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Austin Film Festival summer program gives kids hand-on classes on intricacies of filmmaking

Matthew Odam

While many students flock this summer to camps that offer rope swings, horseback riding or a specialized focus on individual sports, a group of almost 200 children will spend their time behind digital cameras and hovering over computers loaded with editing software.

The Austin Film Festival this summer celebrates its 10th year of filmmaking classes for students between the ages of 9 and 18. The nine courses, which run between four and 11 days at Austin High School, feature a Filmmaking 101 class, along with classes focused on comedy and silent shorts and Claymation.

Though the camp sessions, which start Monday and run through Aug. 3, move at a swift pace, priority is given to the basics of screenwriting and storytelling, as you would expect with a festival that prides itself on championing screenwriters.

"I think what's different about our camp compared to other programs, and camps in particular, is that we're still a story-based program," AFF executive director Barbara Morgan said. "Everything is about first coming up with your story, not just being excited about using the camera, but what's the story you're going to tell and how are you going to use the camera to tell that story."

The 20-student classes divide into three groups to create a short film by the end of the session. During the course of their classes, each student gets the opportunity to work in every aspect of filmic storytelling, from writing to sound design, blocking to editing. The do-it-all aspect gives students the opportunity to get acquainted with the areas of filmmaking that most appeal to them.

At the end of the session, students get the rare opportunity to screen their work in a movie theater (the Alamo South this year).

"You actually get to watch an audience watching your film — which I will put up there as one of the hardest things for any filmmaker to do," Morgan said. "It's such a difficult, emotional thing. We go through it every year with the festival — hundreds of filmmakers show up with their baby and they're nervous, scared and also excited because they get to see an audience watching their work. Filmmaking is an art that's actually for an audience to interact with. And they get this as a kid. Most camps don't do that."

Most students at AFF summer camps enter the sessions with a genuine curiosity about filmmaking. Unlike some general activities camps, where parents choose where their children spend their time, the students at AFF's camps are generally a self-selecting bunch.

Recent Clayton Elementary School graduate, 11-year-old Truman Matheny, has attended AFF's camp the past three years.

"I really enjoyed seeing my movie go from just an idea to a short film on the big screen," Matheny said. "Learning from people who really make movies has helped me be more creative and choose ideas that are more appealing to an audience."

Many former students who have gone on to study filmmaking at the university level receive their introduction to the process through AFF's courses. Morgan is continually amazed by the imagination shown by students at such a young age.

"By the time they show up for camp class, even if they're 9 or 10, a lot of them have dabbled in it because everybody's got cameras now that you can shoot video on. Most people have basic editing software on their computer," Morgan said. "The truth is these kids are so adept at figuring technology out immediately and innately, so they tend to have a real interest in it."

AFF uses the wealth of filmmaking talent in Austin to its advantage. Each of the camp classes is taught by a professional filmmaker who gives the students direction.

Award-winning filmmaker Miguel Alvarez, who has worked on AFF's television show "On Story" and teaches at the University of Texas, served as an AFF camp counselor from 2008 to 2010. He has taught Claymation classes for children ages 9 to 12 and script-to-screen classes for children ages 9 to 18 and has found his own bit of inspiration in the classes.

"Working with young people is great. They have a sense of genuine excitement at being able to create real movies," Alvarez said. "Plus, they have a ton of energy, which helps them actually plan, shoot and edit a film in one to two weeks. ... As a filmmaker myself, where sometimes many months or years pass between projects, it's wonderful to be reminded that the creative process is exhilarating."

The summer camp is just one part of AFF's multi-pronged Young Filmmakers Program. Each year, through its outreach program, AFF invites a few hundred high school students to attend the fall festival. The festival also sponsors a digital storytellers class at local high schools, holds a public service announcement competition in conjunction with the Travis Country Sheriff's Department and conducts a nationwide short film competition for high school students.

Nathan Christ was a 17-year-old high school student living in San Antonio when his film, "Canceled Skies," won the best film award in AFF's youth filmmaking competition. The competition initiated Christ's relationship with the festival that screened his Austin music documentary, "Echotone," last year.

"It kicked off my relationship with AFF, one of the most supportive, community-based festivals out there," Christ said. "They showcased my work in the years to come, giving me a strong platform as an Austin filmmaker."

Not every student who attends AFF's camp will go on to have a career in the film industry. Morgan understands this and keeps a broad view of AFF's role in cultivating not just young filmmakers but also helping develop critical thinking skills, communication and teamwork in adolescents.

In a world of standardized testing and the desire to quantify everything, the AFF founder sees arts education as immeasurable and believes that learning filmmaking can teach students lessons that extend beyond the screen.

"What art does for all of us is expand the way we think," Morgan said. "It attaches your emotion and your logic, and it helps you to view things in a way you might not normally have viewed them had you just viewed them in a purely logical way. ... It sounds like a really big, highfalutin thing, but it's really not. We're trying to teach kids how to communicate. We're just doing it in a different way."

Contact Matthew Odam at 912-5986. Twitter: @Odam

Austin Film Festival summer film camp