News Column

San Francisco Film Society's Young Filmmakers Camp

August 20, 2013

YellowBrix

Aug. 20--When he started making films at the age of 12, cinematographer Shane King had to buy a Super 8 camera, purchase and shoot the film, ship the film to a lab for development, and then look through the film -- frame by frame -- using a projector he bought at a garage sale.

But for his teenage students at the San Francisco Film Society's Young Filmmakers Camp this summer, it was a much different story: Digital technology is widely accessible, and making a movie at home is relatively affordable and easy.

"I have a 3 1/2-year-old daughter who's shot video before," King said.

The teens at the annual two-week camp were similarly early starters. Most of them have a basic grasp of technology, whether it's working with iMovie editing software or shooting movies on their iPhones.

"Filmmaking is technical as much as it is artistic," said Charles Keiser, 17, who attended camp last summer and progressed to the Advanced Lab this summer. "I knew how to hold a boom, how to set up shots. But SFFS made it more official. We got to learn from professional people."

The two weeks were led by independent San Francisco filmmaker John Dilley, and the first week of camp consisted of professionals in the Bay Area imparting their skills to the adolescents, ages 13 to 17. They received instruction on screenwriting, cinematography, editing and sound.

"There's less and less kids who don't have hands-on experience," said Dilley, who said that the equipment was always what slowed him down when he was learning. "The thing you teach is where to point it and why to point it in that direction."

For Ethan Fox, 13, "the equipment was complicated at first, but you get used to it." Rather than the technical aspects of filmmaking being the barrier, the challenge is learning the craft itself.

Writing screenplays

San Franciscan Spencer Collantes, 13, is more interested in screenwriting than reverse angles. At age 5, he started collecting DVDs; he now has more than 1,000. He can rattle off his five favorite directors without blinking. At the top of the list is David Lynch.

"David Lynch is my master," he said. "He was in Amoeba L.A. last night signing DVDs and I almost cried myself to sleep." Because it was "Twin Peaks" season -- the fan festival was a few weeks after camp ended -- Collantes watched several episodes of Lynch's TV show every day, as well as at least one movie.

"Spencer has seen everything because it's so easy," said camp coordinator and current University of Southern California student Sean Huntley. "He has an incredibly vast understanding. He's constantly working, constantly writing."

Collantes has already written a 150-page screenplay called "Iron Always Rusts." "I like to think it's in the style of 'Blue Velvet,' " he said. He has plans for nine more screenplays in the notes section of his iPhone.

"The main reason I went to camp was to learn about the other fields of filmmaking," said Collantes. "The first week was fun and informative. The second week was super rushed, like I would imagine on future film sets. It literally took a whole day to shoot 45 minutes. And we used five minutes."

Time needed surprises

Other students were similarly surprised at how long the process took, from writing to preproduction, from shooting to postproduction and editing. For most, the Young Filmmakers Camp was their first formal exposure to the filmmaking process, but many have experience with writing, acting and directing, either through school programs or making shorts with their friends.

Kaitlynn Lake, 15, has written three feature-length screenplays on "controversial subjects," such as "the economy, and what's right and wrong." Her favorite movie is "Silence of the Lambs," but "below that is anything with Al Pacino in it."

"A lot of them have that bug," said Joanne Parsont, director of education at the Film Society. "We want to give them the resources to hone their skills."

While most students hailed from San Francisco and the Bay Area, two were from Italy and were staying in the city over the summer. They added an international flavor to the films -- one student was able to instruct another in how to do an Italian accent.

After a week of learning the ropes and doing short hands-on exercises, the students split into two groups for the second week of camp. Each group wrote their own screenplay and planned out their shot list. On the day of shooting, the group members rotated through each position: director, assistant director, director of photography, art director and sound mixer.

Each group shot their own short film, and then each group divided in two in order to edit two distinct versions. One, titled "Toner" and "Let the Geek Talk," was about a practical joke involving a printer, and the other, "Violence in Public Schools," was a series of deadpan interviews about an incident that had been blown out of proportion, featuring an exchange between a student unicorn and an Italian mobster.

Not 'as weird as me'

"They want to write something important," said Huntley. "Or whatever is important at the age of 13 or 14."

"I think it's hard to develop a story in three minutes," said Collantes. "Our story was about a woman falling in love with a printer."

Collantes, who bounces a tennis ball in order to get his creative juices flowing, believes characters are the most important part of the film. "Characters hold the secrets to your movie."

He is inspired by San Francisco -- his next screenplay will follow four generations of San Franciscan women -- and he hopes to live in the city after attending film school at USC. Collantes was sold when the school was holding a "Twin Peaks" retrospective while he visited earlier this summer.

"It's a great experience to find other kids who love movies," he said after the Young Filmmakers Camp was over. "But they weren't as weird as me. Not everyone goes home, watches four episodes of 'Twin Peaks' and a David Lynch movie."

For more information: http://community.sffs.org/education/youngfilmmakerscamp.

Katharine Schwab is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: kschwab@sfchronicle.com

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