Lights, Camera, Action: HMSFI 2019

Ryan Reiss, Staff Writer

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For the second year, the school offered the Summer Film Institute (SFI) course for students to explore their interests in filmmaking.

Taught by film teacher Jordan Rathus, the free four-week course was offered to any incoming Upper Division student, and aimed to “teach you everything you need to know to start making movies,” according to the course description.

“HMSFI is such a great opportunity for students who love film to get serious hands-on time with every aspect of filmmaking, from meeting screenwriters, directors, and producers, to putting that knowledge they gather into really tiny gems. So many of the films, which I hope to feature throughout the school year when there is time, are really funny and well thought out,” Caroline Bartels, Director of Summer School, said.

Six students took the course, and the curriculum covered story development, pre-production, filming, and finally, a student showcase of each student-made film. Each student was tasked with writing, producing, directing, and filming their own film.

The first week covered writing, and Rathus invited her friend Randy Blair, a professional musical theatre writer. “Randy hosted an idea workshop that got students to come up with creative ideas,” Rathus said.

The second week focused on directing and producing. “Communication skills are extremely important to develop for directing,” Rathus said. “After you write the story you ask yourself ‘how do I turn my idea into something I can actually conceive?’ It’s really a group effort.”

Rathus’ friend, cinematographer Saro Varjabedian came to discuss lighting, props, and other aspects of directing.

Sam Siegel (9) said that each speaker would specialize in a different topic, and that Varjabedian was particularly helpful for his own film.

Rathus also invited Ken Sanderson, president of acquisitions at Bleecker Street Media, to discuss the film industry. “It’s interesting how people turn films into a business,” Rathus said.

The students then each shot their own films, which ranged from Jason Xia’s (9) “Black Hat” featuring time-traveling cowboys, to Janet Christian’s (11) “Calix: The Vampire in Town”, to Micaiah Chang’s (10) and Sam Siegel’s (9) psychological thrillers.

The filming was hectic at times because students only had one day each, Rathus said.

“There were some films in which a student would have another student in the class act in their film, but everyone also had off-screen roles. For every shoot, someone would be in charge of sound, another person would be in charge of lighting, and the director would control the camera,” Avani Khorana (9) said.

“The biggest takeaways from the course were what we learned through experience… While the process itself was stressful, coming out the other end with something that I was not only content with but proud of, and being able to say ‘I made this’ was worth taking the class in and of itself,” Morgan Frances-Cohen (10) said.

“I was intrigued by the work ethics of the students I was working with. All of them were on the same page, they knew what their roles were, and they all had one goal: to make good films,” Luke Weber (12), who helped out with filming, said.

“I decided to help with the summer film program this summer because I love acting and working with people, and this was a great opportunity to do both,” he said.

Siegel, who has already shot films on his own YouTube channel, decided to take the course to explore film classes at the school. “I saw that this course would teach me everything important about filmmaking in four weeks, and it was no brainer,” he said.

On the other hand, some students, like Khorana, had no prior experience in film before taking the course.

“Overall, my experience at the Horace Mann Summer Film Institute (HMSFI) was definitely a good one. I went from not knowing anything about filmmaking, to making my own short film,” she said.

Alexandra Peeler ’19 decided to return to the school for the summer as a teaching assistant for the course.

Peeler was one of two teaching assistants, the other being Ruby Ryan, one of Rathus’ former students at Rutgers. “They helped from everything logistically like managing equipment, clearing locations, and managing schedules… They also come with unique artistic perspectives and provide experience and creative strengths,” Rathus said.

“I TA-ed the HMSFI course this summer, but last summer I was a student in HMSFI. I loved writing and making my movie so much that I enrolled in the filmmaking elective this year,” Peeler said. “It was so amazing! My main focus was screenwriting, so during my senior year I did my independent study working closely with Mr. Caldwell writing my feature film. The HMSFI course made me realize that I wanted to go into film as a career and was a truly life-changing experience for me.”

Rathus hopes that this year’s students will walk away more willing to take creative risks.  “They can have one idea that’s super strange and turn it into a mini-masterpiece that they can share with the world for forever,” she said. “I think that’s pretty cool.”