The Austin School of Film's inaugural class equipped with cameras, computers, and expert instruction wades into a sea of possibility
Tiger Darrow has the eye. Amanda Mandelstein has the wit. Ryan Summersett has the action. And they all have the nascent cinematic chops of filmmakers far beyond their years ... which are 14, 16, and 16, respectively. Someday, after they thank the Academy and their families and their managers and their agents, they'll also have to acknowledge Austin's new School of Film & Media Arts Center. Alongside the likes of Seattle's 911 Media Arts Center and San Francisco's Bay Area Video Coalition, it's one of a handful of community-based nonprofit media-studies centers catering to the fertile, febrile minds of a generation of young people.
It shouldn't come as a shock, but watching the short films these kids have helmed as part of their coursework at ASF the inspired location work, frantic use of physical movement, and downright sublime color palettes it does. As the first generation born and raised into a world dominated by the Internet, digital video, and enough microniche programming to blow even Philip K. Dick's frazzled neurons (were they not already blown), these are young people who burst out of the film gate already twice as instinctually cinema-savvy as any of their teenage forebears. It's as though they had a womb with a view of plasma monitors to match.
There's more going on over at the ASF's 501 block location than simple kiducation, however. The outfit that began life in 1996 as the Cinemaker Co-op and then hybridized itself over the past decade by adapting and expanding its film-centric services from simple small-gauge Super-8 minifests (Cinemaker) to youth training (via the Center for Young Cinema) and from there to full-fledged community multimedia resource (as the Motion Media Arts Center) is now all grownup and sporting a high tech gloss that belies its scrappy underground beginnings. It's the only nonprofit organization in the Southwest that offers film and media training for both kids and adults, customized digital-media training taught by Apple-certified teachers, and courses for all ages ranging from acting, Spanish-language filmmaking, workshops on the vagaries of documentary and Super-8, screenwriting courses, and even open-screen nights where anyone can bring in anything they've shot to show before an appreciative audience, so long as it's less than 15 minutes. Now that's good and good for you.
But we'll get to all of that in a bit.
In the beginning, there was the Cinemaker Co-op. And it was righteous.
Founded in 1996 by former Austin Film Society staffer Kris DeForest and then-roommate and international situationist-cum-experimental filmmaker Barna Kantor, Cinemaker's original mission was to serve, promote, and screen short works by Austin's small-gauge filmmaking community. Cinemaker still exists as part of the ASF, but back then, and throughout its decadelong history, Kantor and his revolving band of Super-8 cineastes provided a window onto the ultimate flip-side Hollywood: small films shot on tiny reels of fat-grained minifilm by unknown independent outsider artists and screened in batches of 10 or more at semiquarterly microfestivals in dimly lit, local anti-venues.
The roster of Cinemaker conspirators from those early years now reads like a who's who of Austin indie filmmakers. Bob Ray, Kat Candler, Lee Daniel, Deb Lewis, and Luke Savisky, among countless others, formed a free-floating focal point for the Austin artists' longtime love affair with all things intentionally underlit and overly outrageous. It was a spit in the eye, a kick in the ass, and a 24-frames-per-second DIY post-punk party every time Cinemaker convened, first at the ArtPlex (very conveniently located across from the Dog & Duck Pub) and then in the media-happy environs of the 501 block.
1999 saw founder Kantor stretching his creative muscles via the creation of instantly successful Cinemaker offshoot the Center for Young Cinema, which, after the move to 501, began teaching kids under 18 how to write, shoot, edit, and even score their own Super-8 masterpieces. The kudos and awards began to roll in, with Cinemaker later nabbing the heartfelt D. Montgomery Award at Slacker's 10-year reunion and a brace of festival prize and nods going to, among other CYC alumni, Dear Pillow's Rusty Kelley, whose mom, Anne Goetzmann Kelley, arrived in 2001 and eventually, along with Austin Museum of Art alumna Erica Shamaly, took over the reins from Kantor and rechristened the now officially nonprofit designated Cinemaker as the Motion Media Arts Center.
Nonprofit community services like the MMAC, however, can be dodgy financial affairs, and so when Goetzmann Kelley and Shamaly were invited, in the spring of 2006, to San Francisco by the Bay Area Video Coalition in hopes of streamlining their clunky business model, they readily accepted the invitation. As Goetzmann Kelley recalls, "They literally said, 'Look, we'll show you everything you need to do in order to bring MMAC to a whole new level. We want to help you survive.' And they showed us that they were successful in what they were doing because they were offering these immersive classes in Apple and Avid software programs taught by officially certified users and craftspeople who, essentially, knew exactly how to use these filmmaking programs to the absolute best advantage. Professionals as opposed to hobbyists."
Advice taken to heart, Goetzmann Kelley and Shamaly came home, lined up financial backers (including heavy hitters such as Frost Bank and Kodak), got Apple on the phone, brought in a wealth of new instructors pulled straight from the ranks of the Austin film community, and almost overnight transformed the struggling MMAC into the Austin School of Film & Media Arts, sans the shepherdship of Kantor but with a renewed mission and a thoroughly revitalized (and suddenly tech-rich) base of operations at the 501.
Located on the southeast corner of Fifth and I-35, the ASF still bears the "Motion" logo above its entrance, although the entrance itself has moved a couple of steps to the left. Big deal. Once inside the building, however, everything is different. So much so that if you haven't been inside in a while, you'll be forgiven for thinking the former MMAC's semidingy, ill-lit, but altogether scrappy environs have been removed and replaced, ã la PKD, by some futuristic but benevolent association of digital film-heads.
Blazing new Apple workstations loaded with the latest digital-editing programs line an upstairs classroom, with the common area below now dominated by an inspiring triptych of hand-painted B-movie one-sheets (including indie godhead Roger Corman's Attack of the Crab Monsters) and a mammoth Sony plasma monitor. Compared to the scruffy panache of Cinemaker and the MMAC, it all looks suspiciously professional, with a teaching roster to match: directors Candler, Ray, and Jacob Vaughan are all offering their skills, as are actor Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, animator Dominic Vitucci, and actor/director Karl Anderson, who explains the unique nature of the ASF's classes by noting, "Everybody who teaches here actors, directors, animators is also doing what they teach."
What, exactly, they're teaching goes straight to the heart of what a vital film community needs: instruction in the basics of film and acting for kids under 18, via the ASF's Young Cinema program, and digital-media training in industry standard programs like Final Cut Pro and DVD Studio Pro for both adults and kids. It's literally an all-inclusive mini-film-school, with adults finessing their digital skills via the school's curriculum of five-day to single-day hyperintensive workshops (all of them officially sanctioned by Apple) and children being taught the basics of filmmaking in a kid-friendly, supportive environment by pros who clearly want to make a difference.
That difference is nowhere more evident than in the finished short films of Darrow, Mandelstein, and Summersett, all of whom are currently enrolled in the ASF's Youth Feature Film Project & Masters class, which will have them and roughly 25 other students write, cast, shoot, and edit their own feature-length project. So far, they're still working up a title and script, but their passion and drive and those are words that come up a lot when discussing the kids of the ASF are obvious in both their work to date and how they view the ASF.
Mandelstein, who refers to her time at ASF as "really my first film experience" before making sure I realize that "Michel Gondry is God," has made a perfect example of this in her summer-shorts-produced film, "Red Light, Green Light." A modern take on the ancient-but-no-less-truism "He who hesitates is lost," it uses the heliotropic burr and whine of summertime cicada action to underscore a comic/tragic meditation on no kidding the universality of existential ennui. In Clarksville, no less. Barna Kantor would be proud.
At 14, Darrow is already a veteran actor, having appeared in Vaughan's The Cassidy Kids, Robert Rodriguez's The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl 3-D, as well as lending her vocal talents to ADV animé series Getbackers and Magical Play.
Darrow's previous credits hardly prepare you for the professional gloss and astonishingly smart visual choices she's made in her short film, a peripatetic romance by the name of "MP3," which boasts a couple of sequences of riotous color that wouldn't look out of place in a Douglas Sirk film.
"Both my parents are actors," explains Darrow, before going on to enumerate her cinematic influences, which not surprisingly include Tim Burton. "But this class is what really got me into the behind-the-scenes stuff. I took the summer-shorts program and just fell in love with working behind the camera."
Darrow's mom, actress Peyton Hayslip, is even more enthusiastic about the ASF than her daughter, noting that Darrow's self-assurance has increased exponentially since she's moved from in front of the camera to behind the viewfinder.
"Tiger picked up her first camera when she was 7, on the set of the film Yorick out at Austin Studios," Hayslip explains. "I thought that was great, but what I didn't expect was what came out of that experience, which was a new sense of confidence on Tiger's part. Before that she had been pretty quiet and was good at doing what she was told, which is why she's easy to direct, but she wasn't as good at standing up for her own ideas quite as much. Being in the class at ASF has really helped her to speak up and say, 'I want to do this idea; this is what it means to me.'"
Summersett's mother, Melody, echoes the sentiment: "To actually see [Ryan] there directing the actors and being in charge of shooting a short film that he came up with was a whole new level. He's passionate about all the different aspects of the craft of filmmaking, directing, editing, the camerawork, all of it, and, you know, here he can indulge that passion in a like-minded group.
Summersett's first ASF-produced short, "Shake Well Before Opening," fairly screams proto-Spielberg, loaded as it is with action set-pieces; a smart, funny fight sequence that riffs on Star Wars and Kung Fu Hustle's acrobatic duels (replacing light sabers with lacrosse sticks); and a score that complements the onscreen drama in ways most young filmmakers likely wouldn't have dreamed of.
Asked what to him is the most unique aspect of the ASF program, Summersett says, "If you just want to ask one stupid question that you know no one else is going to be able to ask, you just ask, and they'll give you an immediate response. And they've got so many more answers than you would ever think of having, alternative answers, too, suggestions for different ways of doing things. They treat you like a young filmmaker instead of a kid."
That's really what it's all about, isn't it? Adult or kid, access to the kind of information you need to master almost any aspect of film and digital media is key, and finding that key, regardless of age, in one community-oriented spot like Cinemaker, the MMAC, or, now, the ASF is both a rare and, in the words of all three kids, "very cool" opportunity.
"These kids," says Goetzmann Kelley, "they just want to get there. They really want to learn the skills to get it done, and they all have this energy to do it. Plus, these are kids who usually wouldn't belong to clubs or organizations. This is their club, their hangout, what they do when they're not in school."
As Karl Anderson notes, "Ultimately, what we're really doing here, all of us, is raising our own artistic bar, right? The more that we raise it, the more we're going to be able to strive toward artistic greatness in both our own work and the work of the people who come here."