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  • Why Would You Want to Make Films in High School?

    When I was in high school...let's just say many years ago, there was very little opportunity in filmmaking for a high school student. I was a writer and even took an honors creative writing class. I would slip into daydreaming mode and run stories in my mind. I didn't know what I was doing and definitely didn't know how to apply those thoughts or ideas into screenplay form. Even if I thought about trying filmmaking as a release for my creative ideas, there were no high school film programs or teachers and the current medium at the time was film, as in 16mm film. Feature and TV shows were generally shot on 35mm film, but the lower budget version used in documentaries and college film schools was 16 mm film. First, you had to buy the film. If you wanted to have an 11-minute film, you couldn't just buy 11 minutes of film. If you consider editing and multiple takes, you would need to buy more than your running time of 11 minutes. The average shooting ratio in Hollywood in the Golden Age was 10:1. Meaning for every minute of finished film you needed to allow for 10 minutes of shot film. That's assuming you could keep that ratio. Too many takes, or too many angles of the same scene and your ratio goes out the window. So that's 110 minutes of film to buy for an 11-minute film. 11 minutes of a finished film is about 400 ft of film or 4000 ft of purchased film for a 10:1 shooting ratio. After film cost, there was developing and print costs. You see, what you shot was a negative and a positive print must be made to edit. Once you have cut and spliced your print, the negative will go through a single edit. Then you print the edit. Now you have one copy of the film. That is literally just one copy. If you wanted the movie to be screened there had to be a print made for each screening location. You have now spent over $2000 just for the film, and then the cost of developing and printing adds a couple thousand more. Most people didn't have 16mm cameras hanging around along with tripods, dollys, lights, and all the other equipment you might need. So after film costs and rental equipment, a student film could be very costly for a student with no money. College film schools were available so equipment would be available. But to do this outside a film school was nearly impossible. Then there was Super 8mm film. Consumers could buy this in a cartridge and shoot with relatively low-cost cameras. The film was developed as a positive, but a cartridge cost about $5 to $7 and shot a whole 3 minutes of footage. Then after almost a week, you paid a store for developing your film which was another $5 or so. Oh and another thing, generally, neither 16mm nor 8mm had sound. You had to record the sound on a separate machine which wasn't available to the consumer and cost over $6000 for the recorder, and that's just the recoder. You also needed microphones and a mixer. Experimenting on your own was nearly impossible unless you had a rich parent or uncle willing to cover your hobby. College film school was the only way to get any education, and it was still an expensive proposition for a starving college student. Forward to 2024. Now, of course, nearly everyone owns a potential camera, their smartphone, which is actually a great improvement in quality over most college 16mm film cameras of the past. You don't pay for the medium because it's digital. You can shoot all you want and storage is very cheap, so shooting ratio considerations are gone. Then there is editing. Now, you can edit and make as many copies as you want of your final film for, well, no cost. The whole process can potentially happen in your hand on your phone. Editing would probably be on a laptop, but there is editing software for phones, too. Film students in the past would have died for an opportunity like what we have now, a cheap medium with a simple streamlined process for picture and sound. Most teenagers today have probably posted some sort of video on YouTube, TikTok, or other social media platforms using their phones as cameras and editing the videos themselves. So why aren't there more quality films out there made by young filmmakers? Maybe part of the difficult process in the past made for more careful, serious filmmakers. Maybe because the film students were college-age? I understand that most kids shooting videos and posting them now aren't trying to make a feature film, but many in their minds are trying to tell a story of some kind and definitely want to entertain at some level. But without some guidance, they are just experimenting. The sad truth is just because anyone can shoot a high-resolution video on their phone does not make the video worth watching. A major phone company advertises its newest product every year by showing how easy it is to make a high-quality movie with their product. But do they really show that? If you saw what was outside of the picture frame on the film shoot that created the ad, you would be shocked. There would be a full-sized commercial crew with tens of thousands of dollars in support equipment and crew. It's a little bit of an illusion or possibly a deception. Filmmaking isn't just pointing at someone and shooting. Several years ago there was an article in an industry publication about a feature that was made with an iPhone. The article made a big deal that the only other equipment they had to buy was a $400 lens attachment. For a young filmmaker, it seemed that they were suggesting anyone could just run out and make a feature with an iphone. What was buried at the bottom of the article was the mention of a full crew and specifically a sound mixer with a $50,000 sound package. The article glossed over the rest of the process and concentrated on just the visual part of the medium. Yes, it was an iPhone, but there was well-trained crew and a lot of support equipment involved, too. Even though millions of kids are shooting and posting videos, most of them are just playing around. They need to know the process that made that 16mm college film of the past worth watching. Because the same process used then to make a quality short film needs to be used today, even though the equipment is different. We as educators think that energy used to, "Play around on YouTube" could be put to better use. After one of our first film festivals at a local high school we had been teaching at, the principal came up to me in amazement after watching a story of a high school student told in a film, by a 14-year-old writer director, and admitted he thought the kids were "just making silly YouTube videos in class". He was amazed at what they had created. Of course, it took months of writing and rewriting, planning, and following through with over 100 students and several teachers and mentors. But we were able to channel all that energy and creativity, in young high school students, and make a film with characters and a story. We were able to make young filmmakers. So why high school? Couldn't they wait until college? Isn't high school too young to be attacking a process so complicated? I was asked by a student we had worked with for 4 years in one of the high schools to write letters of recommendation for the Ivy League schools she was applying for. No, sadly she wasn't applying for film school. But I told the Ivy League administrators all of the adult things she had learned to create multiple films as a high school student. She had written scripts, auditioned and directed adult actors, and managed paperwork for multiple departments over months of planning and execution of projects. She had budgeted, delegated, conceived, planned, problem-solved, and successfully followed through multiple film projects. Are there any programs in high school that demand as much of students academically and yet provide more excitement and fulfillment? We have found in the four years we have been running our program that the students are very capable of making excellent short films and they love doing it. We find that the creativity needed to even conceive story ideas is much more prominent in a young student than in a college student. Our education system in this country is so dedicated to teaching methods and procedures that creativity is sucked out of our students every year they are in school. We find the younger the student, the more creative the student. But it is also true that the yonger the student the less disciplined the student. So we try to reach them at a simple level at the middle school age, using more creativity and less process, then as they get older and learn discipline they don't forget the creative process. As my script consultant friend Dave Trottier used to say, we all have a child and an adult in us. We need to learn to let the child go free first; break the furniture, write on the walls, and mess things up until we find an idea we really like then we let the adult come in and make sense of the creative chaos. In summary, I not only think young secondary students are capable of learning the filmmaking process, I believe it is the best time to start and one of the best methods of preparing them to become adults. When I speak with my friends who work full-time in the film business about our high school education program, they all express how much they would have valued and enjoyed a program like this when they were in secondary school and how much of a head start in the industry it would have given them. So, yes I think this is a great age to start the process of learning film production and I hope to prove it in the coming years. Give us your opinion about this or any subject we touch on in our Young Filmmakers Blog.

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