Serena goes to Hollywood

This post is about a language teacher’s experience at MachinEVO 2014. Just in case you don’t read to the end – and yes, it’s a longish post – I would like to say straight away that if they hold it next year, sign up! No, this is not a sponsored post.

For those who are thinking about reading to the end, here we go…

I blame Twitter. There I was in the first week of January, minding my own business, scrolling away through my feed, when I came across news of the EVO sessions. Free PD! Topics galore! Moderators I would love to learn from! This was something I would definitely need to sign up for, but what to choose? Okay, let’s go for something I know nothing about – making movies, in Second Life, no less. I like a challenge, me.

Thus it was that I signed up for MachinEVO, a five-week workshop promising to teach participants to “…produce visually appealing videos in virtual worlds. These videos are commonly called machinima and they can be used for language teaching and learning in Virtual Worlds and in the physical classroom.” I could already see my Moodle course getting a whole new dimension.

My SL experience prior to this was limited to a couple of visits about three years ago, and as I recall, I spent most of the time figuring out why my avatar seemed strangely averse to wearing a whole jacket. First one of the sleeves disappeared, and then the other – and I couldn’t get them back on. What with these more pressing worries, I was obviously unable to focus on the educational potential of SL. 🙂

It was made clear that you could attend MachinEVO even with no experience of virtual worlds, as there would be a special fast track for new residents in the first week, when they would be taught all the necessary practicalities before joining their film crew. And so, Serena joined the motion picture industry.

Now, five weeks later, I look back over the whole experience and think – well, I’m still far from those visually appealing videos. That was a somewhat ambitious goal, at least in my case. But I like to think I learned a lot and it was a hugely enjoyable experience overall. And that’s saying something, because there were moments when I truly despaired. I couldn’t possibly do the whole event justice in one post, so I finally decided to focus on the most challenging as well as the most encouraging parts of the ride. Those are the ones that will stay with me.

Clueless is an understatement

During the first week, I was reasonably satisfied with how things were turning out. The new residents all worked together, and in our sessions with the moderators in-world (online, in SL) we learned how to do undemanding yet practical things, like how to sit on objects or turn up someone’s voice. If we missed a session, there were recordings in Adobe Connect to make sure everyone could keep up. So far, so good. I felt quite confident because, unlike some of the others, I didn’t seem to be experiencing many technical difficulties.

In the second week we split up into groups according to the stories that we wanted to work on. I joined a group practically at random, not really hearing what our movie was going to be about, as my avatar didn’t seem to be wearing any trousers. Everything below my waist looked gray to me, but what did the others see? Should I log off? What if I missed something important? Later on, in the recording, I was relieved to see my jeans. 🙂

Group communication took place in Google docs. When I first looked through our document, I could see there were about ten of us, and there was already a detailed storyboard. Group members were invited to share their experience, skills and expectations, and those who had done so clearly had all three. I briefly considered if there was any way I could say that I lacked the first two and was entirely vague on the third, which wouldn’t make it sound as if I my contribution to the group would be minimal, but eventually decided to say nothing.

I downloaded a screen recording and video editing program and experimented with it a little, making a machinima using still photos. These were provided, along with the instructions, by the moderators, while our twice-weekly sessions progressed to dealing first with basic, then advanced filming and editing techniques. In the meantime, between these sessions, our group began meeting in-world to shoot the storyboard sequences.

It soon turned out that there were far fewer people who were actively participating in the making of our movie than had originally signed up to be in the group. And out of these, I was the only complete beginner. I think I must have driven them crazy – in fact, I’m sure I did – especially at the start, when I got the impression that they all knew each other from before, and had worked together at some point. I needed help with everything, asked a million questions, and produced useless footage. They talked in what seemed to be a foreign language – mesh, prim, sim, rez…what??? – while my avatar bumped into walls like a headless chicken.

And the time everything took! A shoot could easily last for three hours, and did. I was convinced that this was because I was new and was slowing everyone down. But that wasn’t all. Video clips then needed to be uploaded to Dropbox. And the others’ clips had to be downloaded so that all of us could experiment with / work on editing. Sometimes it seemed that I was in SL every (real-life) evening, either for a shoot, or a session, or a special guest appearance, because the organizers had also arranged for well-known machinimatographers to speak to the course participants. I’d had no idea it was going to be so time-consuming.

A MachinEVO session
A MachinEVO session

A sharp learning curve

I cannot emphasize enough that my feeling of incompetence was not brought about by the attitude of the others in my group, or of other MachinEVO participants or moderators. In fact, I can’t remember when I last met a friendlier and more supportive group of people, especially when you take into account the fact that we haven’t actually met. Not in person. And yet, after all that time together, I feel like we have. I thought it would be more or less like just another MOOC, but it was much more intense.

Possibly they’ve all worked as kindergarten teachers at some point in their lives? They had boundless reserves of patience. The moderators were constantly active in our Google group, posting content and commenting, which was incredibly useful both in terms of the content itself and in conveying the reassuring impression that the course itself was alive and well. 🙂 I strongly suspect that some of the members of our small movie crew have discovered the secret to extending the standard 24-hour day, because they seemed to devote quite an incredible amount of time to our production.

Over the past couple of weeks I went from zero to the following:

  • gained a whole new insight into how video can be used in (language) teaching / learning – which I think is crucial; if you can’t see a practical application, you might have doubts about justifying the time invested
  • discovered various opportunities for language learning that virtual worlds offer
  • learned how to work with different video editing software, and not just on making machinima
  • opened a YouTube account and can actually see a use for it in future
  • learned / was reminded of some things that make a difference to successful teamwork – and I’m happy to report that our (geographically) quite diverse team made it to the performing stage)
  • met many educators and other machinimatographers from a range of settings
  • experienced different stages of movie production, which also included coming up with and delivering script lines (I’ll be lucky if I get called for another audition 🙂 )

Bonuses (not really educational, but still):

  • I got to wear blue and pink hair (happily not at the same time)
  • people could pronounce my name (the one I’d chosen for my avatar, actually, which made a nice change)
  • now I know what to do if I a jacket sleeve goes missing

All the groups are currently finishing off their movies and getting ready for the film festival at the end of the month, so I expect that the period of intense collaboration has come to an end for now. I might be reporting again after the awards ceremony and, if so, will probably have more reflections to add. And on that note, a very sincere thank you goes out to everyone involved for making MachinEVO possible. Special thanks to all the moderators, and, most importantly, Group 4 members

And yes, I would be very interested to read the impressions of any of the other participants this year; please let me know if you have blogged / decide to blog about MachinEVO too!

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7 thoughts on “Serena goes to Hollywood

  1. Loved your insightful comments and I am glad you got so much out of the experience. It was a steep learning curve for you from almost zero to 100! For the moderators it was a useful experience, too, to see whether it is possible to get started to train people how to make machinima who have little or now knowledge of the functions of SL or other virtual worlds.
    You and others proved that it is doable – but not without a lot of engagement as you, yourself demonstrated. We were happy to have you on MachinEVO 2014. THANKS yours Chris aka Letty

    Like

    1. Hi Chris,

      Thanks for your lovely comment and for being so encouraging. The high level of engagement was completely justified, in my opinion. I hope the moderators get to go on a well-deserved break now. 🙂

      Like

  2. Pingback: …In with the new | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections

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