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The Real World: Greenspring

Springfield seniors learn the nuts and bolts of digital filmmaking.

As a former Navy pilot and CIA operations officer, Russ Langelle knows he has lived a life rich in experiences. Until recently, however, Langelle didn't know how to communicate his life in pictures. Now, he and 10 other residents of Greenspring, a retirement community in Springfield, have become amateur moviemakers working with the latest in digital technology.

"It’s opened up a new world. … It’s something they had never thought they could do, but now they’re able to express themselves, find new outlets for their energy and capabilities. It’s been really fun to experience this all," said Langelle of his fellow students.

Langelle, 83, received instruction in digital video and editing through a three-week class taught on campus at Greenspring by trainers from professional media company Rosenblum Associates. As a result of the program, each of the residents now has a 3- to 5-minute, self-filmed and -edited digital video short film, on a topic of his choosing.

"We wanted them to start thinking of themselves as storytellers. That was the basis for this (class) — that they had a voice that deserved to be heard and had up to now not had any sort of mass media outlet, that this was cracking the door a little bit to what could be this huge universe of content," said Talia Pulver, a professional filmmaker and one of two trainers who spent the past three weeks at Greenspring teaching classes and offering assistance.

The program, called the Digital Media Initiative, is part of the vision of John Erickson, the founder of Erickson Communities, which owns and operates Greenspring, to help those over 62.

"As a society, we have a very poor view of retirement and … completely miss the massive contribution made by retirees in America today," said Erickson. "By arming hundreds and thousands of people with TV cameras and editing machines, I think we can develop incredible content and material that can change the way we think about aging in America."

THE CLASSES at Greenspring began in mid-February with an information meeting at which over 100 residents turned out to hear more about the program and teamed up to shoot footage for mini-films, to get the hang of it.

"Within an hour, most people discovered they could really use a video camera, and they were surprised," said Langelle, who has had experience in digital still photography. "I thought this would be an interesting step forward, because it gave more scope, more chance for coverage, more chance for imagination, for showing the complete picture."

While Rosenblum normally charges over $5,000 for the three-week program, Greenspring residents could sign up for a $100 fee. While some participants had trepidation at the program's beginning, Pulver said she and her colleague, Isabelle Sadurni, also a professional screenwriter and filmmaker, made sure they started with the basics.

"The first lecture we talked about editing. We began with, 'This is a computer, this is the monitor, this is the keyboard, this is the mouse. This is how we turn on the computer. Let’s stop at this point, does anyone have any questions?'" said Pulver. "It made it so much easier for everyone. They probably walked in here thinking that they were expected to know certain things getting into this."

The students were taught a "five-shot" approach to using their cameras, using shots such as a wide-angle, close-up, full face, and over-the-shoulder to make their documentaries compelling. Taking these shots would help make the editing process a lot easier, and make the films more professional.

"There’s a saying, ‘garbage in, garbage out.’ If you don’t get good footage, you can edit until the end of time, and you’re still not going to have a very good piece," said Carole Jackson, who volunteers at Greenspring, and whose mother lives there. She had experience with digital editing, but took the course along with the residents to brush up on the latest technology. In this case, it was the program iMovie, using state-of-the-art Apple computers to edit the digital footage.

PICKING UP the basics was the real challenge, said Jackson.

"It’s a lot to learn all at once. It’s scary and stressful, but once you get past that, then it’s really fun," she said.

As the class progressed, however, Pulver said she could see the Greenspring residents begin to understand that the way they shot their film could make their life easier come time to edit.

"Some of the (early) stuff we had to turn off just because everyone was getting so nauseous watching it. Now, … you watch the footage and you see the piece there already. It’s like it’s already gone through a passive editing, because they’ve become so disciplined."

The class culminated with a viewing party on Sunday, March 6, where all the students in the class showed their finished clips to each other.

Langelle chose a subject close to his heart for the documentary subject. His lady friend Jean Halliburton was having eye trouble and needed a new laser procedure. He followed Halliburton through the procedure from start to finish, including getting a peek inside the room during the procedure.

"She loved to read, doing crossword puzzles, but gradually her vision was becoming impaired," said Langelle. After the procedure, he included footage of Halliburton reading again and looking at flowers, to drive the point home.

"I think it’s important for people to know that this is a complicated procedure, but it’s very simple to be accomplished by a qualified physician. It’s painless, and it takes a short time," he said.

Once he found a subject, Langelle said getting the footage became easy. In the process, he learned a little about being a documentary filmmaker.

"The first time I went out, I assumed that the person would be thrilled to have me do some photography. However, I ran into a brick wall," he said. "I did learn about the right way to make the subject willing, cooperative, without just barging in on them with a camera, because that scares the heck out of them."

Now that the class is over, the students will use Greenspring's on-campus computers and video cameras to continue honing their craft. The community has a closed-circuit television station where their footage can be shown, and they will become more active in producing footage for that station.

Residents are even thinking of starting a club, the "Video Maniacs," according to Jackson.

"I’ve seen some very accomplished people learning a brand-new skill, and it’s very exciting. To see people coming in and learning a brand-new thing, really up to date, this is cool."