With the advent of easy-to-use digital technology, schools are responding to the interests of their media-savvy students by offering more courses in filmmaking.
A dying woman lies in a stark hospital room. Her eyes are closed. Her husband sits somberly on one side of her bed. Her son, the other. “C’mon Kyle, let’s let your mom rest,” the father says. The son nods, bends down, and kisses his mother’s pale cheek. She doesn’t stir.
A phone rings shrilly in the next room, interrupting the poignant scene.
“Cut!” says student Nora Hansel loudly, and sighs in exasperation. The woman pops up in bed, all business.
“Unplug that thing,” she says, then lies down, adjusting the breathing tube in her nose. She smiles gamely.
Ms. Hansel stops recording her short film, “Beyond the Shadows,” with a digital video camera she’d set up here in a friend’s South Austin apartment. Tucking a strand of hair behind one ear, she directs the actors to take their places and reminds her student crew to be quiet. She pushes the record button on the video camera. The actors redo the scene.
A high school junior, Ms. Hansel is one of about 40 film students at the private St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, which has had a filmmaking program since 2003.
The 600-student school for grades 6-12 is part of what experts see as a trend toward more courses in filmmaking in public and private schools around the country.
“There is an upwelling of teen filmmaking. Demand is coming from the kids,” says Troy Lanier, St. Stephen’s filmmaking teacher and a co-author of the 2005 book Filmmaking for Teens: Pulling Off Your Shorts. “And it is occurring both in and outside the classroom.”
Teenagers have always been interested in movies. But until recently, filmmaking was the province of cash-rich motion-picture studios, or of dads wielding bulky Super 8-millimeter video cameras to make grainy home movies.
Now, accessible and affordable digital technology and sophisticated but easy-to-use video-editing software are spawning a generation of amateur auteurs, says Clay Nichols, the screenwriting teacher at St. Stephen’s and the other co-author of Filmmaking for Teens.
“Kids are desperate to be creative,” Mr. Nichols says. “It’s the digital revolution. There are no barriers to entry now.”
Today’s teenagers are growing up in a media-saturated world in which they have far more control over not just what they can watch but also what they can create, compared with generations before them. “[Students] now have access to technology at home,” says Mary Celeste Kearney, an assistant professor in the radio-television-film department at the University of Texas at Austin and the founder of CinemaKids, a local filmmaking program for 6- to 12-year-olds. “It’s not something special, as it was for kids of my generation.”
First-Place Student-Film Entry/SXSW Film Festival 2006:
Chris Hergert, a 17-year-old junior at the North East School of the Arts in San Antonio, wanted to “make a film about Germany, because I’m German.” His short drama, set in the World War II era, tells the story of a young Jewish mother’s attempt to escape the Nazis. The actors—Mr. Hergert’s sister, father, and uncle—speak entirely in German, and the film is subtitled in English
Creating homemade films is even cheaper than it was just a scant four years ago, says Chris Deaux, the writer, director, and producer of the 2005 documentary “The Last Western” and the executive producer of Paradox Television LLC, a Los Angeles-based production company.
Back then, he spent close to $4,000 just for two 18-gigabyte media hard drives to capture and store his films. For his new documentary, he bought a much more powerful, 500-gigabyte hard drive for only about $500.
“I shot 100 hours of footage, and I didn’t fill half that drive,” Mr. Deaux says. “Before, it was always a big burden to make a movie, even by our minimal, guerrilla standards.”
Other venues are encouraging student filmmaking. Independent film festivals, such as last month’s South by Southwest, or SXSW, festival here in the capital of Texas, are adding film competitions for teenagers.
The Internet is also prime real estate for student-made films. Students can upload their films on social-networking or entertainment sites such as New York City-based MySpace.com, San Mateo, Calif.-based Youtube.com, or Varsityworld.com, which is owned by the Varsity Media Group, an entertainment company targeting teenagers, based in this film-savvy town.
Another outlet is Current TV, an independent cable and satellite network based in San Francisco and founded last year by former Vice President Al Gore. A third of the youth-oriented network’s content is created by viewers, who can also learn about the craft through video interviews on Current TV’s Web site by experts such as the actor-director Robert Redford and Ira Glass, the host and producer of Public Radio International’s “This American Life.”
Chris Hergert, a 17-year-old junior in San Antonio’s North East School of the Arts, won first place at the teen-film competition at the South by Southwest festival for his short film titled “Maikäfer,” German for “ladybug.” Mr. Hergert, who lived in Germany until age 7, commented on World War II by creating a film on a young Jewish woman’s foiled escape from a Nazi officer.
Runner-Up Student-Film Entry/SXSW Film Festival 2006:
Austin High School senior Elizabeth G. Mims’ film is a meditative look at aging that is told through the perspective of an elderly woman’s umbrella. Ms. Mims explains how she came up with the idea: “I started thinking about what I considered visually interesting. What objects do you see around a lot and could have a story behind them? Forgotten objects … and how to connect them to human lives.”
The production was completely homemade. Mr. Hergert used no film crew, and the actors were his sister, his father, and his uncle. The film was subtitled; all dialogue was spoken in German.
It took Mr. Hergert about a month to make the film, which was lauded by several in the audience at the March 12 SXSW film screening for its maturity, pacing, and lush cinematography. Then again, Mr. Hergert has been making movies for almost half his life. “I’ve had a camera in my hand since I was 8,” he says.
Austin High School senior Elizabeth G. Mims, the runner-up in the SXSW teen-film competition, has also been interested in filmmaking for years. Her short film, “Weathered,” is a meditative look on aging. It helped get Ms. Mims accepted into the competitive California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, Calif., where she will study film.
Filmmaking has taught her how to better communicate with people, and to be more organized. “You have to think ahead,” Ms. Mims says of planning a film project. “You have to consider exactly what you need.”
More teachers, meanwhile, are using digital video cameras to enhance learning in core subjects such as English and social studies. At St. Stephen’s, for example, students worked with a history teacher to capture several oral-history projects of the school on film. Some students also produced a short film on Harriet Tubman.
At the North East School of the Arts, film teacher Konise Millender tells students on the first day of filmmaking class that they’ll be learning more than just how to shoot scenes and move pictures around on a computer screen. The San Antonio school, structured as a magnet program within the larger Robert E. Lee High School, offers seven majors, including cinema.
Various resources can help educators and students with filmmaking.
Programs and consulting:
Film festivals with student competitions:
Students use math when determining equipment and production budgets for their short films, Ms. Millender says. They also use spatial reasoning when blocking out the floor plans for their films, and learn how to develop the arc of a story when writing their screenplays.
“I tell kids, ‘OK, I tricked you,’ ” Ms. Millender says. “This isn’t just cinema class, but also an English class, a history class, a math class.”
But while some schools have knowledgeable film teachers, other teachers don’t have that expertise and are scrambling to keep up with their tech-savvy students, say Mr. Lanier and Mr. Nichols, both 39, who have backgrounds that include filmmaking, screenwriting, and playwriting. Mr. Lanier co-directed a documentary, “Streets Without Cars,” that aired on PBS, while Mr. Nichols has written a dozen plays, which have been performed by repertory companies across the country.
Next year, their new book, Filmmaking for Teens: Docs and Mocs—Your Reel Life,is slated to be published byMichael Wiese Productions, and later this year, they will debut their new “how to” video for expectant fathers, called “Due Dads: The Man’s Survival Guide to Pregnancy.” They’ve also started Storyboard Consulting LLC, a for-profit firm to help schools develop curricula and courses in filmmaking, as well as students aspiring to become the next Quentin Tarantino.
Some schools are hiring teachers with film-industry credentials through alternative certification, the two say. But many teachers are simply learning as they go along.
“It’s somewhat of the Wild, Wild West,” Mr. Lanier says. “It’s easy to press ‘record,’ but to produce a quality product is an issue.”
Filmmaking is also effective for teaching media literacy, says Mr. Nichols. In an age when electronic media are dominant forms of communication, it’s essential for young people to learn how to critically assess films and other visual media, instead of just passively consuming them, he says.
“They learn to look at the bones of a film, … to be more objective,” Mr. Nichols says. “Filmmaking is the most powerful way to teach media literacy. All kids deserve to have a barrier of knowledge between them and the media that’s trying to shape their behavior.”
Jaclyn Bays, an 18-year-old senior at St. Stephen’s and a member of Ms. Hansel’s film crew, pauses from putting away the equipment at the end of the afternoon’s film shoot.
She explains her interest in film by talking about its universal appeal and the storytelling control the medium gives her. “You can write a script and say, ‘Here’s what I want to say,’ ” Ms. Bays says. “I definitely see the world in a different way now.”
Vol. 25, Issue 32, Pages 29-31