A film crew at the Film Society's Young Filmmakers Camp production lab relaxes after an all-day shoot in the Presidio. From left Alex Cervantes, Conor Tracey, Ariana Vargas, Calvin Lin, Michael Fontana and Nora Filet.

Teens Tackle Production at SFFS Young Filmmakers Camp

Kim Nunley August 12, 2011

The second year of the Film Society's movie-making summer camp puts youth on location.

“I feel like the butt’s a little too much,” 16-year-old filmmaker Michael Fontana said as he put on his “robust elderly woman” costume. He wasn’t sold on the pillow in his hands working to plump out his thin frame. Already outfitted in a white wig, neon green pea coat, linen skirt and extremely large yellow rain boots, he added, “It’s just distracting.”

A week and a half into the San Francisco Film Society’s Young Filmmakers Camp, the group of 11 teenagers, ages 15-18, was finally getting the opportunity to shoot their short film. All of the campers had attended the previous week’s Learning Lab session, held at University High School, and  had the opportunity to absorb an intense five-day crash course on filmmaking. Local filmmakers served as instructors, covering topics such as screenwriting, shooting, editing and even stop-motion animation, setting the campers up for week two of the program, the Production Lab. The second week of camp is strictly dedicated to assisting the campers as they create their own short films, culminating with a screening for family and friends on Friday afternoon.

Today was Wednesday, or as the campers would refer to it, “shooting day.” Perhaps they possessed a newfound respect for the extensive pre-production process required to create a short film, but there was no doubt that the campers were chomping at the bit to get their hands on the camera. This wasn’t the same subdued group I had observed a week prior who sat quietly while soaking up editing techniques from Bay Area writer and editor Monica Nolan. There was an energy about them this morning. And as soon as their instructor, local filmmaker John Dilley, stepped in front of the classroom at 9:00 am and announced, “Let’s get started,” they all  bounced up from their seats.

This is the second year that the San Francisco Film Society has hosted the camp, but it is the first year that it has featured the Production Lab session. Although last year’s campers enjoyed the Learning Lab, as Emily Hoover, the San Francisco Film Society’s Educational Assistant explained to me, this year’s added session allowed the teens to actually get their hands dirty and get a short film under their belts.

The campers were split into two groups, and each group used Monday and Tuesday to work collaboratively through the pre-production stage. Together, they came up with a story concept, wrote the script, scouted locations, thought out set design, assigned casting roles, rehearsed each scene and organized a shooting schedule.

Fontana’s role as an elderly woman, who in his team’s short film is startled by a teenager who accidentally enters her car, stemmed from the real-life experience of 17-year-old group member Conor Tracey. Tracey was in the car one day with his uncle, Michael Read (Publications Manager at the San Francisco Film Society), and according to Tracey, Read pulled over and asked him to step out of the car quickly and go pick a few blackberries. “He begged me to get out in the middle of traffic and get him some blackberries to prove my love,” Conor laughed, “And when I came back I accidentally got into someone else’s car.” The crew built their script based on that premise, of course accentuating details and elaborating along the way. Aside from a Presidio visitor attempting to park their car in the middle of the set and a brief technical issue with a boom microphone, the shoot went off without any serious hiccups.

Each camper got a turn taking lead at the various crew members roles, rotating between director, assistant director, director of photography, art director, and sound director, so that they could learn the different responsibilities of each position.

Jared Ergino, 17, started as the director in his group’s short film, which adopted the mockumentary style of NBC television show The Office. His team’s film told the story of the employees at a fictional orange company Citrus & Sons, who become distressed when their company pencil sharpener fails to work. Not only did Jared direct the first scene, but he also held a starring role, playing the employee assigned the task of explaining to his menacing boss that the sharpener is out of commission. One of the group’s major concerns going into the day was whether they were going to be able to hold back their laughs and stay on shooting schedule. During rehearsals the day before, they didn’t do so well. “That’s OK, we got this,” Ergino affirmed to his group.

After shooting two scenes, Ergino’s team found themselves way ahead of schedule and decided to use the extra time to allow each of the actors in the scenes to play the roles out again, this time improvising. It was a hilarious display, highlighted by 16-year-old Elana Rapp, who clearly grasped the cynicism of her character in a scene where she was complaining about her coworkers.

Despite the long day, both crews pushed through, partly thanks to the camp-provided Cheez-Its and Capri Suns, but mostly because of the passion each of the campers had for filmmaking. As camp counselor Cole Delbyck explained, although they vary in skill and knowledge, “The campers are pretty enthusiastic, you know? They want to be here, so there’s a bit of self-selection.”

Perhaps the change in energy I observed in the group between the weeks was only partly due to them getting their hands on the camera. They had just spent eight full days together and had likely developed a full grasp on the collaborative efforts required of making a film. During breaks and at lunch they would remain huddled together, talking about their favorite films and playing hangman with movie titles. In that short period, they had become a team and were already comfortable expressing their ideas. As a result, by shooting day, 15-year-old Davis High School student Nora Filet, acting as art director, was completely comfortable and didn’t hesitate to step up to Fontana when she spotted that his elderly woman costume was out of place. She hastily rearranged his wig, never pausing when Fontana expressed his impatience with a look. “Sorry, your sideburns are showing.”

Watch the films created by the students of the 2011 Young Filmmakers Camp.

The San Francisco Film Society’s Young Filmmakers Camp featured two separate camp sessions at University High School. The first was for teens ages 13-15 and the second was for those ages 16-18. The Film Society will offer the camp again next summer.

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