Imitate, innovate, invent – or not

I’d been wanting to say something about Pie Corbett‘s triad about writing: ‘imitate, innovate, invent’.  The idea is that it’s very hard for anyone, never mind children, to create a piece of writing from a blank page; his method is a kind of scaffold – to imitate other examples of writing; to customise other kinds of writing to your own ends, your own voice, and finally, eventually, you will have the confidence to write, invent, in your own voice.  I liked it because it reminded me of the rhetorical curriculum – the medieval approach to literacy started with ‘imitatio’ – and because it seemed to concur with the Cinematheque model.

And then I had a conversation last night with Chris Waugh, the teacher at London Nautical School who will be joining us this year (and came along during last year’s project too).  Chris was very thoughtfully wondering about how much students on the programme get to understand the core film language concept each year, and how far (or how little) the final film essais demonstrate this understanding.  There’s an oft repeated – to the point of cliched – distinction in creative practice between process and product; what I think Chris was saying was too much emphasis on the film as an outcome, and not enough on the learning process.  More subtle than this: that the outcome isn’t really the final film, but the better understanding of the concept, of how films show and hide crucial information in last year’s programme.  And the process isn’t really the process of making the film, but the process of coming to a better understanding of montrer/ cacher.

We realised the boys from last year were a little disappointed about their final film, especially when they showed it in Paris.  We hadn’t reinforced enough – or helped them understand – that the point of the programme was understanding more about montrer/ cacher.  Making a final film was one way of demonstrating this; but writing an essay, giving a PPT lecture, doing a director-voice-over, would all be equally good ways of showing this.

This has an impact on how we design the week-by-week programme, we realised.  My default is screening/ clip based introduction/ exercises interspersed with more clips/ final film planned through pre-, production, and post production.  But maybe we should start with some playing with cameras, and with the idea.  Go and film 2 minutes of real life, form either a static or moving camera; compare what kinds of reality you capture from both; then throw in something deliberately – a scrap of fiction – and see what happens.  Add something in the edit that ‘fictionalises’ the footage.  Then watch some work by other directors: what happens when they capture reality?  And when they bring it into a fictional scenario?  How do you, and other film-makers make decisions and choices?

It’s a very different approach to imitate, innovate, invent, I think; maybe that linear progression in skills development was just too easy, too straightforward, to be true.

And a propos of nothing much more: last night we watched ‘I Was Born But…’, silent film of Ozu’s, much recommended by Mark Cousins, about.. well watch it and decide.  Young Japanese scallies, primary age, picking on each other, and lots of slapstick clowning.  Very funny I should think for children, and plenty of ‘real in the fiction’, especially as Bergala says ‘children, animals, fools bring their reality effects to the screen.’

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3 Responses to Imitate, innovate, invent – or not

  1. literacyresources says:

    I think the imitate, innovate and invent are very interesting because they are ways of embedding language patterns that we can draw upon when we create. Especially imitate and innovate. They are however not hierarchical – we should be inventing all along and this strand should be running parrallel to imitating and inventing. I do like your idea.about filming 2 mins of reality, drop in something that makes is fictional etc. This is exactly what we do in literacy teaching under the heading of familiarisation. It is the exploration of an idea/concept/device. Part of that exploration will be imitating and innovating as we draw on what we know already about the idea. A skilful teacher will weave the triad in and out of the teaching for pupils to draw upon when it will best support them. As in all things, they are not there to be followed slavishly like a recipe. Whatever we write/film we draw upon our own experiences/readings/viewings and to some extent therefore much of our work will have elements of imitation or innovation. This is very different from teaching children to imitate or innovate.
    The book Safe From Harm is an imitation/innovation of Where the Wild Things are by Maurice Sendak. I think it is all the more powerful for this because of the elements it imitates and innovates upon.
    I enjoyed your, as ever, thought provoking post Mark.

    • markreid1895 says:

      Hello Joy!

      Thanks for reading and responding; yes, the temptation with triads is to put them in progressive hierarchies. I think what Chris and I arrived at was to invent and compare in a kind of recursive cycle – and not the same as imitate then innovate then invent.

      I’m putting the full text of the Cinematheque Francaise programme for this year up on a new page on the blog now – they have a kind of curriculum that takes children through a sequence of playing/ making, watching and reflecting, making again. It’s inspirational!

      Mark

  2. As with most things, I think that there are benefits and problems with all learning processes, but I thought I’d pick up on one point. I’m not sure I’d say that the students come to a film project with minds empty of ideas or knowledge of visual communication. I would say they live lives immersed in the stuff – but that they don’t have a lot of analytical tools with which they can make sense (or perhaps a better phrase is ‘intellectualise’) it all.
    Giving kids a camera and saying “Solve this problem”, or “record this reality” isn’t necessarily facing them with a blank canvass. Possibly it is just putting decisions in their hands that are usually made by others.
    I feel it’s possible that through giving them the problems that film-makers are challenged by to solve before showing them to solutions that others have wrought, they may be a great deal more able to appreciate that there was a problem in the first place, and that the solution was clever (or not, as the case may be).
    It will certainly be interesting to observe…

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