Popcorn Maker for film studies

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Last fall at #mozfest, the Webmaker branch of Mozilla (the nonprofit that makes Firefox among many other free, community-oriented products) released Popcorn Maker, a long-touted tool for adding interactivity and remixability to web video.

The product had come a long way since its inception, now allowing the integration of images, Google maps, Twitter feeds, Wikipedia links, and various kinds of text with YouTube video and Soundcloud media. It includes a timeline that can control the position and duration of these integrated elements, allowing for lots of flexibility in building a new, interactive, time-based work.

Although the tool is adaptable enough to create a wide variety of projects, my first thought in seeing the demo was that is the tool I’d been looking for to do video annotation assignments with students. I’d long desired a more interactive tool for interpreting film clips than a traditional essay or online forum discussion can provide; I wanted real-time discussion and precision of description. I wanted students to get their hands on the film. I wanted a tool that could inspire careful, precise readings of film texts, the thoughtful application of readings and theoretical material, and FUN.

This Winter term, I tried a “pop-up video” style annotation assignment using Popcorn Maker in my Film and Feminisms class, to quite satisfying ends. The assignment, results, and caveats follow.

The assignment prompt:

For this first exercise in feminist film analysis, you will draw upon the formulations of gender in cinema laid out by Laura Mulvey in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”

You will be provided with two scenes from Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958) from which to choose. Your task is to provide commentary about the representation of gender throughout the scene, drawing upon Mulvey’s theory.

So, you could describe the way it portrays the woman as passive and the man as active; the woman as spectacle and the man as agent; fetishism; voyeurism; the effect of the male gaze, etc. Or, you can describe how it contradicts Mulvey, or offers another way of interpreting gender.

Either way, be brief, but specific in your explanation – use Mulvey’s terms and concepts to demonstrate your understanding of her hypothesis.

The requirements:

  • Minimum of five pithy comments throughout the scene
  • Must reference Mulvey’s essay, use her terms and concepts, and reference a detail occurring in the scene.
  • Have fun!

The instructions:

Open Popcorn Maker. Click “Start a Project” (or watch the tutorial for additional help)

Click “Sign in to Save” at the very top. You’ll need to create an account in order to save your project, so follow the provided instructions to do that.

Change Media Source

Go to the “Media” tab on the right hand side and paste in a new link of the scene from Vertigo. Choose ONE of the scenes below, then paste in the link and click “Apply”:

Deleted all actions

Go into the timeline at the bottom. Click on and delete everything that’s there. 

Adding pop-up text

Click on “Events” at the top. As you play through the scene (and you can use the playhead right above the timeline – the green dot), drag “Popup” from the right hand menu onto the video. Type directly into the popup to add your commentary.

You can adjust the duration of the popup by dragging the handles in the timeline, and you can move it around the timeline to change the point at which it appears.

When you’re done, click the “Share” button in the upper right hand corner, copy the link, and paste it into the “Video Annotations” Forum on our course CMS.

You can also modify the pop-ups by changing the icon, shape of the text bubble, etc.

Student results:

Most every project that was turned in for this assignment demonstrated a much closer reading of both the film clip and Mulvey’s essay than conventional writings on film that I’ve assigned. They were smart, concise(!), detailed, thorough, and often playful and funny. Sometimes the text went by too fast, and sometimes it ran off the page. Sometimes too much was crammed into one tiny pop-up bubble. There were lots of typos and misspellings. But that’s OK. Overwhelmingly, students were engaged with the clip on a deep level.

Student feedback:

Overall, students found this to be not only a fun tool to use, but a useful exercise that helped them better understand the theoretical concepts. A couple students indicated that it would be a particularly useful way to prepare to write an essay, as a kind of pre-writing exercise. Yes!

Working with Popcorn Maker:

Generally, students picked up on Popcorn Maker quickly, but the step (above) that requires the user to delete material that’s already in the template threw a few students off. I can see how it might be helpful to already have elements in the template to see how it works, but it was also frustrating to some students who just wanted to get started building their own project.

The video you can use inside Popcorn Maker is currently limited only to YouTube links (Or Soundcloud for audi0 – and that’s an either/or situation. You can use YouTube OR you can use Soundcloud). In this case, the Vertigo clips already existed on YouTube, so I merely pulled them from there. Otherwise, you’ll have to upload your own video to YouTube which then, of course, becomes subject to YouTube’s copyright ID system. Previous attempts to upload clips from Rear Window for a similar purpose were met with automatic DMCA takedown notices from YouTube, which were withheld even after I appealed. So, YMMV.

Overall, though, I found this to be a fantastic and refreshing tool that I plan to introduce to future classes.