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Today is October 20, 2019

Digital Magic

An interactive, hands-on program that introduces Mississippi students to documentary filmmaking

By Sandra M. Buckley

Digital Magic

“It is our responsibility, and privilege, to share our historical knowledge and skills with young Mississippians who are looking for ways to share and document their own unique voices and interests with others. This is why we created the Digital Magic filmmaking program.” 

– Dr. Wilma Clopton, Digital Magic creator and instructor

“I have always been interested in sharing what I know about film with others, especially our youth,” said Wilma Clopton, Ph.D., of Jackson. “Our youth are eager to find their voice. They have something important to tell the world. They want to make a difference in their respective communities. They are our future, and  I want them to find their voices and couch them in research that supports their eagerness to make a difference.”

Clopton is an award-winning film director and producer, writer and national speaker who has a deep passion for children, education, history and Mississippi. As president of NMHS Unlimited Film Productions, she has created a documentary filmmaking workshop called Digital Magic as an educational outreach for students ranging from kindergarten to college. 

“Digital Magic introduces students to the innovative world of documentary filmmaking, using the technology with which they are familiar, such as iPhones and iPads,” explained Clopton. “Participants become immersed in honing their skills in research, social studies, history, reading, language arts, social interaction, mathematics and critical thinking, while also building meaningful skillsets and confidence.”
Participants not only learn film terminology and research methods, they also get to plan, film and edit their own short videos. “By learning the art of transforming their own stories into film, students have fun while also developing skillsets necessary to succeed in school and in life,” said Clopton. 

Designed as a project-based learning experience, Digital Magic classes are funded through grants, donations and/or by the presenting institution and are free for students unless specified by the presenting institution. And, students who may not have access to a smartphone, camera or iPad will have one provided.

With class sizes of around 15 students or less, a diverse set of talents, economic background, ethnicity and race are represented. To complete a class requires at least 8 hours, typically allotted over a period of several days, and students work in teams of two to five people. The teams are challenged with developing their chosen topic into a story that will then culminate into a short documentary film – or digital history – of 3 to 5 minutes in length.   

Due to the extensive research component of the project, it is a natural fit for Digital Magic to be hosted at libraries. By partnering with the Mississippi Library Commission, the first program was conducted at the Medgar Evers Library in Jackson and then followed by classes in Canton through the Madison County Library Systems. 

“With the development of technologies in the past 20 years, and the ability to share and exchange information, a new field has opened up around the concept of digital history,” said Hulen Bivins, executive director of the Mississippi Library Commission. “Libraries represent the work of information gatherers who afford, to anyone, the opportunity to expand their personal and professional horizons. The variety of formats allows a library to be more than a depository of hardback books and scrolls. That variety allows the library to embrace many formats like recordings, films and digital format materials. The interactive experience of the Digital Magic program is exciting.”

“Digital Magic is a great way to teach students something, but it’s also a great way to get young people to have interest in the public library,” added Tracy Carr, library services director for the Mississippi Library Commission. “Kids are easy to engage in libraries, but once they get a little older, we often lose them. Filmmaking is fun and cool, and this type of program supports the idea that libraries are community centers. It also supports the makerspace movement, which many libraries are getting involved in.” 

The educational component built into Digital Magic helps instill confidence, a sense of accomplishment and establishes new skills. From various forms of research and interviewing expert subjects to scriptwriting, time management and teamwork, participants gain long-term, valuable experience throughout the process.

“It is critical that each student understand what their own particular skillset might be and how to best use that skillset to tell a story,” said Clopton. “The program is designed to help participants understand that there are many ways to tell a story. And, we want our Digital Magic students to be able to tell a story in such a way that audiences will be able to walk away with a message that is thought-provoking.” 

Upon completion of each film, students will have summarized their thoughts, film footage, voice-overs and photographs into a format that tells a complete story – giving life to their message and voice. 

“I am constantly amazed by the work of the students in each of the Digital Magic classes,” said Clopton. “Students have explored everything from the lack of access to healthy foods on college campuses to writing a poem, to overlay black and white photographs that the student took and paired with jazz as the musical score, to creating a cartoon about animals to discuss abuse.”   

Lake Dodson, 18, is a student at St. Joseph Catholic School in Madison who heard about Digital Magic from a friend who was working on a documentary with Dr. Clopton. “I joined him and jumped straight into the process of script making and throwing ideas around,” he said. “After many weeks of deliberation and hard work, we managed to finish our first documentary: ‘Debating Speech,’ which covered the history of speech and debate, all the way back to the Sumerians, leading up to where it is today. Then, we were ready for our next documentary and felt we were ready to tackle a more poignant subject. We decided to do a documentary about The Hollow, a historically African American section of Canton, where we both live. Dr. Clopton helped us out every step of the way but made sure to loosely guide us, so that we could be self-reliant when crunch time came around. Overall, I would say that Dr. Clopton challenged our ideas of what makes a film great. A combination of her strong leadership and the recourses we had available to us at the Canton Library, we gained such valuable knowledge about planning, production, content and editing films.”

High school student William Lindsey also values his experience from Digital Magic. “I'd previously made short films for fun and didn't think I had much to learn in the way of filmmaking ... I was wrong ... very wrong,” he said. “Dr. Clopton helped me find passion in documentary filmmaking along with passion in storytelling that easily transfers over to my other pursuits. Dr. Clopton most of all helped me come to enjoy letting the people I interview make the narrative and let that lead me in the storytelling process instead of trying to forcefully create a full-fledged story and using the interviews to fill in the gaps.” 

Films created by Digital Magic students have earned awards in state competitions as well as film festivals, locally and nationally. For Clopton, the ultimate reward of bringing Digital Magic to youth in Mississippi comes in another form. 

“I am more excited about the “ah-ha” moments I see,” she said. “The moment when students see the importance of what they have done, the excitement in their eyes and the recognition that they now have a tool that they can use to make a difference. It is at that moment I find joy, peace and the enthusiasm to do more.” 

“Dr. Clopton is a very passionate and engaging speaker, and when I heard about this program, I was struck by what a great idea it was to teach filmmaking and storytelling to students whose stories and voices haven’t traditionally been heard,” added Carr. “While young people may write a song or take a photograph, filmmaking requires training and equipment that’s not available to everyone. Digital Magic makes it something accessible and doable.” 

The program’s success continues to grow, as it is now also being hosted at museums and colleges. Its statewide partnerships have also expanded. “The Mississippi Library Commission, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH), the Greater Jackson Arts Council and SCORE Mississippi have been extremely supportive of our efforts,” added Clopton. “Many doors have been opened because of their interest in Digital Magic.”  

In addition, Digital Magic Teachers Workshops have been implemented to provide Mississippi educators with model lesson plans and learn how to effectively incorporate film projects into the classroom. “We are able to provide instruction to teachers who see the program as another tool to support their teaching efforts, especially since they are able to incorporate mathematics, language arts, history, social studies, communication and interpersonal relationship skill-building as a part of the teaching process,” explained Clopton.  

Teachers from across Mississippi have participated in the workshop hosted at MDAH, including teachers from the Canton Public School District, Greene County School District, Jackson Public Schools, Madison School District, North Delta School District, Ocean Springs School District, Rankin County School District and Warren County School District as well as Benedict Day School and Jackson Academy. Presenting institutions also give CEUs to the participating teachers. 

“From the first time I met Dr. Wilma Clopton, it was clear that she wants what is best for students and educators in our state,” said Al Wheat, director of education at MDAH. “She truly ‘gets it;’ and with the work she is doing, I can only see positive outcomes for enhancing 21st-century skills in our students. I’ve seen the impact of Digital Magic firsthand, and it’s truly stellar to see our students in Mississippi experimenting with, and excelling at, documentary filmmaking and digital storytelling.” 

“Dr. Wilma Clopton has a great love of Mississippi and its history,” added Brother Rogers, director, programs and communication division at MDAH. “MDAH was thrilled to have her lead a teacher workshop to help teachers understand how to teach students to make documentaries. Students who use this cutting-edge technology will help preserve our state's history in new ways.”
Digital Magic is already in the works to be presented in 2020 by many more library systems and other organizations across the state. “It is our responsibility, and privilege, to share our historical knowledge and skills with young Mississippians who are looking for ways to share and document their own unique voices and interests with others,” noted Clopton. “This is why we created the Digital Magic filmmaking program.”

Contact Dr. Wilma Clopton at onlydigitalmagic@gmail.com for more information on how to bring Digital Magic to your community. 

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