Last weekend, I participated in Vidjam, a 48-hour filmmaking competition located in Harrisburg. It’s not the first time I was involved in one of these competitions, but I will admit it was the first time I had a blast. And the exciting part is, we really liked the way our film turned out! Yesterday there was a screening, and our team gathered with 12 other teams at Midtown Cinema to watch the films on the big screen.
I like to think that filmmaking has always been in my bones (as conceited as that sounds). It was at the very least a tangible part of my life via storytelling — I have boxes full of old journals and scrap paper with the stories that I wrote as a kid, writing for the sake of writing. And I have memories of putting on plays with my sister and cousins for the rest of my family in my grandparents’ living room. But other than a short film that my mother swears I made with Barbies using my grandfather’s big, clunky analog video camera (she’s never actually been able to find the tape to show me, so there is no proof of my inner artist at such a young age), it wasn’t until high school that my filmmaking career began.
And by filmmaking career, I mean that I started taking media production classes at my high school. The teacher, Mr. Whinnem, was a tall, quietly bizarre man (whose joy, if he ever reads this, would be in that description) with a film degree and a few published novels under his belt. His fervor for Frankenstein and his hard love during that nightmarish first year in which I had to work with analog video editors (thank god for the digital age) pushed me to eventually see filmmaking as this magical creative process that was just as much fun making as it was watching.
I spent hours in his classroom writing stories and editing projects; he was the one who first introduced me to 16mm, closing me in a pitch black room with towels stuffed in the door cracks to keep out the light as I loaded the film into the Bolex he’d found at the middle school. He was gracious enough to act in several films I made with my fellow students, including my passion project — TIDAL, a film which required him to dunk himself repeatedly in a hotel pool. And when it came time for me to go to college, he wrote the most heartfelt recommendation for me that, goddamnit, if that’s not the reason I actually got into college, then I don’t know why I did.
Mr. Whinnem put the filmmaking bug in my ear. And as I went through college (4 year degree at Messiah College), I dared to start projects that were too big to start — much to the chagrin of my advisor, Professor Reid Perkins-Buzo. Buzo was like the film department’s weird (but beloved) uncle. He was a communications professor, and sometimes he could barely string a sentence together without taking more than 5 minutes. But for all his bumbling uncertainty in film theory, he had passion for filmmaking, and was great at showing us the hands-on, technical stuff. We would gather around him in the production room like it was story time, but it was really time to learn how to use a light meter, or the A-Minima Aaton. And he cared about the students — something that not all professors could say about themselves.
The film department was still a baby program, tucked into the communications degree as a concentration, and there were only two professors my freshman year: Buzo, and another professor named Simmons who was perhaps the worst professor in the world, at least in terms of what you’d expect for film students. We wanted to make films, for god’s sake; we were visual learners. And yet the man continued to just lecture at us in his classes, refusing to have even a slideshow to keep our minds on task. On top of that, he graded us like grad students. Welcome, freshmen.
Needless to say, Simmons was told that he could either quit or be fired toward the end of my freshman year. Which boiled the film department down to one professor. Film students were already limited with how many classes were offered each semester; and now our luck was even lower. So in retaliation, a bunch of juniors created MFS (Messiah Film Society, which later was renamed Messiah Filmmaker’s Society when we realized we wanted to be more specific). It was a great way to connect film students outside of class, and led to opportunities for recruitment for various film projects — enabling the underclassmen to work on sets as production assistants, or “film nuggets”, as one upperclassmen described.
I immersed myself so hard in set life. I loved being on set; sure, it was a long day, and sure, we repeated the same shot over and over and over again, but there was magic in the air, and movies were being made. I couldn’t get enough. And as my college career progressed, I stopped being a film nugget and began garnering bigger titles, like art director, production manager, even the occasional cast member — and finally, writer and director.
They say that everyone wants to be a director their first year of film school — but by the time you’re ready to graduate, the directing bug will have gotten scared out of you, and reality will have found you your new calling. Sometimes that calling is to be a producer; sometimes a cinematographer, or an assistant director, or a script supervisor. But rarely does anyone finish film school still under the delusion that they’re meant to be a film director.
I not only kept that delusion throughout my college career, but I embraced it wholeheartedly and pushed myself past the boundaries of acceptable conduct for a passing grade my senior year. For my senior thesis project, I made a film that was heavy on visual effects, required a child actor, and had animals in the script. I called it METAMORPHOSIS. Buzo told me to pick something else; I told him no.
This is where the pinnacle of my film career met haphazardly with the brunt of my filmmaking abilities. That senior thesis project is still in post-production. When I graduated from college and moved to Los Angeles for a year, I made a web series and a short film with some friends — both of which are still in post-production. It’s funny that I can get so nostalgic about the productions I’ve experienced in the past 12 years, but still get this anxiety about all the projects that I haven’t finished. Close to nothing, it seems, that I’ve made in the past few years — at least that I wrote or directed — has made it out of post-production.
This year, I had several opportunities to make films. While I am still working to finish up old projects (2016 will be the year to end all post! METAMORPHOSIS is almost done!), I also have worked on sketch videos for Harrisburg Improv Theatre, and have now participated in Vidjam. While the edit of our film that premiered at the Vidjam screening last night was a rough cut, to say the least, my team intends to polish it up and send it to some festivals.
It’s exciting to see so many filmmakers in Harrisburg. The film scene here is about to explode with new passion as people do things like Vidjam and realize that it’s crazy addicting, just like I did back in high school. There were 13 films made for this year’s Vidjam; I can only imagine how many there will be next year.
Finishing a film in 48 hours was not the real accomplishment. The real accomplishment, in my eyes, was that I’ve gotten off my ass and started making films again. Before this summer, I hadn’t made a film for four years. I had resorted to simply writing — sometimes screenplays, which sit on my computer, doing nothing, and in one case, a novel, which has yet to be published (those of you who have been following this blog, I am still chipping away at it, after a failed first attempt at finding an agent)… But there wasn’t any production work, unless you count the random videos that we’d shoot for work (which I don’t count).
God, it feels good to be back.
I’m not saying I’m a master filmmaker or anything. But I will say that to do something that you are passionate about is just about the best feeling in the world, even if it’s stressful and even if you only get to do it for a couple of days. I’m a total junkie for that feeling, and I intend to continue down this path until repeated failure ropes me back in.