THAT’s a Wrap: THATCamp Jr.

Last month I attended THATCamp Prime and along with re-connecting with colleagues at The Well and making new friends throughout the three days, I left with a mission: THATCamp Jr. I was more than a little excited. David MorgenLeeann HunterRaf Alvarado, and I had a plan. David and I had kids, and we’d drafted Pete Rorabaugh to bring his kids along too. We were going to make a movie and—following the THATCamp and unconference model—let the kids be in charge. What could possibly go wrong?

Of course, it’s possible that plenty could have gone wrong, with the main thing simply being the difficulty of getting three dads (two of them single fathers) to find a time when vacations, work, and other responsibilities made it possible to try something new and novel. While some last minute dissertation edits tried to interfere, we found a weekend, invited as many people as we could, and just did it.

We got our eight kids (ages ranging from 5-13) together on a Friday afternoon to hash out themes and characters. David’s and Pete’s kids had already had a chance to discuss what they wanted the movie to be about and they’d reached a conclusion that appealed to mine as well: zombies. Much excitement ensued at this point.

We distributed the eight kids around the Emory Writing Center, where David is Assistant Director, and got them to start thinking about possible plot points. Some kids drew pictures of their characters; others created possible scenarios; all of them started talking about props. David, Pete, and I were joined by Leeann and Katy Crowther, allowing us to give individual attention to most of the kids and ask them questions about the ideas that they were rattling off. After everyone had some time to brainstorm (pun completely intended), we circled the wagons and gave everyone a chance to share their ideas. Continuing to talk with the kids, we coalesced several suggestions into some workable set pieces, getting a storyline together using something from each child. At the end of about two hours, we had a good sense of the props we needed and the costumes that everyone would bring to the next day’s filming. Our family was in charge of ninja swords, police badges, limes, and plastic food (trust me on those last two).

The next day, we met bright and early (9am) with our props and good attitudes. Since it’s summer in Atlanta, we decided to start with filming the outside portion. David had scouted a great spot for one portion of the film and when we arrived, we found everything we needed within 100 feet. The only problem was that we were near some massive part of Emory’s physical plant that created so much noise it would be impossible to capture any spoken audio. In true THATCamp fashion, however, we decided to roll with that sucker punch and make a silent film. Doing so would eliminate the need for the kids to remember lines.

As we started filming the scenes we asked the kids how they thought things should play out, who should enter scenes from where, and what their characters would do. We started with a series of shots of the ninja grocery store (stick with me here) and the beginning of some battles. The kids were having so much fun being ninjas, and the dads were having so much fun thinking of different angles we’d like to have in our dailies that we spent a lot of time on the first group of scenes. We eventually moved on to the zombies—although the convincing it took for some kids to shed their ninja gear for zombie lurches was not insignificant. As the morning wore on, it got progressively harder for the kids to reshoot scenes and for people some (read, my kids [and me]) to stay on task and focused.

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Of course, keeping focused is perhaps not in the purview of a THATCamp. After all, shouldn’t we be free to un-organize ourselves? Still, we all had a goal, and I like to think that we fathers were there to play the role that caffeine and fructose perform at most other THATCamps. Eventually, though, we needed some real fructose. We were all glad to get a break for lunch somewhere not too far after noon. At that point we’d finished all the outdoors scenes, and the two indor scenes proved quick to do. The filming was finished at 2pm…

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Celebrations included brownies, laughter, large draughts of water, and some bonus kids courtesy of Katy and her family.

One of the oaths that I took outside the CHNM’s Research 1 Building was that when it came time to edit the film that I would put in as many terrible iMovie special effects as the kids saw necessary. I’d had in my mind that we would finish filming, import the clips into iMovie, and all sit around the computer editing collaboratively. The absurdity of that vision was much more apparent (even to me!) when we had eleven people in a room, all of them wanting to type on the computers that were already there. We decided not to attempt the editing that day. At a remove, this decision makes a lot of sense when I remember that our vision of THATCamp Jr evolved when I realized my kids aren’t ready to learn programming, even in Alice or Scratch. David, Pete, and I decided that we would try to get everyone a copy of the raw footage and then work on editing in our own homes.

For a number of reasons, that hasn’t happened. (#1: As big as storage media is these days, video files are still larger than is convenient. #2: We were already quite charmed to have pulled off 8 hours of collaboration. Asking for more is like asking for a unicorn hood ornament on the Lamborghini Countach your cousin gave you for your birthday.)


Once again, we hit a potential snag. We’d done the hard part of our project (see my incredibly clever “herding cats” comment above), but we didn’t have anything to show for it. Fortunately a champion emerged out of the mist at this point, and David began editing the files. He had the advantage, of course, of everyone discussing the vision of the film as we were making it. But that doesn’t do the editing for you, and David worked on several versions of the film before reaching what is for now the final cut. (I’d still like to get a raw copy of the footage and see what sort of a remix I can achieve.)

It’s with a slight quaver in my voice and a tear in my eye that I’m pleased to present…

Fish & Chips: Zombies vs Ninjas
A THATCamp Jr Project


All of this was done at the cost of approximately $15 for supplies and about $8 for parking. Our gear included one Canon camcorder that is two or three generations old, two Flip cameras, a DSLR, and iMovie.

What did I learn? I learned that working with young adults in college has got nothing on working with kids…especially your own kids. These kids were so creative and willing to try new things. They were also ridiculously high energy and wore us out.

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I also learned that it’s really possible to convert something from a Twitter “Wouldn’t it be great if we did this?” to a completed project. I think it’s safe to say that we’re all tremendously proud of our kids, and I had a great time working with David, Pete, Leeann (who edited her behind-the-scenes footage into a great montage), and Katy.

What did our kids learn? I can’t speak for David’s and Pete’s kids, but I think mine would say that they learned how to fight vampires, how to film fights, and how to break a katana. Well worth a Friday afternoon and a Saturday morning.

What’s next for THATCamp Jr? At the risk of doing the predictable thing, I’m going to say that it depends on you. What will you try with your kids, your nieces and nephews, or the children you volunteer with? Pete, David, and I haven’t figured out what the next THATCamp Jr Atlanta will look like, but you can be sure that you and yours will be welcome. This is the South, after all, y’all.

One thought on “THAT’s a Wrap: THATCamp Jr.

  1. Thanks for writing about the process behind getting the movie to a finished product. I had a conversation with my kids after they watched the final version with me and asked them what they learned and Chloe’s response was: “I learned that zombies are awesome, ninjas are awesome, and making movies is awesome. But don’t try to do it in the blazing heat because that’s really hard.” Ella focused almost entirely on the social aspects–what she liked about the whole thing the most was making new friends.

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