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The Teen Film Revolution

The Teen Film Revolution

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Left to right: Will Crosby and James Moritz show off their homemade dolly track; assistant director Rachel Walker takes command on the set of; the teenaged cast and crew of

Moviemaking is finding its way into high schools. While it hasn’t replaced the school play just yet, some programs are putting up a good fight. More than 2,500 high schools have posted films on Varsity Television’s Website…”

The producer glances at her watch and sighs in frustration, throwing a glare at the sound mixer, hoping she can catch his eye. His little “oops” has cost them three precious hours. She had no time scheduled for this reshooting bullshit.

She leans over the director’s shoulder “Two more takes. Period.” The director rolls her eyes and walks over to the lead actor. He’s well-known with the crew for his stage work, but in this scene his gestures are about to knock the camera over. The DP takes the bounce board out of a grip’s hands and puts the light where he wants it: “Right here, okay?” The grip looks sheepish, stepping back in to take the board.

It’s a pretty typical set for an independent short. Except that none of the players here are over the age of 18.

A break for lunch and they’re suddenly teenagers again—they can’t stay off the playground equipment at the location; they throw their heads back to laugh; they scarf down pizza and Coke as if it were their last meal on earth.

If you look closely, you can find the adults—they’re over there sitting at the picnic table. It is a school-sponsored production, but there is no doubt about who is running the show here.

“Okay PAs! I need you over here to bury this cable,” shouts Sarah, the producer and a junior in high school. “Grips, please start setting up the dolly track!” Drinks are set down. The cast and crew rise to their feet and head off to their stations.

Scenes like this are taking place all over the country in garages, living rooms and vacant lots. Not that teens making movies is big news. Kids have been picking up cameras, recruiting a few buds and making videos for a while now. Lately, however, they’ve been growing more ambitious. They don’t just want to make a funny home movie. They aren’t satisfied with improvised dialogue and shaky, handheld camera work. They want to make a real movie.

Camera operator James Moritz and key grip Destin Douglas work the jib arm with DP Carelton Ranney watches the monitor.

“I want to be a cinematographer,” says James Moritz, 18, from behind an exceptionally long forelock. His short made it into SXSW this year. “Nothing is better than someone saying your picture looked cool.”

Festivals, summer camps, schools and non- and for-profit organizations promising to support the work of teen moviemakers have mushroomed. With 70-plus film festivals offering a student category, teens can enter festivals from Chicago (Chicago International Film Festival) to Austin (SXSW) to Fort Lauderdale (Ft. Lauderdale International Film Festival). Local film organizations like East Bay Media Center in Berkeley, CA or Austin’s Motion Media Arts Center have sprung up to support youth moviemakers, and these programs often hire industry professionals such as screenwriter Joe Conway (Undertow) to mentor the kids. Kids can also join online networks and get instruction at sites like

Moviemaking is finding its way into high schools, too. While it hasn’t replaced the school play just yet, some programs put up a good fight. More than 2,500 high schools have posted films on Varsity Television’s Website, and director Peter Moossy hopes that this is just the tip of the iceberg. He knows of over 40 programs in Philadelphia, PA alone that range from budget-hampered public schools all the way to the big-dollar prep schools.

If a kid wants to make a film this summer, he or 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. They now offer programs in New York and Los Angeles, at Harvard and Princeton, in England and in France.

So what’s with the kids? Why all this moviemaking all of a sudden?

Maybe it’s because they go to the movies so often (the MPAA claims the 54 percent of movie-going teens go frequently, more than any other demographic). Once the movie’s over, they come home and watch TV for an average of four hours a day (when they’re not playing video games). Looking at these statistics, a reader might begin to wonder when these kids sleep—or go to school.

Maybe commentaries and bonus tracks on DVDs have made them more aware of the process of making movies. Maybe the proliferation of celebrity media funnels them to moviemaking. No doubt, the mystique of the flicker has made it into the teen culture; the moviemaker today is as cool as the quarterback. Adding to its allure, moviemaking has yet to be fully co-opted by the adult world. It’s still a bit of an outlaw form.

“Filmmaking is different because it has little to nothing to do with being at school,” says Destin Douglas, 19, who will take his moviemaking interest to Wesleyan University in the fall. “You can just take off with your friends and make whatever you want to with little to no regard for what any other person wants you to make. It’s individual and creative. You’re not just a cog, like in the school play. You’re the painter of your own art.”

Whatever the cultural forces at work, there is no doubt that technology has had an impact. With the arrival of digital cameras and editing software, teens can get in the game. They can open a dialogue with the issues/59/images that swirl around them. Young people love to talk back, and not always politely. This generation of kids speaks digital with a fluency those of us who learned it as a second language can only imagine. Try teaching Final Cut Pro to a bunch of 15-year-olds. It’s like being a security guard at the Filene’s Basement bridal sale. You unlock the doors and get the hell out of the way or get trampled. They play fearlessly with the technology; they intuit before you can tell them; they immediately begin to visualize something cool.

Teen moviemakers these days have a tendency to run in packs, which is a good thing. In a pack of moviemakers, there will typically be several projects going on at once with kids sometimes acting as director, sometimes as crew. This has the effect of improving the quality of the project, as there are several knowledgeable and semi-knowledgeable kids working behind the camera. These kids know a gaffer when they see one.

Usually at least one has had some formal training at a school, camp or youth moviemaking organization, and it is this kid that just might show up with borrowed lights or an audio package. But for the most part, even the trained kids are running and gunning with just a tripod and a three-chip camera.

Kids used to save up to buy a car. Today, at least one kid on the block saves up to help his parents with the camera. Many parents will plunk down the change themselves, assuming that moviemaking has to be more constructive than, well, almost anything else teens do. Maybe it will even get them into college. Austin senior Carleton Ranney, labeled a “Moviemaker to Watch” by the movie-savvy Austin Chronicle, won the gamble. He will be attending the School of Visual Arts in New York City and majoring in film. “I watch three videos a week as homework,” he says, “but I want to do something totally new.”

Many festival directors have observed that the top tier student films are improving, too. Although most kids can’t afford a boom pole or shotgun mic, they are paying close attention to sound and light, taking their cameras off auto mode.

Elizabeth English, director of the Moondance International Film Festival in Boulder, CO, indicates that during the five years that they have offered a youth category, they have seen not only more films from younger kids, but films of a much higher quality. “Not only are more kids making films,” says English. “More kids are making fantastic films.”

And it goes beyond the technical.

“We are seeing more sophisticated young producers with far more multidimensional subjects that go from topical issues to real-life issues that confront them,” says Mel Vapour, vice president of East Bay Media Center. “Their narratives are extremely sophisticated.”

If you had made a film at 16, what would it have looked like? The artistic output from kids varies widely. First efforts tend to be imitative. Ask young moviemakers who the cool directors are (read: who they rip off) and they’ll mention Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, Wes Anderson, Federico Fellini and Paul Thomas Anderson among others. (They love Quentin Tarantino so much that they have to pretend to hate him so as to not be cliché.)

Then they begin to experiment, casting around for a style that suits them. They tend to be first engaged by particular visuals, by creating compelling issues/59/images before they are interested in telling stories. Which makes sense. They’re young, after all. As teenagers, they tend to be highly attentive to every nuance of their emotional lives, and their films show this. Documentaries have found a solid foothold among teens. The audio is easier to handle and their ability to emulate professionally produced docs is easier than their ability to emulate narratives. The payoff is immediate.

Regardless of genre, teen movies tend to be on the longish side. Whatever kind of film they are making, kids rip in to the process with a relish that inspires the adults who work with them. “I wish my adult filmmakers would watch the high school kids sometime,” says John Sammon, education director for the New York Film Academy at Universal Studios. “They are unencumbered by the need to make a perfect movie. They just have creativity to share. They’re not trying to have a career.”

The adults in the educational community are playing a game of catch-up with today’s teen moviemakers. They’re at a bit of a disadvantage as they struggle to learn the technology that comes so easily to the kids. But it is important work to do. Most would-be teen auteurs would benefit from some structured, disciplined instruction. These kids need mentoring. They need nurturing. They need good teachers. The kids can be trusted to keep things from getting too tame or institutionalized.

Many adults fret that reading is on the decline while media consumption is up. Perhaps there is some consolation in the increasing levels of media literacy expressed by these young moviemakers. They are experimenting with a new digitized visual language and are finding their own voices. They may be just a bunch of kids fooling around—or they may just be revolutionizing the industry. MM

Troy Lanier and Clay Nichols are the authors of Filmmaking for Teens: Pulling Off Your Shorts (Michael Wiese Productions). They teach film and theatre at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Austin, TX.

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