10 Ideas for a Small Screen Drama Unit

I haven’t taught small screen drama in a while but I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve done with my classes in the past. I find it to be a really enjoyable unit to teach and most importantly the kids have fun too.

AIM: I really try to focus on making the Drama unit quite hands on. Now that we have to compete with English and their visual representation units I feel it’s really important to take a different approach to the study of film in the Drama classroom. Not that appreciating film is any less valuable but I think studying a visual style and getting student’s to really be hands on from concept through to creation is absolutely necessary. I try to combine the role of director and actor in all of the activities.

1. The Film Making Process

We look at film-making as being similar to a stage production in that it comes in three phases: pre-production, production and post production. I look at each phase in terms of the 70:10:30 ratio (yes, that is 110%). Use behind the scenes DVD extras footage to support this. Some that I like include Harry Potter, Star Wars, Indiana Jones but really all DVD’s nowadays have these extras so pick what you think will best suit the level and interest of your class. I also use this section of my unit as an opportunity to look at other roles in the film-making process than that of the actors. You might also like to discuss film genres and plotlines as well as recognised directors and their style.

2. Experimenting with Visual Effects

To start to give students a bit of experience both in front of and behind the camera I do a couple of really simple warm-up activities with them:

  • Action/Reaction: Have students stand in front of the camera. Say one line to the student’s and ask them to react to camera without using dialogue. For example, react to the following statement, “I’m sorry but your cat just died.”
  • Earthquake: Have student’s stand in the space. Ask them to imagine that an earthquake has just occured in the classroom and they must react. Whilst they are acting this out, lightly tap the video camera. Play it back. It should look as though the ground is moving even though it is not.

These are great because it gets the student’s to start thinking about the different energy levels and skills needed to create a believable performance on screen (it is much more subtle than the stage) and how some simple techniques can make for effective film making.

We discuss the concept of connecting through the eyes. That actors are believable if they have plenty of conviction behind what they are saying.

You may also like to look at shots and angles here and play around with creative ways to create dolly shots and other visual effects including blood and mock fighting.

3. The Audition Process

Study some audition notices. Look at the physical and performance requirements.

4. Screen Test

Hold a mock audition. Select excerpts or whole monologues for your students to prepare to present to camera. Have them come in one at a time and shoot their screen test. They can then film the next person to audition. Watch them back as a class and look at which ones were conveying the most emotion on screen. Consider how they were doing this.

5. Writing and Thinking About Film

Look at a selection of classic film sequences and discuss how the elements of drama were used, in particular tension. What other stylistic features did you notice (colours, lighting etc)? Read a selection of critiques to see what things are focused on when watching a film. You may like to do an actor study here also.

6. Soap Operas

Study the genre of soap opera. You may like to incorporate aspects of melodrama here. Look at their structure and plotlines (episodic, cliffhangers, dramatic often over the top completely unrealistic storylines) and film techniques (over the shoulder shots, slow reaction shots). Split your class into groups and have them create a mini soap opera scene, each one connecting to the other to create a complete “episode”.

7. Make a Dogma ’95 Film

I personally love Dogma. It’s simple and easy to do and is such a great introduction to using the camera, piecing a plot together whilst keeping all the bells and whistles of film out of it. Dogma follows a series of rules. Have your students create a short Dogma ’95 ensuring that they stick to the rules. I literally get my students to create a film/story in no more than three shots. Films you may like to consider watching excerpts from to support this include Dancer in the Dark, The Idiots, The Celebration, Breaking the Waves.

8. Pitching An Idea

Pitches are a big deal in Hollywood. Look at some well known loglines and pitches and have students create their own pitch for their short film, Dogma ’95 film or soap opera (this could be a class activity). It gets student’s to focus on concept and defining concepts clearly so as to encapsulate a complete artistic vision. You might like to look at the opening sequence of some TV Shows and films as well as a way of understanding how they encapsulate the vision of the film, set the tone and the tension. I like Mad Men, Catch Me If You Can, Spiderman.

9. Storyboard and Scripting

Look at the purpose behind storyboarding as part of the film-making process. Here is a great clip of storyboard images and their corresponding scene from Robert De Niro’s Taxi Driver:

And this…

Have students create storyboards for their soap opera, Dogma ’95 film or an original short film.

10. Using a camera

Give students as many opportunities as possible to use a video camera. You may also like to incorporate lessons on using editing software, creating a DVD cover using Photoshop or even start working with movie-making apps (or try these) for smartphones.

You might also like to have an Oscars style awards evening or a premiere screening of your films. You might like to enter them in a film competition or Tropfest Jnr.

Have you taught small screen drama? Have any other suggestions that have worked in your class? Share them in the comments.

Image Credit: Bubbles / Caroline Gagné / CC BY 2.0



  1. I just found this website. As a drama teacher, returning to school after a long absence I am very grateful. I love, love this and am definitely going to try it out. Thanks for all your hard work!

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