Mar 28, 2022
Reflections on Teaching the Art & Craft of Film During a Pandemic
by Maddy Leonard with support from Davia Schendel, Rachel Gamson, and Jeanette Paak
When I found out that SFFILM was not going to have Youth Filmmakers Camp in person in July of 2020, I knew I still wanted to find a way to serve the young artists in our community in a fun and innovative way. Since teens were going to be forced to spend their summer in isolation, I proposed that we redesign camp to build an online resource and community support system for young filmmakers to gather, learn, grow, and develop stories they care about.
These are the goals I had going into camp:
- Create meaningful relationships that students can draw from in the future — account for one-on-one time with teachers, so that students feel supported and have the opportunity to build a mentor/mentee relationship with their teachers.
- Develop students’ independent filmmaking skills, so that they can emerge from camp as more self-sufficient filmmakers.
- Train skills for online media creation that will help students be creative and innovative filmmakers and use the resources they have at their disposal to create art and film.
- Finish camp having created several small but polished projects that students can add to their portfolios.
- Provide the opportunity for students to learn from a diverse group of filmmakers.
- Create safe spaces where students can ask questions and discover what working in the film industry feels like.
- Introduce students to online and free resources that can be used to experiment with film outside of camp.
With these goals in mind, I began outlining a two-and-a-half-week-long schedule for campers that consisted of Zoom lectures, pre-recorded lessons, Zoom “check-ins, workshops, film screenings, guest presentations, and student activities. I understood that students had been forced to have classes on Zoom since the beginning of the pandemic, and they were probably suffering from Zoom fatigue, so my co-teacher Davia Schendel and I designed a daily curriculum that was diverse in terms of platform. Campers would spend a few hours a day doing solo work, and a few hours a day on Zoom in either large or small groups.
Campers were divided into two groups: beginner and advanced campers. The beginner campers started a few days earlier than the advanced ones, so that they could get oriented in the world of filmmaking by learning some basic terminology and film history. Once the advanced campers started their session, the students spent most of their time collaborating as one large group. Campers were engaged daily in Zoom lectures and supplementary activities on topics around film production, theory, and history, media literacy, and the social and cultural impacts of film. Outside of that work students were doing with their instructors, they also had the opportunity to speak with some pretty incredible guest speakers.
We had the pleasure of having Jonas Rivera, a producer from Pixar who produced Up, Inside Out, and Toy Story 4, as our first guest lecturer. Jonas shared his journey working for Pixar and the behind the scenes making of these beloved films. Jonas’s extensive art knowledge proved to be valuable during the story development process at Pixar, and campers learned much from him about how different aspect of the creative process intersect. He reassured the campers that they could always be part of the filmmaking creative process no matter the level of their technical skills by advising that “understanding art is equal to being an artist.”
Daniel Freeman was our second guest lecturer at camp. Daniel is a SFFILM FilmHouse resident who is currently working on a feature-length narrative film called Teddy Out of Tune. The campers loved chatting with Daniel about his process. He stressed how important it is for filmmaking to be accessible to everyone, and gave the campers excellent advice about how to get started on films with a minimal budget.
We were extremely lucky to have another FilmHouse resident come speak at camp. Reaa Puri, a cinematographer, director, editor, and founder of Breaktide Productions, brought her two other co-founders to camp to speak about their filmmaking careers. Breaktide is a production company that is owned and operated by women of color, and they work to democratize filmmaking while elevating underrepresented voices behind the scenes and in front of the camera. Gabby, an advanced camper, told me her favorite activity at camp was the guest speakers, because “they really offered insight into what it’s like to make films as a career.” She added, “my favorite lecture was from Breaktide Productions, because as a girl it was so inspiring to hear from an all-female team. I learned that film is a process, and about all the steps that are generally taken before and during the movie-making process.”
Anaiis Cisco, a filmmaker from Brooklyn and an Assistant Professor of Moving Image Production at Smith College, spoke with the campers about halfway through camp. At the beginning of her scheduled hour, she took the time to learn every student’s name and hear about their filmmaking interests. This activity not only helped Anaiis get to know the campers, but it also helped the campers get to know each other a little better outside of the normal camp day proceedings. Many of them described how they developed new interests during camp and were excited to dive deeper into these aspects of filmmaking.
The day after Anaiis’s lecture, Andy Jimenez of Pixar Animation Studios spoke with the campers about his collaborations on several films, such as One Man Band and The Incredibles. Incorporating his pre-production documents and animatics for both live action and animation, Andy shared an incredible wealth of materials that the campers were truly fascinated by. Sharing with campers that the road of an creative artist can be winding, Andy reassured them that everything one does in life will become part of their art practice in surprising and very useful ways.
Alice Wu, director of Netflix’s The Half of It, joined us for a very special guest lecture towards the end of camp. She shared some background information about how The Half of It came to be, but focused a lot of her time connecting on a personal level with the campers. She was very honest and vulnerable about the lessons she’s learned throughout her career. She reflected on her experience with us by saying “I really loved getting a chance to chat with the young filmmakers at SFFILM. The way they think about storytelling, about their lives, is so fresh and sophisticated — so much more sophisticated than I was at their age — and I say with pleasure that these kids are almost certainly coming for our jobs! And it’ll be a good thing.”
The last filmmakers to join us as guest lecturers were Anne Flatté and Marlon Johnson. This director/producer duo spoke to the campers about their newest film River City Drumbeat, a documentary about music, love, and legacies set in the American South. They also facilitated a lengthy discussion with campers about the ethics of documentary filmmaking and sparked the curiosity of these young filmmakers.
Our last presenter was SFFILM’s very own Rosa Morales, who works as part of the SFFILM Makers team. Rosa had a wonderful conversation with campers about how to market yourself as an artist and filmmaker, and helped them understand how they can stay involved with SFFILM in the future if they are ever in need of support or funding.
Among my favorite parts of camp were the moments when the campers, other instructors, and I had radically honest conversations about how film and media play into this moment in US history. I was so impressed by the introspective comments students shared about representation in the media they consume, and how they want to make the film industry a more just industry to work in. Here are just a few examples of the insights campers shared while Davia was lecturing about diversity, representation, and allegory:
“There’s a big shift happening in representation in media — we’re not all the way there yet, but let’s not disregard our accomplishments.” — Rose
“She-ra in the new She-Ra and the Princesses of Power was the first lesbian kiss I had ever seen, and the first gay main character. As someone who was obsessed with 80s She-ra as a kid… I was again inspired by her in the new one as a lesbian main character. It really helped me come out to my family.” — Shayla
“The show Sex Education on Netflix… represented women so well and in an accurate way. They represent them with goals other than chasing boys or dating which I thought was important. I really appreciated women being seen as powerful without having to actually be tough.” — Gabby
Here are some other very insightful reflections students had when we were discussing why it’s important to learn the history of race in film:
“I thought that the evolution of black representation in film was interesting… I found that it was important to have diversity in the film industry because it inspires younger girls and people of color and gives role models to them.” — Ella
“I think that diversity in film is extremely important. As children we are very impressionable, and seeing ourselves on screen makes us realize that we can do anything. When movies are more diverse, they are relatable to a broader group of people. It is also important to portray different groups of people in diverse roles so that they aren’t just playing the same types of roles every time. I think that studying film is important, because it is a big part of our society today.” — Grace
“We need to study film to learn about our past just as we study history in schools. It is extremely important to make sure you understand the mistakes of the past so as a nation and society we do not repeat them. But like any part of history we must be careful and think about who is the one creating the film and what biases they might have. In the early years of film, there was not much diversity in the cast and crew, now as we are entering a new era of digital film we are realizing the importance of having diversity in organizations such as Hollywood to inspire different types of people across many generations.” — Lathrop
Over the course of camp, I was really impressed by the vulnerability these teens were willing to share with each other. They really connected as a group, and made plans to stay in touch after camp to support each other’s art. These campers didn’t just learn how to make films but they learned how to support other filmmakers. It was really special to be able to see the constant encouragement they had for each other’s projects, and the friendships that they formed.
Maddy Leonard (she/her) is a filmmaker, artist, and the former Education Program Coordinator at SFFILM. She is a creative educator who has spent half a decade teaching youth about film and media literacy, and mentoring youth as they produce their own films. She has a degree in Cinema and Women and Gender Studies from San Francisco State University, and has a passion for learning from and creating socially aware documentaries and experimental films.