Teens Can Make Films - Can You?
By Troy Lanier
See that kid over there? The one with the video camera. She's trying to tell you something.
That kid is in the process of shooting her first short over the next three days with the help of a handful of classmates and a useful book or two. What is she telling you about? The changing nature of media and the role of the writer? The new digital tools that are now so widely available? The future?
This kid and others like her are certainly up to something. Writers should take note.
When the barrier to filmmaking began to lower with the introduction of digital cameras and editing software, the first group clambering over, en masse, was teenagers. Not intimidated in the least by new gizmos blistered with buttons galore or software they've never laid a mouse on before, teens dive into the digital filmmaking process with a relish and enthusiasm rarely glimpsed by their teachers or parents.
Evidence of this passionate interest in the new technology of filmmaking is everywhere. Festivals, summer camps, schools, non and for-profit organizations promising to support the work of teen filmmakers have mushroomed. With over seventy festivals offering a student category, teens can enter festivals from Chicago (CFF), to Austin (SXSW) to Fort Lauderdale (FLFF). Filmmaking is finding its way into high schools, and while it hasn't replaced the school play yet, some programs put up a good fight. Over 2,500 high schools have posted films on Varsity Television's website, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. If a kid wants to make a film this summer, she has over 150 different camps to choose from. New York Film Academy, the most visible summer film education program in the country, has enjoyed considerable growth in the last five years, doubling the number of students they serve.
The result is an outpouring of digital video art produced by kids. Is it all brilliant? Not by a long shot, but some of it is. If the resulting films are uneven, it's probably because kids, in their youth, lack what the seasoned adult writer has, a command of story and structure. This does not mean that the adult writer doesn't have much to learn from teen filmmakers. By making the most of what they have, teens have been pioneers in the field of small budget, small crew, and small experience filmmaking.
Here's how they do it:
Bumming Good Gear
Kids are great at keeping a sharp eye out for what other kids have. Who's got a new cell phone, new Playstation, new iPod, new prosumer 3-chip videocamera. And they aren't shy about asking. Even if their new best buddy with the Panosonic DVX 100a or Canon XL2 is a bit hesitant to part with his new toy, the budding director might recruit the new owner as a member of the crew (See below). Indeed, since the cost of these professional-consumer hybrids is coming down, more kids are considering buying one for themselves in lieu of more traditional coming-of-age purchases (after all, the admissions committee at Dream U. won't accept pictures of your 1992 Mustang GT - your DVD, maybe). A camera with three processing chips, that, when handled properly will yield images that will get you noticed can now be had for less than $2500.
Get a Posse
Kids don't have the organizational skills to get together a big crew, so they don't. And yet they make it work. Just a few friends will do. They know they need someone who knows how to run the camera. There are a lot of kids with cameras who know how to milk them for what they are worth. In this regard bumming a camera may actually be preferable to buying one. The camera kids mooch often comes with a DP (director of photography) attached.
Informed kids know that the only other member of the crew they really must have is someone to run sound - not the on camera, built-in "what-did-he-say" mic, either. Teens know that sound is not rocket science, but it does take the right gear and someone who knows how to use it. By hook, crook, or gear rental house they manage to scrounge a boom pole, a shotgun mic, a wind screen to go over the mic, and a cable to run the mic to the camera. Just a couple well informed buds, a few volunteer actors and teen filmmakers are ready to roll. It's unusual for the crew of a teen produced film to be larger than four or five.
Cut Your Losses
Teens are good at not taking on more than they can easily manage - things like special effects, complex camera moves or elaborate lighting. Kids rarely try to use artificial lighting at all. Instead they'll choose a script, locations, or times of day that allow them to avoid having to light their set. There is one tool that every teen filmmaker cannot do without and that is a shine board made out of some sort of reflecting material like a windshield sun reflector or a piece of foil-covered insulated foamboard from a hardware store. The right angle and a steady hand are all that are required to bring an actor's face to light.
Like I've Got Time
Kids today are overscheduled so finding time to shoot a short between basketball practice, a shift at SUBWAY, and SAT prep classes is difficult. Three-day weekends have become the boon of the teen filmmaker. Kids have discovered that in the course of a long weekend they can film from 5 to 10 pages of material, that the compressed period makes holding a crew together easier, and that nobody plans much for Presidents Day. Teens have found the three-day weekend to be the perfect window for shooting a short film.
Getting the 411
On the subject of filmmaking, kids are not shy about asking questions, experimenting, and seeking the information they need to complete their projects. Kids seem to inherently understand that digital editing does not put your original film stock in jeopardy, so why not play. As they face Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere they don't worry that they might break the machine. They know they can always go back to the tape and try again, so they chop with abandon.
They go online or to the bookstore to get help. Our book "Filmmaking for Teens: Pulling Off Your Shorts" has been helpful to many filmmakers both young and old, as has Kim Adelman's great "The Ultimate Filmmaker's Guide to Short Films" or Steven Katz's classic "Film Directing: Shot by Shot." And, of course, kids Google themselves silly looking for answers, tips, and venues to share their finished films.
So go ahead, act like a teenager. Engage new digital video technology with the abandon of a kid, exploring ways that these new tools can enhance your work as a writer. Learn from the kids. Use "prosumer" equipment with a small group of friends over a long weekend to discover the possibilities. Is a particular scene giving you trouble? Shoot it. Shooting a scene, even a very rough version, may be an even better tool for revision than having a reading in your living room. Don't just hear it, see it. If the shooting goes exceptionally well, you might have footage for incorporation in pitches or for inclusion on your website as a method of attracting attention to your work.
Tired of waiting for a studio to take your work, rewrite it and give it to somebody else to direct?
Act like a teen, and pull off your own shorts.