The show must go on: how to produce a virtual school Christmas show – your essential guide

From planning and filming to editing and sharing, here’s your essential guide to producing a virtual school nativity or seasonal show safely, simply and cheaply.

Photo by Chris Sowder on Unsplash

It’s that time of year again. The time when assemblies, PE lessons, golden time and just about everything non-core is given over to rehearsals for … well, for what? This year, the school Nativity or seasonal show is having to go virtual and, just at this moment, a great many teachers are scratching their heads wondering exactly how to make it work. We know of at least one school that has chosen the script, cast the parts and started bubbled rehearsals without being completely certain how on earth they will share it with families or other school bubbles.

Or maybe not. The latest survey by Teacher Tap has included some questions on nativity plays – but not how but if. In response, around half of all schools in England have said they aren’t having a nativity this year, though in London that falls to about 30%, with 16% saying they “don’t usually do a nativity” (though it isn’t clear whether they do a seasonal show but just not, strictly, a nativity) and 52% saying they will, but virtually. 

So we felt it would be helpful to look at just how a school might go about filming a show – whatever it might be – then editing it and finding the right online platform to show it, with due regard to safeguarding. We’ve put our own heads together but also received some very useful guidance from Mark Saunders of Spectacle Training, who is a respected filmmaker and has been teaching filmmaking for 20 years (currently through virtual courses).

 Throughout, our aim is to keep it simple. If all you have is a smartphone, that’s fine. You can still create a show that will make the whole school community feel proud.

What and where to film

Your plans may start and end with a performance in the school hall for each bubble. It’s a plan that could meet everyone’s expectations and is something the school by-and-large knows how to do. But you could look at this year’s peculiar circumstances as offering an opportunity for venturing further afield, creatively and perhaps geographically. Here are a few ideas:

  • Solve the bubble-mixing problem by filming each bubble separately and editing them together afterwards (read on for an editing intro)
  • If you’re going to film separate groups, why not go on location around the school …

… or even, with social distancing care, outside the school, perhaps in locations relevant to the script?

  • But bear in mind that filming outdoors is subject to weather, which can add complications, not least rescheduling if the heavens open, and sound issues if it’s windy
  • Alternatively, film your performers against solid green (or blue) backdrops and then use the green screen properties in iMovie (for iPhones, iPads and Macs) or green screen apps like these and more to put them into locations and backgrounds that bring the production alive

 If live performances are not the way to go, apps such as Puppet Pals, Sock Puppets and many others (such as Adobe Spark) enable children to perform a story with voice and sound effects and, in some apps, incorporate their own drawings of characters or backgrounds. Book Creator allows a slightly different approach, embedding short clips, photos, sound or drawings on a page for each child.

 Or in the absence of an in-house show, the charity Christmas for Kids is offering its digital production ‘Benson’s Christmas Letter’ free to schools, complete with a resource e-pack and a focus on SEND pupils.

Photo by Harald Müller on Unsplash

Top tips on filming

Most of us don’t have access to a multicamera studio and edit suite (!) but we may have the odd smartphone, which could be all you need. Mark Saunders gave us a tips list that’s worth its weight in gold, frankincense and myrrh: 

  • Use a tripod (if you have any budget at all for the show, this is the one item to buy!) or keep the camera very steady
  • Get good sound! You need it
  • If using a phone or tablet, bring it close to the action – to get good sound, you need to get the mic very near whoever’s speaking
  • If possible, record the performance with more than one camera (this means editing – see below)
    • Use them to achieve a variety of different distances or different angles on the action
    • If you have more than one camera position, different positions/angles will be better for different children
    • The more cameras the better from a sound point of view – every camera is a mic as well, so you might ensure speaking performers are never more than a metre and half from a camera
  • Don’t try lots of camera movement – keep it static
  • Never, ever use the zoom on a phone or tablet – get closer instead!
  • If you can’t record the whole performance, ensure you have all the key performers in shot
    • Have a different camera on each key performer if possible
    • If one camera, you can shoot a separate scene for each key performer or group performing together
  • Use a dress rehearsal to practice and plan the shots – then maybe try filming a dress rehearsal
  • Even if you shoot scenes separately, still try to film each scene with more than one camera if you can
  • Make sure you have enough battery and storage on your phone for the recording
  • A whole performance can fill a phone’s memory and you might run out. Try to shoot separate scenes if possible and download the data (eg to a desktop) in between scenes
  • Don’t try live streaming – there’s no real point and even a very basic edit with a basic app helps

We also have two safeguarding notes:

  1. In order to show the finished production, you’ll need to ensure it complies with school policies on the sharing of photos and videos and the permissions given by parents and carers. When it comes to children whose faces can’t be shared, you’ll also need to work out what arrangements you can make (camera angles that exclude faces? Pixellation? Costumes that hide faces? Digital stickers over faces? Audio only?) that don’t leave a child feeling unnecessarily excluded. Maybe involve the child in exploring and choosing the options.

2. Personal phones and tablets may fall foul of your school’s acceptable use policy regarding unauthorised personal devices. If your school has any mobiles or tablets, perhaps for school trips, they may be suitable. And read on for notes about storing what you film.

Photo by Noom Peerapong on Unsplash

The edit

It’s probably becoming clear by now that some editing, even very basic, is difficult to avoid. Getting close to the action and also capturing the performance of a whole class or more are almost mutually exclusive. But it needn’t be daunting.

 For Apple users, the native iMovie is unexpectedly sophisticated, even on an iPhone or iPad but especially on a Mac, yet also as simple as they come, with plenty of documentation – and free. Over in the other camp, Windows 10 now comes with Video Editor, the successor to the discontinued Windows Movie Maker (for older Windows versions), which plays the same role as iMovie, if a little less feature-rich.  There’s also a range of third party editing apps if you have a small budget to play with.

If the children are filming each other on Apple devices then the ‘Clips’ app is even simpler than iMovie to use and allows simple editing and effects. iMovie could then be used to knit everything together for the final cut.

 Here are five top considerations for the edit:

  • Keep it simple. The main purpose of editing is simply to join separate shots together in the right order. Everything else is secondary
  • Start by assembling your shots in the right order, even if the initial result feels a bit ragged and too long. Save a backup before you start refining things
  • If you shot everything on a single phone or tablet, you can generally edit on the same device. But if you shot on different devices, everything has to be saved to a single device so that it’s all in one place before you start editing. That can still be a phone or iPad if it has enough memory (!) but a desktop may be easier
  • Allow enough time
  • Any third party music and background images you use – perhaps as a background for titles or green screen – will have usage rights attached, so check you have appropriate permissions

 And we have some further safeguarding notes:

  1. Be clear about where your video footage is being stored, both temporarily, during production, and permanently – the final resting places for the finished thing and for the original camera footage. Personal devices or personal storage shouldn’t figure anywhere in the equation!
  2. Be clear about how long it’s all going to be stored. Perhaps the original footage can be deleted once the production is complete: weigh the natural temptation to keep everything against the increased safeguarding risk of having so much footage in storage, including unguarded moments that were never meant to be seen in public.
  3. It’s easy to lose track of a video file that may be automatically stored with just a string of numbers and letters as a filename, instead of something that spells out its nature and purpose. You could be under pressure, racing against the clock, and decide to sort it out later (maybe to rename the files – the safest option – or if necessary to create a log of files and content) but it’s easy to forget. Our recommendation is to sort them out straight away. Build that requirement into the planning.
Photo by Rob Laughter on Unsplash

The grand showing

Upload the finished show to YouTube or Facebook and have a virtual launch party? Maybe not. If you do opt for YouTube, we have a handy Guide to using YouTube that includes a section on uploading and sharing content but there are strong arguments for uploading it somewhere more private that requires a login for viewing. That can be organised as a standalone on, for example, Vimeo but if your school uses G-Suite or Office 365, or apps such as Seesaw or ClassDojo, pupils will already have a login and a secure area beyond with video capability, and you may be able to track who’s watching it. Alternatively, you could upload the video file to Google Drive or Google Classroom but sharing a file, rather than a stream, greatly increases the risk of it being shared again and leaving your control.

LGFL has produced a very useful, tip-filled blog on the safety of nativity screenings, What goes on in Nativity, stays in Nativity…. Top of our safety list, after the above, would be warning parents and carers against making their own recordings of the video and sharing either a recording or links and logins – anything that may mean they’re sharing, perhaps unintentionally, images of children who are not their own. SwGfL has also produced a helpful resource looking at some of the safeguarding implication of online perfomances:

All that’s left is the world premiere. You may decide that happens first in the classrooms. It’s a great opportunity not only for pupils to bond over watching their show come together but for bubbled children to see their friends from other bubbles on screen, perhaps in a small way compensating for them being so near yet so far on a normal school day. There are also plenty of learning opportunities in analysis and discussion.

 Then it’s home time. You have the choice of setting a specific time for a first screening, to create some anticipation around a virtual event, or for simply uploading it for families to watch at their own convenience. Or both: perhaps launch it on a specific occasion (or occasions) and then leave it available for a short while, say a week, though not indefinitely. If you have a set time, or you ignore our advice above and go for a livestreamed show, it’s advisable to turn off or moderate any inbuilt comments/chat function.

Photo by Corina Rainer on Unsplash

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