Portsmouth students learn from behind the camera

TV broadcasting one of two CTE courses PHS offers

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PORTSMOUTH — There’s a lot of creativity and energy bursting inside a small media room and attached classroom across from the Portsmouth High School library.

Here, students learn about camera operation, techniques, film theory, editing and more in the TV production program at the school. Along with child development, it’s one of two career and technical (CTE) programs at PHS that’s been accredited by the state and will accept students from outside districts starting in the fall.

The cramped media room is overflowing with expensive equipment — a $3,000 cinema camera, several $2,500 Canon cameras, a professional camera dolly for tracking shots and more.

“These guys are now expected to be college- and career-ready. We have stuff they need to know how to use to go and get that job or get them into a competitive program somewhere in the county,” said Gary Vaspol, who teaches several digital video classes.

And who pays for all this stuff?

“That’s the CTE part. Since we’re a certified program, they give us funding for our program,” he said.

Students mainly produce short, five-minute videos — anything from original, narrative works to documentaries or interviews with lawmakers. 

“These guys are getting both practical production — how to set a light up, how to run a camera, frames per second, all that kind of stuff — and they’re also getting film theory as well,” Mr. Vaspol said. “I’m asking a lot of these guys. For a five-minute video, these guys are spending probably up to five to six hours or up to 10 hours if it’s really meticulous. It’s hard. They don’t realize how much time it takes to edit it, to act in it.”

Problem-solving on the spot

And, they must learn to improvise when they’re challenged, like the time a student crew went to interview U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse at his Providence office and were confronted by a glass-topped desk that bounced light in all directions. Students hastily made adjustments and filmed the interview without a hitch.

 “It was a great learning experience,” said Mr. Vaspol.

That interview was for senior Danielle Costa’s documentary on global warming, which was entered into C-SPAN's 2017 StudentCam competition. 

“When we were practicing interviewing for the senators, we did three or four actual setups with the lighting, sound, cameras — everything,” said Danielle. “Everyone said, ‘Oh, that’s easy.’ But it’s not. You have to do an over-the-shoulder shot, and you have to make sure it’s the right height for whoever’s sitting in the chair, and you have to make sure the lighting’s all set and the sound is decent.”

Another senior, Leah Paulon, interviewed U.S. Sen. Jack Reed about gun control. 

“He actually came here to the school and I interviewed him in the library,” said Leah, adding that a person from the senator’s office told her that the setup was better than at most news stations. “We had a three-camera setup with two of our lights.”

Future paths

Leah and Danielle have used what they’ve learned through the CTE program to get them into good schools. This fall, Leah will major in film and television at Savannah College of Arts and Design in Georgia, while Danielle will study communications with a focus on sports media at Hofstra University in New York.

“To me that’s a gauge of the talent that we’re putting out,” Mr. Vaspol said.

Leah said students from both within and outside the district would benefit from the hands-on experience the CTE program offers.

“We cover all aspects of it — watching movies, discussing the techniques that the directors use, why they’re effective, what camera angles are good to use in certain situations. Then we get to use the equipment and apply what we learned in class to our own products and then we get to watch what everybody else is creating. People would probably pay to have that as a class and I think it’s so awesome that we have that,” she said.

The program is different from a standard class because it’s much more intimate, she said. “The low numbers is definitely a bonus because we get Mr. Vaspol’s individual attention,” Leah said.

Danielle agreed. “Here you get that one-on-one experience and it’s very hands-on. Nowadays a lot of kids work that way,” she said. “Everybody here is very open to giving you criticism, but helpful criticism, and they’re very supportive of everything you do.” 

Future paths differ

In a “perfect world,” Leah said she’d like to be a director. “If that doesn’t work out, I’d put my interest more in cinematography or editing. Definitely I’m focused on the production side of it because I can’t act and I don’t think of myself as a great writer,” she said.

One of the “star” students in the program who’s won several statewide awards for his work is Anthony “AJ” Nunes, who does everything in his video shorts — acting, filming, writing original scripts, even coming up with costumes. 

“What this class teaches you is quite literally how to do everything, from start to finish,” he said.

He’s not planning on pursuing a career in film or TV, however.

“I ship out in August for the Marines — Parris Island,” said the senior, who hopes to become an officer or get into aviation.

AJ is ahead of the other students because he was accidentally enrolled in TV Production I — now called Digital Video I — as a freshman.

“Freshman aren’t supposed to have that course available to them,” he said. “I moved, so I registered late in the summer and they threw together what they could for me. I ended up being really good at this.”

Technically, he’s taking Digital Video III as a senior, although he has a separate curriculum and is doing more advanced work than his classmates. This year he’s been working more on scriptwriting “and creating something original.” AJ has his own YouTube channel where you can view some of his works — go to http://bit.ly/2qOC4FH.

“I like to focus on real stories, history, period films, drama. My two best award-winning films are about the Second World War. I believe it’s important that we remember our history,” he said.

He loves the class for many reasons, not least because it offers him an independent work schedule. “You really get to work at your own pace,” he said. “You get to work with your buddies. It’s kind of like ‘Mad Men’; they have fun but they get their work done at the same time. This class has taught me just as much outside of the classroom as it has in. 

“That’s kind of teacher Mr. Vaspol is.”

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.