Four-Star Performance: Film Teacher Helps Students Get the Picture

This article, which features Academy for Careers in Television and Film, a New Visions school, originally appeared in the New York Teacher, the UFT's member newspaper and was written by Cara Metz.

 

“Who’s shooting today? Who’s directing? ... I’ve been seeing some of your footage in secret, in my little hiding place, and I need to go over some shot composition with you. ... Rule of thirds, guys, what does it mean?”

With that burst of questions and comments, Theodora Dimopolous begins her 9th-grade film class at the Academy for Careers in Television and Film, a small, ethnically diverse high school in Long Island City.


A student film crew shoots its three-minute film.

This 5-foot-3-inch dynamo dims the lights and begins a PowerPoint presentation that demonstrates good and bad composition. She makes jokes and peppers the students with questions and pointers as she goes.

“Distracting backgrounds like telephone poles behind your subject — just adjust where you put your camera and you’ll be fine,” she says.

Her final instructions before sending the students out to shoot their three-minute films: “Pay attention when you go out shooting today, and when you come back we’ll look at your footage and see how you did.”

With that, the students spread out in small groups in the park across the street, shooting on the basketball court and on the swings and jungle gym in the playground.


Dimopolous is a great role model for girls who are interested in hands-on production.

Like a real film crew, her students have to learn how to communicate very specific instructions to each other and work as a team, says Dimopolous.

She says students with disabilities have thrived in her film class. “This is a physical activity, it’s kinesthetic, they see a product,” she says. “I’ve even had students with motor-skill issues, and we taught them how to use a camera.”

The students gather at the end of the class to debrief.

“Pre-K kids came in and invaded our environment; we had to move,” relayed one filmmaker.

“We finished half our script,” said another, proudly.

Her students tap into Dimopolous’ energy and enthusiasm.

Senior Jacquelyn Gutierrez said she came to school during break weeks to edit film, and Dimopolous would come in to help her.

The film that Gutierrez made with Dimopolous’ guidance, “Teenage Motherhood,” was screened at the Tribeca Film Festival and won her a scholarship that she will be using to attend Brooklyn College in September.

“She’s the teacher who started me off and pushed me,” Gutierrez says.

“She’s cool, she gets you to do better,” says 9th-grade student director Daniel Ramirez, who is shooting “Lunchtime Love” about a boy and girl who like each other but are both shy.


Student Justin Schneider (right) discusses a filter choice with Dimopolous’ colleague Andy Lassman. “I knew I liked film, but discovered that I love lighting,” Schneider says. “If you’re doing lighting, and the director says, ‘I want this kind of mood,’ there’s 25 ways you can make that happen, so it’s creative.”

Justin Adames, working on another production, chimes in. “She’s the best of both worlds — she’s soft on us and she’s strict.”

That mix of toughness and warmth epitomizes her teaching style, Dimopolous explained later.

“I’m loud, I’m dramatic, I incorporate humor, and I run the class the way a director would on set — you want them to want to work for you,” she said. “So I’m really hard in the beginning and then start softening up.”

She has set up a stepladder of increasing privileges and responsibilities. Freshman students are not allowed in the equipment room until they earn her trust. As they master the necessary skills, students will move from the simplest equipment in 9th grade to professional and very expensive equipment by the time they are seniors.

A professional camera operator who started a second career as a teacher through the Teaching Fellows program, Dimopolous has been with the Academy for Careers in Television and Film since its inception in 2008. “Every one of the founding teachers put in a lot of sweat, energy and ideas,” she says.

Come September, the school will move from its current location in the basement and part of the first floor of a school building to a new building on a waterfront park in Long Island City. Dimopolous can barely contain her excitement. “Each shot will be beautiful with the skyline behind it!” she exclaims.

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