Children's Filmmaking Grows Up
By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 12, 1999
Kids and movies have been as inseparable as kids and Saturday afternoons since filmmaking began. Growing up in upstate New York in the mid-Seventies (well before the advent of Sony's Playstation, which regularly sucks my brain dry as an adult), my parents more often than not had to pry my glazed eyes away from Channel 13's Monster Movie Matinee and toss me out on my rear to experience the (allegedly) healthier wonders of the natural, hopelessly uncinematic world out-of-doors. Inevitably, I was promptly swarmed by yellow jackets or flayed alive in some monstrous bicycle mishap, sending me tearing back inside as fast as my scabby knees could carry me. Movies were a safe haven, be it Christopher Lee on the tube or some Ray Harryhausen re-release at the theatre downtown, and Karloff's Frankenstein never scarred me half as much as that onrushing gravel by the side of the road. Eventually, I graduated to some skewed attempts at imitating the flickering images I loved so much. With my father's Sixties-era Super-8 camera in hand, I schooled myself in the nail-biting art of stop-motion animation, pitting Colorform clay Brachyosaurs against tiny, doomed cave-dwellers. I always ran out of the red clay before anything else, and my gory prehistoric vignettes were troubled affairs at the best of times. Still, it was a creative outlet directly influenced by the films I loved and a presumably healthier outlet than my neighbor's penchant for dousing GI Joes with Ronsonol and setting them alight.
At the time, there were no film programs available to budding Cormans and Spielbergs -- contemporary hotshots like Sam Raimi and the Coen brothers have gone on record recounting their own nascent attempts to learn their craft, and like my own feeble experiments, it was mostly a matter of scoring dad's camera and tearing about the backyard with the squatty neighbor kid as The Killer, or some such. Fun, vaguely subversive, and rudimentary at the best of times.
These days, in Austin, opportunities for kids to get hands-on experience in filmmaking is turning a corner, evidenced by a flurry of kid film activities in the last year.
I'm sitting upstairs at Barna Kantor's Cinemaker Co-op offshoot studio talking to a pair of award-winning Austin filmmakers and in the company of one mom and one dad. Duncan Knappen and Rusty Kelley, both 12, are the creative team behind the short film Toy Car, which recently won the Creative Excellence Award at the National Children's Film Festival in Indianapolis. Following close on the heels of their NCFF triumph, the pair nabbed First Prize, Elementary Category, at the Austin Children's Museum's Youth Film Festival, which culminated in a showing and appearance at the Paramount Theatre during the 1999 Austin Film Festival. This week, a crew from HBO Family's new 30X30 kid film program is flying in to shoot a segment on them. Things are happening.
Appearances are deceiving. When I meet Rusty and Duncan -- the former sporting a Rocky Horror tee, both swimming in suitably baggy outfits -- they look like any pair of young kids you see everywhere, every day. They're not, though; that much is made abundantly clear after watching a single screening of Toy Car, a pre-teen car theft comedy that tips its hat, intentionally or not, to the old Hal Roach comedies, the editing antics of Sam Raimi's sly Evil Dead series, and -- although there's no way they could know this -- the very early video and Super-8 work of local hero Robert Rodriguez. Shot, edited, acted, and scored by the duo (and featuring pint-sized star Dylan Evans), it's a three-minute tour-de-farce, shockingly coherent for a pair of 12-year-old auteurs. And it's just a drop in the bucket, as I soon find out.
Toy Car came about after Kantor was approached by Rusty's mom Anne Kelley, who asked if the Cinemaker Co-op head might be able to teach the kids the basics of Super-8 filmmaking. Kantor, who'd been thinking along similar, kid-centric lines for some time, agreed, and after "a couple of hours," the duo was confident enough to go out and begin work on, as Rusty says, "a little film about a mouse --"
"-- that bit a guy, and he became, like, a zombie," finishes Duncan.
They do that. Finish each other's sentences. The perfect writing/directing team of the future? Maybe. A year later came Toy Car.
As Rusty says, "On my birthday I got a video camera, and if Duncan was spending the night or something like that, we'd just get it out and make a little VHS movie, just to watch it. We'd go to the park sometimes and just try to make films. We'd just get out our Super-8 camera and film stuff when we got together."
I ask the boys to describe their work and come up with this: "Kind of weird, Fellini-ish stuff," says Rusty.
"You're a Fellini fan?" I ask.
"I've heard about his movies."
"Kind of like horror-comedies," Duncan chimes in.
Okay. Makes sense. So then, what was your first influence?
Simultaneously: "Ed Wood!," followed in quick succession by Sam Raimi, Stanley Kubrick, and Kiwi gorehound Peter Jackson (Heavenly Creatures, Meet the Feebles), before Rusty sums it all up with the awesomely sensible credo: "We watch everything."
I ask Duncan's mom, attorney Debra Dennett, what she makes of all this -- not just the boys, but the NCFF and kid film in general: "We got to see all the other winning films at NCFF," she says, "and seeing those films, I personally, and I think the kids, too, became very interested in meeting those other kids. They were very clever films, they were well-done and although sometimes they weren't technically wonderful, they revealed a creativity and a desire to express themselves that I think is really not addressed very well. The more opportunities that kids have to do that, the more they're really going to jump on it and enjoy it. It might be a way for kids to express themselves in something other than graffiti or whatever. This is not going to solve all the social problems, of course, but if you loan kids a camera for a weekend and see what they can do with it, I think that would be a great program if we could have something like that here."
Mom No. 2, Anne Kelley, agrees, saying that since her son Rusty had already been watching a steady diet of films since Day One. ("He'll be embarrassed, but as a little guy he used to watch The Sound of Music over and over again," she adds). This was a way in which he could actually learn the craft of filmmaking, noting that not only does he watch the medium, but he also reads about it voraciously.
"[Their winning the NCFF] was a surprise because their film was a little different and harder for a kid's film. By harder, I mean all the other winning films tended to have moral themes to them, little lessons in morality, and I don't think Toy Car has a big moral message to it."
Kelley's right, it doesn't, which probably goes a long way toward explaining why it's gaining so much notoriety. After all, you don't look to Bruce Campbell's stooge-like performance in Evil Dead 2 for a message; why should Sam Raimi's cinematic progeny be any different? It's manic fun, pure and simple, and works straight, no chaser needed.
John Rickens, assistant producer over at HBO Family, adds that "Toy Car definitely has the feel of something, the product of talented people, versus some of the stuff we get here which looks like home video or something like that. We look for things that are stylish, that are clever, that have some combination of content and/or quality of production that sets them apart. And it doesn't always have to be great production quality. In Duncan and Rusty's case, it's a clever story but it's very nicely, very stylishly done; that's essentially what we were responding to with Toy Car."
Over at The Austin Children's Museum, Austin's Own Youth Film Festival has been providing young filmmakers with a creative outlet for the past five years. This year, the museum, up to that point closely aligned with their Indianapolis Children's Museum counterparts, decided to focus specifically on Austin and Central Texas, garnering 47 entries in three age categories that yielded six separate awards.
Besides the festival, the museum continues to offer courses for young people in animation, video production, film appreciation, and a teen documentary project during the summer.
Gallery educator Sarah Flournoy comments, "I think [film education for kids] is gaining interest everywhere right now, but here in Austin so many adults have a strong interest, which helped get it off the ground with not much money. There are also great art programs in the schools here, so kids get exposed to these things at an early age. Austin is unique in that it's so multimedia-oriented already. Kids are going to be the people learning lots faster than the adults can. And, educationally, it's great because you can teach them creative expression, then also the technical parts of working with the equipment, and it's a great way to teach teamwork as well."
Perhaps the most ambitious kid-film initiative is just beginning to coalesce over at the Austin Museum of Art. Combining hands-on film and video skills with the critical thinking needed to appreciate the media is the dictum of the museum's recently proposed Media Arts Initiative, part of which will feature a series of summer workshops for kids 9-12 and 13-16 years of age.
Constructed around the core idea that in an increasingly media-saturated environment, today's kids need to be knowledgeable in not only film history and technique but also the critical and logistical thinking that goes hand-in-hand with the medium, the summer series will take place in conjunction with UT's Department of Radio/Television/Film and offer a variety of classes in video-making, "kid-crit," photography, and parent/child media arts workshops designed "as a creative collaboration between parents and their children."
Judith Sims, director of AMoA's art school at Laguna Gloria and the museum's curator of film and video, notes that the art school has offered courses for kids in photography, animation, and video production for some time, although with the ongoing expansion of AMoA (not the least of which is a state-of-the-art film theatre at their Congress location), the museum began developing the initiative with an eye toward expanding the curriculum and equipment resources already at hand.
"I had been working," says Sims, "with Tom Schatz, who is the chair of the film department at UT, and was telling him that I wanted to offer these workshops with a media literacy format and that I planned to bring an expert in to help train faculty and start buying equipment and so forth. He said [UT] had been interested in doing something similar, so we decided to collaborate and offer a series of workshops this next summer, which is how this came about."
In lieu of AMoA's facilities, which may still lack the necessary equipment and room, the courses will make use of the RTF department's classroom and gear. And while the curriculum itself is still being designed, Sims says they hope to have a full eight-week slate, including video production, photography, "studio TV kind of work," digital lab work, and showing kids the best film and video work from around the world, where age-appropriate. All of this would be followed by an end-of-summer exhibition of the work produced at the museum's downtown gallery, and possibly even showing some of it on television (Sims has long been involved in producing the cutting-edge PBS series The Territory).
"Media literacy has been a going concern -- particularly in Great Britain and Canada -- for decades," adds Sims. "It's been incorporated into their K-12 curriculum, it's considered a basic life skill just like reading and writing, but in the States it's been kind of hamstrung. It's really neat because in these beginning courses it's very obvious that these kids have such a high degree of sophistication -- they don't know what they know, though. So we're really excited by that."
While Knappen and Kelley's odyssey with Toy Car probably owes more to the pop-culture overload of Martin Scorsese than it does to Marshall McLuhan, it's inarguable that at the heart of Toy Car's success, or at least near it, is Barna Kantor, co-founder of Austin's Super-8 upstarts the Cinemaker Co-op, and the initial giver of lessons who assisted with Rusty and Duncan's fledgling career. Thanks to his help, the trophy from the NCFF will tower in his studios at the boys' behest.
Kantor has been kicking the idea of a kid-friendly version of the Cinemaker Co-op around for some time now, but only recently, with fiancée and filmmaking partner Mireille Fornengo, has he begun solidifying plans. Outside the parameters of the Co-op, Kantor is forming the Center for Young Cinema, a nonprofit, youth-oriented, eight-week course for ages 9-13 and 14-18. Essentially the first of its kind in the Austin area, Kantor visualizes the CYC not only as a starting point for Austin's future Linklaters, Rodriguezes, and Judges, but also as a way to empower kids to greater heights of creativity.
"When Rusty's mother Anne called me about whether I would teach the two kids, I felt that this was the type of phone call I was waiting for. Rusty and Duncan did exceptionally well with their first attempts, and, when a year later they brought in Toy Car on nine Super-8 reels, I thought: Wow, there's no way on earth that anybody in their age group would make a short like that on film. I was really happy that the idea behind the course had worked, and that it's possible for me to work with children. I had been waiting for the moment to start, but first I had to reconcile my time commitment to Cinemaker as well, as I wanted to see Bob Ray's Rock Opera on its way to the festival circuit."
As envisioned by Kantor, CYC's course, which will conclude with the kids making their own in-camera-edited Super-8 shorts (ô la Rusty and Duncan), will create a whole new breed of Austin indie filmmakers, most under five feet tall, and all with stunningly fresh ideas and reels of creativity to burn.
"It's important to encourage original visual ideas, ideas that are developed by children for children," adds Kantor. "We'll be teaching the craft of Super-8, but also we hope to learn tremendously from our students."
Depend on it.