“Kids today!” How often have you heard that expression used—usually by an adult deploring the behavior of young people?
Well, Steve Weiss recently used the phrase in an entirely different context. He was marveling at the accomplishments of a group of student filmmakers at a recent meeting of the Illinois International Film Festival. These young people were part of the Student Film Club, an after-school group of high school students from across School District 186 in Springfield, Illinois; and they were showcasing their first feature-length production: Paper Airplane.
How It All Began
The kids came together in 2008 to produce original, creative films that allowed them to engage in all aspects of filmmaking, including: screenwriting, storyboarding, location scouting, acting, directing, filming, post-production, scoring, distribution, and marketing. At first, they focused on short films, with each member taking turns at acting, directing, screenwriting, and scoring. In 2009, they showcased their efforts via a weekly half-hour public access TV show called, appropriately, The Student Film Show. Then, under the leadership of their adviser, Dave Heinzel, they grabbed for the brass ring and decided to make a single movie in which everyone could be involved. The gamble paid off.
Before Paper Airplane, Heinzel said some students in the club tended to dominate the process. Others didn’t step up and interact as much. Focusing on a long film allowed individuals to form groups and participate in an area of filmmaking that interested them. Interacting groups could collaborate with each other and have a sense of where each belonged in the process. The group dynamic also allowed students to concentrate on specific tasks that contribute to the overall product: the writing group to create a screenplay; the music group to select and score the storyline; the production group to determine sets, props, costuming, and locations; the directorial group to block the action; the cinematographers to set up and execute shots; and the editorial group to form disparate scenes into a cohesive whole. The process worked beautifully in the production of Paper Airplane.
The technical aspects of Paper Airplane are amazing, especially the use of color. The cinematographers nailed the atmosphere of a high school interior: from the muted grey walls, to the brilliant red lockers, to the eerie storage rooms where old computers went to die.
Students became focal points as they walked through the halls in brightly colored dresses, hoodies, and shirts. The Security Guards in their ominous black garb stood out in stark contrast to the pale grey walls. The custodian’s blue uniform set against students’ orange sweaters, red hoodies, purple dresses, pink shirts, and grass-green shirts emphasized his tiredness and confusion. The green liquid in the chemistry lab was a powerful portent of what was to come later in the film. Scene after scene dazzled with neon color components—as did the non-use of color in the bathroom scene where one student wearing grey is seated fully clothed in a white tub surrounded by white walls.
The film’s plot is pretty much what one would expect from an imaginative high school group: evil principal, abetted by clueless chemistry teacher, scary security guards, and a dorky kid who plots a takeover by undermining the school’s “go green” program. But the plot is not the reason for watching this film. It is the dedication and commitment of individuals and their groups to the overall production, which is nothing short of amazing. Each component complements the other to achieve a cohesive whole.
In a video segment taped by a local news station, the students spoke of how being part of the club had influenced their lives. One senior plans to go on to film school after graduation and another is thrilled that her creative writing talent can be put to use in the script preparation. A freshman’s whole view of high school changed because of the opportunity to act in the film. Others loved the feeling of being part of a group and of being essential, individually and collectively, to the success of the finished product.
Dave Henizel, the faculty adviser to the Film Club, spoke of their efforts, their their achievements, and their future plans.
Q: Leading a group of student filmmakers is a daunting task. What inspired you to take on such a project?
DH: The school district I was working for had given me a small budget to produce a video for the district, so I purchased a camera and some lighting gear. Shortly after, I heard about a 24-hour student video contest Apple was sponsoring. It seemed like a fun project, so I assembled a small team of students. We wrote and planned our story, but just before the day of filming, Apple cancelled the contest. We made the film anyway and screened it at a school auditorium. The students were so eager to make more films that I couldn’t get rid of them, so I figured it made sense to turn it into a club.
Q: What is your background in the area of film production?
DH: I’ve always been interested in photography and film, but it had mostly been a hobby until I started a video podcast series. After making about 100 episodes, I created and entered my first short narrative, The Yellow Car, in a local contest, which I won. That momentum carried into my professional career, where I started incorporating video work into the web and photography I was already doing. I started getting more and more work, both for my day job and as a freelancer. At some point I realized that I was making a career out of film (actually the point I realized it is when I was typing this paragraph).
Q; How were you able to persuade the school administration and parents to allow students to devote so much time to this project?
DH. Our track record speaks for itself at this point. We’re not financially supported by the district and the club isn’t part of the students’ curriculum. Everyone is doing this on their own time and for their love of filmmaking. Usually the problem isn’t getting people to show up – it’s getting them to go home.
Q: Since high school students tend to have vivid imaginations, how were you able to channel that imagination into the plot line for Paper Airplane?
DH: One of the hardest things to do is stay on track. The kids come up with so many great ideas, but I always make them justify why an idea belongs in the story. If they can’t justify why something belongs, or if it’s just in “for fun,” then we have to let it go. Saying “no” is a hard but very important step in the storytelling process.
Q: The color and cinematography in this film are superb. Did the students come up with the color selections in the various segments: the halls, the chemistry lab, the basement hideaway, the locker area?
DH: I’d love to say we planned all of this in meticulous detail, but the truth is that most of it was happenstance. We did spend a lot of time in the dungeon and in the chemistry room to make sure things had a certain color quality, and the main characters’ clothing was deliberate. We were fortunate to have a high school to film in that had so much personality to begin with.
Q: Were any of the characters in the film professional actors?
DH: Carrie Kincaid (Principal Gordon), who works in our district’s technology department, is the only actor with a background in acting. Everyone else was learning as we went along.
Q: How did you get financing to produce the video and how did you distribute the film once it was completed?
DH: We had about $300 in the Film Club budget, all of which was used for meals to enable us to film for long periods of time. Everything else was either borrowed or purchased by our cast and crew themselves. The movie is available for distribution on DVD exclusively from our Film Club’s website.
Q: What project is the Film Club working on now and what are your future plans for the club?
DH: The Film Club is starting production on our most ambitious film ever, Welcome to Wonder. The club has spent the past four months developing this story and writing the screenplay. We are planning on filming it over the next three months in various Central Illinois locations. We will edit as we film and have a release planned for early June. After that, who knows?
Q: What did it mean to have Zacuto view your film and offer equipment for future productions?
Student Film Club BTS with Zacuto gear
DH: Having Zacuto donate equipment meant so much to our club. The kids were thrilled to hear that someone from the “real world” liked their film and even more thrilled to learn about the equipment. The Z-Finder and Striker will be extremely instrumental in filming Welcome to Wonder, which we will film almost exclusively with DSLRs. We’ve found that this combo will give us the exact style we’re looking for — handheld, but not shaky — while allowing us to set up shots quickly and make sure they’re in focus. This film is going to test us in every way imaginable, from filming outside in the freezing weather to setting up in remote locations quickly to filming inside a very small car. It’s going to be extremely helpful to have a rig that is reliable, stable and configurable.
We really look forward to your next project and to following the progress of the Student Film Club. This is an ambitious group, and one that will have significant impact on the future of film in America.
Check Out Student Film Club videos