to play anymore.

Instead, we look up information on websites to learn exactly what we need to do in order to solve whatever question or problem we might have. WikiHow guides us with step-by-step instructions. YouTube hosts both professional and amateur tutorials on just about everything, from make-up how-tos to leveling up faster in a new video game. Lynda.com offers extensive videos on just about everything technology and business related.

But what about just trying something and seeing what happens? We seem to have lost this sense of play and the fun that comes with it.

Why? Multiple reasons. Work carries more weight, more responsibility. Family and other obligations consume free time. Recreation involves more passive activities such as watching Netflix (guilty!). Stress or depression make play appear overwhelming. Play seems frivolous, a waste of time. Play belongs to children, not to adults.

None of these are valid excuses for not making time to play.

In his book titled Play, Stuart Brown resists defining the term “because it is a thing of beauty best appreciated by experiencing it.” Eventually, though, he relents: “Remember the definition of play: an absorbing, apparently purposeless activity that provides enjoyment and a suspension of self-consciousness and sense of time.”

Play is done for the sake of it, though that doesn’t mean it offers no purpose. In Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art, Stephen Nachmanovitch writes that play’s “purpose is to propagate the understanding, joy, responsibility, and peace that come from the full use of the human imagination.”

Too much creation and practice center on skills acquisition and improvement, which lead to career development and advancement. The skills become the means toward future rewards such as a promotion or a raise.

In others words: work, not play.

Consider: When was the last time you let your imagination just wander? Where did it go? And how long did you wait before you called it home?

Play also offers many benefits. Brown lists several throughout his book: It improves your overall mental health. It encourages you to put away your ego and its burdens and just be. It bolsters curiosity, opening you up to new experiences and ideas. It brings learning and knowledge. It fosters risk-taking, making a risk something to try as opposed to something to fear.

All of this reading and thinking about play brings me back to creating multi-media productions and teaching multi-media production. Over these last few months I have been exploring different apps and equipment toward deciding which ones to explore with my own projects and which ones to bring into the classroom. Arguably, all of these skills can be taught sequentially and systematically: turn on the camera, plug in the microphone, set up the tripod, hit the record button.

But how would this approach prepare anyone for the utter chaos that might happen during multi-media production? What do you do when the camera breaks and it’s your last opportunity to interview one of your key participants, such as happened in The Thin Blue Line? What do you do when you’re making a documentary about film production that involves hauling a ship through a muddy jungle during the Amazonian rainy season while handling a visionary director and difficult actor, as Les Blank dealt with during The Burden of Dreams?

More practically, what do you do when the clip on the lavalier mic breaks and you need something to attach the mic to a shirt and fast? Or when the operating system of your intended platform updates just as you’re about to finish coding for the previous operating system?

And, really, with those step-by-step instructions, what fun would that be, for students or for me?

So with that in mind, I seek ways to foster play within the interactive documentary production class. Ultimately, I would like students to play with the apps and equipment toward learning how they work and exploring what they can do. The challenge will be creating the space for this kind of play, which seems at odds within the classroom setting and its requirements for evaluation and assessment.

I also have been learning how to engage in play for myself, which might help with the aforementioned challenge. It has been quite fun, I must say. I have played video games, from text-based to role-playing, to see how they work. I lost every single game (yes, I am that bad), but I have learned much in the process. Editing the same video through different programs such as iMovie and DaVinci Resolve shows different workflows and the discovery of new tools. Since the winter here prohibits outdoor filmmaking, I tied the 360 camera to a dining room light and let it record until the battery ran out and the SD card filled up. The footage offers nothing exciting, but it was fun to see the footage stitched together and then to see it exported into an actual 360 video you can scroll around.

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