Camera! Laptop! Oscar!
the right technology and a knack for storytelling,
student filmmakers are making movies.
Christine H. O’Toole.
As classrooms look, this one goes by the book: a monochromatic
tiered hall with fluorescent lights. The high school students
staring at computer monitors look textbook, too—except,
perhaps, for the high level of intensity they bring to
class on this steamy July day.
Hey, Buzz,” calls one of them casually, “How
do I make this brighter?”
Michael Barnett, 16, isn’t intellectualizing a term
paper. He’s digitally adjusting the exposure on a
frame of footage at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, where he’s
one of nine students creating original
projects in a summer class.
Teacher Buzz Miller, in cargo
shorts and sandals, sidles behind the monitor. “Pull
the contrast to the left,” he
advises. And with two clicks of a mouse, Barnett has the
effect he wants.
That looks perfect!” beams Barnett.
Members of the
digital generation since birth, these local teens are very
attuned to the moving image. No wonder,
then, that they’re using cameras and computers with
equal avidity, creating sophisticated stories and special
effects that were once the purview of Hollywood directors.
Technology, and Art
"Making a video has gotten so much less expensive and less
cumbersome,” says Brady Lewis, director of education
at the Oakland-based Filmmakers, one of the largest independent
media arts centers in the country. “You can work
with mini-DV cameras and cheap editing software at home
and try it out. That has spilled over to the schools, building
filmmaking into the curriculum—as a video production
course, computer course, or English course.”
Film is a medium that resonates with high school kids.
It’s the way they’ve grown up,” comments
Marilyn Russell, curator of education for Carnegie Museum
of Art, which has sponsored several screenings for teen
filmmakers. “They respond to a fast-paced, flickering
medium. And thanks to MTV, a pervasive part of our culture,
they even understand their music visually.”
say their budding Spielbergs are constantly searching for
ways to screen their work. And this fall, high schoolers
will get that chance during Carnegie Science Center’s
annual SciTech Spectacular, when filmmakers from
local high schools will submit films with environmental
to the first-ever science film festival. Buzz Miller led
the Pittsburgh Filmmakers workshops that helped young directors
plan their entries.
The sixth annual SciTech Spectacular,
to be held September 30-October 9, will showcase local
scientists and tech industries
that have planted roots in the Pittsburgh region—all
to create a buzz about discovery and innovation of all
kinds among young people. Various events will highlight
the new intellectual capital in Pittsburgh: robotics, information
technology, nanotechnology, biotechnology, environmental
technology, and advanced materials processes. The partnership
with Filmmakers helps students produce media arts in context.
One of the fundamentals of SciTech is using the
arts to focus on science and technology topics,” says
its Executive Director, Linda Ortenzo. “Last year,
we focused on theater; this year, on film.”
competition, entitled CAUSE (Creating Awareness and Understanding
of our Surrounding Environment) and sponsored
by Bayer Corporation, will have its own Oscars on October
6: a grand prize of $1,000 and a digital video camera will
be announced that night.
With students from a dozen local
districts planning to participate, the film festival emphasizes
how new digital
technologies are being applied across entertainment genres,
even in high school.
Our computer multi-media arts class actually encompasses
a full range of tools—Flash animation, web design,
video, stand-alone DVDs,” says Jim Reinhard, chair
of the visual arts department for the North Allegheny School
District. “Kids are making games, or interactive
movies—each with decisions to be made. We’re
encouraging them to think about video as one part of an
array of media used to express ideas.” Reinhard,
who created the multi-media course 10 years ago, has seen
its popularity boom. Six sections of the course reach maximum
enrollment each year.
You can no longer divorce students who want to make video
games or animation from students who want to make movies.
There has been a true convergence,” says Don Marinelli,
director of the Entertainment Technology master’s
program at Carnegie Mellon University.
To inspire young filmmakers and movie buffs of all ages,
Carnegie Science Center will bring the big screen to
Pittsburgh with its new exhibit on moviemaking, Action!
Adventure in Moviemaking. The interactive filmmaking
experience premieres during the SciTech Spectacular on
Action! invites the public to learn movie stunts, write
storyboards, create sound effects for a Jackie Chan film,
and recreate the initial battle sequence from Star Wars.
Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology
program will contribute technology to the exhibit, and
representatives from Pittsburgh’s film community
will participate in programs and discussions about how
the evolving worlds of filmmaking, video games, and other
technologies are revolutionizing what audiences see on
“ The pace of change in the last three years has
been exponential,” says Carnegie Mellon’s Marinelli. “The
features of the new video gaming machines alone are mind-blowing.
It’s not just more
of the same. These are capabilities that make you say, ‘How
does this change fundamentally how we can tell a story,
be a character, or journey through a world?’”
and others agree, however, that simply having the gee-whiz
tools of the trade won’t guarantee a
There’s a misconception that all you need are the
tools,” says Pittsburgh Filmmakers’ Miller
of the new technologies. “But just because you have
pen and paper doesn’t mean that you can write well.
The same is true of film. Planning is a big part of it—plus
teaching students the grammar of the film language, the
conventions, and the rules. Then, just as in writing, we
encourage them to break those rules.”
As his summer
students edit their five-minute films, they demonstrate
some sophisticated ideas absorbed from Miller.
of Mt. Lebanon is working with Jess Goldsmith of Fox Chapel
to finish “Beard Man,” a superhero
spoof. “We’re using speed as a comedic element,” Fieschko
explains. “Here, we’re slowing down how his
beard waves, like a superhero’s cape. In this shot”—he
clicks to enlarge another screen clip—“we’re
speeding up the way he runs, to look cartoon-y.”
characters like Beard Man may make an appearance in the
CAUSE competition, if they serve its environmental
theme. But straightforward documentaries, animations,
and other experiments are equally welcome.
filmmaker Rory Kennedy, who addressed a group of area high
school students at Carnegie Science
Center in April, encouraged young auteurs to think beyond South
Park and Batman. By focusing their new skills on
telling compelling real stories, she said, they can use
filmmaking as an agent for social change.
Kids can do plenty,” says Reinhard of North Allegheny. “They
can conceptualize and learn software at any grade level.
They have exposure to media tools and live in a mediated
world.” The challenge extended by the CAUSE competition
is for students to wield those tools to express environmental
opinions in ways that will captivate viewers.
a tall order. But, armed with digital cameras and laptops,
these young DeMilles are ready for their close-ups.
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