ArticlesNovember 2020

Hazlo-tú-mismx / Do-It Yourself: Collaborative Cellphone Filmmaking in Undergraduate Spanish Courses

By Jonathan Risner, Associate Professor, Indiana University Bloomington

Jonathan Risner

For some six years, I have regularly taught a 300-level film analysis course in Spanish at Indiana University Bloomington. I structure the course in a way that the first half of the course is devoted to training students’ eyes and ears to identify formal elements (framing, camera movements, lenses, mise-en-scène, and editing), explicate a scene or film, and articulate their ideas verbally and in writing. I pair a film with a formal term that is salient in a particular Spanish-language movie, such as framing in ¡Vámonos con Pancho Villa! / Let’s Go with Pancho Villa! (Fernando de Fuentes, 1936), camera movement in Cronos (Guillermo del Toro, 1993), and set design in Carne trémula / Live Flesh (Pedro Almodóvar, 1997). The second half of the course is devoted to engaging with select methodologies or theories to films from Latin American countries or Spain. For example, we use select ideas from film genre studies (e.g., iconography and genre communities) to assess Sólo con tu pareja (Alfonso Cuarón, 1991); La niña santa / The Holy Girl (Lucrecia Martel, 2004) frames a discussion of the notion of gender and gaze in cinema; and Carlos Saura’s Cría cuervos (1976) serves as a means by which to discuss allegory in cinema as a strategy for evading government censorship. Originally, the course culminated in a final paper in which students had the choice of collaborating in pairs to storyboard a scenario I provided and to write an accompanying short paper in which they explained their choices. Though the storyboard provided a means for students to apply ideas and concepts, since the fall 2018 semester I have substituted the storyboard for a collaborative production consisting of a short film made with a smartphone and inexpensive editing software. Albeit not without its hiccups, the cellphone cinema project acts as a springboard for larger endeavors that benefit the students intellectually and professionally and, potentially, my home department, the university and broader physical and virtual communities.

My ambitions to create a cellphone cinema project emerged from professional endeavors, namely writing about extremely low-budget horror cinema from Argentina in which filmmakers and crew make do with little resources. In addition, there were various signposts that were equally inspiring, such as seeing movies made exclusively with cell phones (i.e., Tangerine, Unsane). Moreover, having small children, I would browse books in featured sections of our local library and would encounter instructional guides for kids about making short films with cell phones. The tools and models were out there for my students to make a film; however, for me it was a question of time to design a curriculum for a collaborative cellphone movie that would make the project feasible within a 15-week course that was largely devoted to film criticism.

I was fortunate to receive a Summer Instructional Development Fellowship from the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning at my university, and I spent about 8 weeks designing a curriculum, during which I consulted cellphone cinema guides, YouTube videos, and determined the incremental progression of the project during the course. The results were applied for the first time during the fall 2018 semester. 

The cellphone movie begins with the second class of the semester when we discuss framing. I teach the entire course in Spanish, and students are expected to converse exclusively in Spanish as well. In addition to reading about framing and learning the terms in Spanish, students organize themselves into pairs and take pictures with their phones using different distances, heights, and angles. One group exchanges their phone with another, and the other pair of students describe the framing (again, distance, height, angle). Students do the same with camera movements: tilt, pan, travelling shots, etc. Prior to the activities with camera movements, I ask that students purchase Filmic Pro for $15, an app that features an array of ways to manipulate image and sound that surpasses the typical features on a smartphone camera. Over the course of three semesters using the cellphone cinema project, there were usually one to three students who preferred not to spend the money, although the app is the only cost for materials for the entire course. I am fine with those students’ choice to not purchase the app since they likely work with peers who did have Filmic Pro when they collaborate on the final project.    

Students refrain from any practical exercise for mise-en-scène or sound. Indeed, we study mise-en-scène and sound in particular movies. However, the manipulation of sound remains beyond me, and, in the case of the mise-en-scène, I prefer to refrain from bringing in props and costumes or asking students to do so. With lenses, the students experiment with filming with different clip-on lenses that I purchased online, which they are welcome to use during the actual making of their own collaborative film. For continuity editing, students are organized into groups of three, and each person films a simple conversation between their two peers. Each student adheres to basic tenets of continuity editing: establishing shot; shot-reverse shot; 180-degree and 30-degree rules; eyeline matches; reestablishing shot. In addition, each student films the same conversation in which there is a break with continuity editing, such as inserting an establishing shot in the middle or the end of the scene, inserting a jump cut, or inserting an image that has nothing to do with the conversation. To edit the two scenes, each student uploads the footage onto their laptop to iMovie or Adobe Premiere, the latter of which is free through my university. Though Filmic Pro allows for some in-camera editing, iMovie and Adobe Premiere both allow students to better visualize cutting images and inserting transitions, such as fade-ins and dissolves, and provides the students with crucial practice.   

Following the first half of the semester, students organize themselves into groups of four. I want students to experience the power dynamics that can go into making a collaborative movie. Akin to the first half of the semester, in the latter half I spread out each component of the collaborative film project so that students who are new to cellphone cinema technology grow into the ideas at a comfortable pace in lieu of bombarding them with information during, say, a single-week stint. Moreover, by compartmentalizing the steps for making the cellphone movie, we could continue to watch movies and discuss film theories as they relate to films from Latin American countries and Spain.

The components of the cellphone film project are: (1) choosing a scenario; (2) creating an individual storyboard; (3) creating a collective storyboard for the group, in which group members can elect to use a single member’s storyboard or combine various ones; (4) deciding which film theories to use in their movie; (5) dividing the labor of filmmaking equally among group members; (6) filming and editing the movie; (7) writing a two- or three-page group report in Spanish about the film; (8) uploading the movie to YouTube and showing the movie in class to their peers; (9) showing the movie at a cellphone film festival on campus. 

While students were able to come up with their own scenarios, I provide students with 5 suggested ones that they can adapt. Those scenarios are:   

  •         A brief documentary (including a mockumentary) about a topic;
  •         A scene of a conversation between friends at a restaurant or café;
  •         A biographical scene about a real or fictitious person or animal;
  •         A scene from a dinner party or lunch;
  •         A brief scene in which someone enters a room or apartment and finds … (a party, a friend, a body, etc.)

While my intention with the suggested scenarios is for students to film merely a scene with Spanish-language dialogue, all the groups were intent on filming a short movie with a complete narrative featuring a conclusion. Though students are required to use the target language in class and in any films with dialogue or intertitles, I have no way of ensuring that students converse in Spanish when they make the movie outside of class. Students are not required to include any cultural content from a Spanish-speaking culture; however, in some instances, a student who either studied abroad in a particular country or is originally from Spain or a Latin American country has included a prop or slang from a specific culture.    

After selecting a scenario, each student is tasked with creating a storyboard for which they received a homework grade. I provide feedback to students about the storyboards regarding a range of items (lighting, framing, lenses, camera movements) to ensure that the storyboard has details. Students then meet with their fellow group members in order to create a collective storyboard for the film project. Again, I provide feedback. In creating both individual and collective storyboards, I task students with incorporating a concept or theory that we discuss in our course in their films. Though students wrote assignments and papers in which they applied film theory, the storyboards were an additional instance in which they had to bridge theory and practice. To facilitate the inclusion of theories and concepts in the storyboards (and eventually the films themselves), I provide a list:

Category 1 Category 2 Category 3
Continuity editing


Relational montage

(Vsevolod Pudovkin)

Iconography particular to a film genre


Internal focalization


Genre renovation (à la some films directed by Pedro Almodóvar) An identitarian gaze (male, female, queer, colonial)
Inclusion of the Kuleshov effect Dialectical montage (Sergei Eisenstein)


A modality of documentary cinema (Bill Nichols)

The theories and concepts are placed into categories, and the groups must select one from each category. Following the first semester in which students produced collaborative films as a final project, I created the categories because many groups were selecting the same concepts: continuity editing; iconography; and a modality of documentary cinema. Moreover, students appeared to use the concepts after creating a storyboard and/or film rather than during the planning of a short movie or storyboard.  

Following the creation of a group storyboard, students and I discuss a division of labor for the project. During the initial semester of the cellphone film project, I suggested that students divide the labor among four people as follows: (1) one person ensures that the group adheres to the storyboard or leads discussions about changes to the storyboard; (2) someone films the scene; (3) someone edits the movie; (4) one person writes the paper that is based on the film. In addition to the regular course evaluation, I use an evaluation in which students could specifically comment on their experience with the film. With the initial attempt of having students make collaborative cellphone films, at least two students from two different groups expressed frustration about the time required to edit the movie, and how this created a disparity in work among group members. With subsequent semesters, I maintain the aforementioned division of labor, but implore students to share the editing.   

The resulting films have been generally outstanding. To be sure, our course does not focus on film production. However, students show a deeper understanding of film theories concepts by putting them into practice while using Spanish. To date, the films have ranged from spoofs on telenovelas, horror, romantic comedies, and detective films. In addition, students have made a number of mockumentaries, which have dealt playfully with topics, such as electric scooters, studying at a bar in lieu of a library, and the day in the life of a pet. One film, El camino: estoy caminando (Casey DeBruyn, Ray Martinez, Staphany Santana, and Bart Upton, 2019), is shown below, and exemplifies some of the work students do. Here, the students use modalities of documentary cinema, internal focalization with a subjective shot, and genre renovation. 

Upon completing their films, the groups have to write a paper in Spanish in which they explain how the theories or concepts manifest themselves in their film. Students complete their films during the penultimate week of the semester, upload the films to YouTube, and send me a link. We then spend a class period watching the students’ films and conversing about the experience in Spanish. The film project accounts for thirty percent of the students’ final grade. Sixty percent of the grade of the final project is determined by the film, and forty percent by the paper. In addition to the final project, students take a final exam that is not comprehensive. During the initial semester, the collaborative film was the sole final activity for students. However, given the quality of discussions about materials in the latter half of the semester, I felt that students did not adequately engage with the readings and/or films. It was as if because they would not be held accountable for knowing the materials in the latter of the semester, not much effort was devoted to those materials. In turn, I decided that a short final exam would ensure that the students continued to read and watch the films.

While not without its hiccups, I feel that the collaborative film project is a success in various ways. Student evaluations are generally positive. One commented, “I have a newfound appreciation and understanding for filmmaking. I think this project is pretty essential to our understanding of the formal elements of film.” Another student wrote, “Though difficult at times, I learned the importance of editing.” One of my initial objectives for creating the cellphone cinema project was to equip students with practical skills without minimizing the intellectual rigor or the subject matter. One student, who majored in Spanish, Sociology, and Political Science, got a job as the video director for a political party in Indiana. After two consecutive semesters during which students produced about twelve movies total ranging from three to five minutes, I organized a cellphone film festival on campus (see flyer below), which featured the twelve films made by students during the Fall 2018 and Spring 2019 semesters. The event was well attended, and students were genuinely proud of themselves. While difficult to gauge, the film festival doubled as a way to attract majors and minors to the Spanish-language program. There is, of course, potential to expand the cellphone cinema festival to include other language programs, and, thus, a “Tower of Babel” of cellphone films.  

Picture 1 - Film festival flyer
Picture 1 – Film festival flyer by Goosepen Press

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