Area middle schoolers ready for their close-up

Posted on March 3, 2011 by Sonoma Valley Sun
Aspiring filmmakers Sklyer Trystad, left, and Jim Saefong.

“Three, two, one….ACTION!” Adele Harrison seventh grader Genesis Castaneda is amazed that she and her friend, Dhamar Gallardo, a seventh grader at Altimira, are not only behind the camera calling out that famous Hollywood line, but in front of a daunting array of lights, microphones and equipment as well.

“I was excited when I heard about the Film Festival’s video workshop and was invited to participate,” Casteneda said.  “But I figured we’d just be making movies on the computer.  I had no idea we’d have a chance to act. And direct!”

This is the ninth year of the workshop, which is sponsored by the Sonoma International Film Festival (SIFF), in partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sonoma. SIFF Board member Kimberly Hughes, who oversees the workshop on a volunteer basis, explained that the program began as a cell animation video workshop where students drew a sequence of pictures or cells to create a cartoon that told a story. The workshop now centers around the creation of short live-action videos fashioned after public service announcements (PSAs) that explore such topics as recycling, bullying, saving water, learning a language, and helping your neighbor.

The SIFF Board had the idea for the workshop back in 2003, as a way to introduce video and film production to middle schoolers before they went on to Sonoma Valley High School’s renowned film program, overseen by instructor Peter Hansen.

Over the years, various individuals, organizations and small businesses have helped to defray the $5,000 cost of holding the workshop, but funding has always been tough to come by and this year is no exception.  While individual SIFF board members have contributed funds, Hughes is hoping that one or more local businesses or foundations will step forward and contribute to this year’s program with an eye toward ongoing sponsorship.

The workshop’s most important partner is the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sonoma which provide instructors, a location for the workshop and use of its state-of-the-art computer lab and editing equipment. In the early years, the workshop never had a formal home and equipment had to be set up wherever space was available. The creation of BGC’s Intel Clubhouse has made all the difference.  Said James Connors, who runs the Clubhouse, ”The Intel lab is busy every day of the week late into the evening with BGC members, but it is typically closed on the weekends.  It is great to be able to share it with the film festival for this workshop.”

The workshop is a serious commitment for the dozen or so middle school students who are chosen to participate from public and private schools throughout Sonoma Valley.  They arrive at 12:30 p.m. on Friday and work from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday, breaking only for a pizza lunch.

“This has been a really fun way to get to know kids from other schools and to learn a specific, and fun, new skill,” said Presentation School seventh grade Skyler Trystad.

Beyond learning the specifics of operating cameras, sound and lighting equipment and video editing software, what the students get out of it goes beyond technical skills.  Said Hughes,  “To make these videos, the students need to work together.  They see how important it is to collaborate, often with students they’ve just met.”

The high quality of the final product is largely due to the caliber of instructors that the workshop has been lucky enough to attract.  The workshop kicks off with a two-hour overview of filmmaking equipment by Lee Armstrong of Images In Motion Studios of Boyes Hot Springs. Armstrong, a creative force behind such films as “Being John Malkovich” and “Fraggle Rock,” has played a central role in the workshop over the past five years.

The students start by learning how to use a camera: framing, close-ups, long shots, tilting, panning and using a tripod.  They learn how to use camera angles to help tell a story and are introduced to different types of microphones. They learn how to maintain continuity of a scene, which becomes important during editing. The first day they also come up with a storyline for their PSAs, which will each have a running time of several minutes.

The students are divided into three small groups of three or four students each. One group is led by Gary Felder, a noted local video producer and director, who has more than 20 years experience in the field. The second group is led by Connors and the third group is overseen by Matthew Compton-Clark, who is himself an accomplished graduate of SVHS’s Film/Video/Media Arts Program.

This year’s students hailed from four different area schools and the Hanna Boys’ Center and included: Xavier Hodge, Jeff Freedman, Jim Saefong, Frances Minigan, Quinn Sheridan, Skyler Trygstad, Brianna Lehane, Spencer Ittig, Genesis Castaneda and Dhamar Gallardo.

“The second day is mostly shooting, acting, re-shooting, trying to get their stories shot, along with visual cut-aways, etcetera,” explained Hughes. “Each student gets to try everything.  The third and final day is for finishing any shots still needed, as well as editing, adding music, sound, titles, etc.  It’s a lot to do in three days, but it’s a lot of fun, and the kids learn quickly because they’re learning on the job.”

SIFF Chair Kevin McNeely is a big fan of the program. “After these kids complete this unique filmmaking program they are able to make their own short films,” he said. “Maybe not ready for prime time, but certainly they are exposed to a field of interest that they may pursue over a lifetime.”

All the videos are screened at the beginning of the film festival’s Youth Works Program on Thursday morning, April 7 and Sunday afternoon, April 10 at the Sebastiani Theater.

“It’s a real accomplishment to see the completed videos — especially on the big screen to a packed house at the gorgeous Sebastiani Theater,” exclaimed Hughes.

The youth films will also be shown on Sun TV Channel 27. The Sun is a proud sponsor of the Film Festival.

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