Santa Barbara International Film Festival Summer Camp Provides for Aspiring Young Filmmakers
SBIFF Film Camp Teaches Underserved Youth to Write, Shoot, and Edit Like the Pros
By Ryan P. Cruz
Summer camps have set the scene for many classic horror films, from Friday the 13th to Netflix’s Fear Street: Part Two — 1978. It’s something about the seclusion, being in the wilderness and away from the distractions of home life, that gets the imagination going.
This summer, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s Film Camp returned to Camp Whittier after being canceled the previous year due to the pandemic. The camp set the scene for the aspiring filmmakers to write, shoot, and edit their own short films with the help of film industry professionals such as Joe Medjuck, executive producer for Ghostbusters; and visual effects artist Leslie Ekker, who received an Oscar nomination for his work on Apollo 13.
“We’re excited to have them back,” said SBIFF Education Coordinator Claire Waterhouse, who runs the film camp program.
The camp started just over five years ago as an extension of the festival’s 10-10-10 competition, which allows local student filmmakers and screenwriters to collaborate on 10-minute films each year. There are usually about 30 teenagers that get to make the trip, sponsored by SBIFF and community donations, but after a year off, the camp returned with a scaled-back version with 13 campers from Boys & Girls Club locations between Goleta and Carpinteria.
The program aims to make filmmaking accessible to youth and empower them to pursue their creative goals with whatever they have around them. It used to be that aspiring directors didn’t have access to expensive equipment until much later in their lives, but technology has flipped the script in recent years, and smartphone cameras and free editing software have leveled the playing field.
“With just a smartphone, you can make a movie at any time,” Waterhouse said. The campers are broken into three groups, and each group is provided with an iPhone and a Macbook with iMovie, which they use to shoot and edit their films. Using free editing software and phones that most teenagers have available is important, Waterhouse says, so they can continue making movies at home.
Aside from daily lessons with local film-industry pros, the campers also get to enjoy an old-fashioned sleepaway camp experience with hikes, pool time, archery, zip lines, and a ropes course that serves as a way to encourage teamwork.
“To be in a film crew, you have to be a team player,” Waterhouse said.
And of course, this being film camp, the teens get nightly screenings of classics such as Holes, Space Jam, The Goonies, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Hook.
During filming, guest filmmakers help the teams plan their shots and find their locations. One of the guests is Santi Bailey-Musacchio, a former camper and winner of two SBIFF 10-10-10 awards. “That was really special to see, for us to have him here and watch him grow,” Waterhouse said.
Two of the teams decided to do their takes on a campsite slasher flick. One group calls their film Shadow Slayer; the other is called Camp Killer.
Vincent Perez and Andres Corrales were part of the Camp Killer crew. Filming everything in a couple of days meant they had to adjust to obstacles. “The filming itself was challenging,” said Perez. “We had to improvise a lot.” Having no dialogue in the film really tested their ability to tell a story with visuals and other sound effects.
“You have to add more movement,” Corrales said. The group couldn’t get the gyroscope mount to work on their iPhone, but instead of worrying about the stability of the camera, they adjusted and let the shaky movement “add more depth” to the scenes, as Corrales put it.
They took inspiration from old horror flicks, from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining to Tommy Lee Wallace’s 1990 adaptation of the Stephen King classic It, which the teens preferred to the 2017 remake.
Kaiser Orduna, one of the teens on the Camp Killer team, is a fan of the old-school monster classics, especially Godzilla. Orduna created a TikTok account dedicated to many iterations of the Godzilla story. The account, @kingzilla_official, explores the history of the destructive sea monster and compares classics to the remakes.
“I started watching them when I was about 4 or 5,” he said. Making the informative Godzilla videos helped Orduna learn to edit and create content, and the account — which he started on February 7 as a way to stave off boredom during the pandemic — already has more than 13,600 followers, and his videos have received more than 161,000 likes.
This new generation of content creators is so familiar and comfortable with technology and the latest applications, said Michael Stinson, a professor of film and media studies at Santa Barbara City College, that the sky’s the limit to what they can achieve.
“The thing that’s amazing — I would lug 150-200 pounds of camera equipment,” he said. “Now they’re shooting on smartphones. Everybody can be a filmmaker nowadays. Everybody has that in their pocket.”
With the quality of phone cameras improving so much, Stinson said, the barrier is lowered. “They’re living in a very exciting time to be media makers.”
When they’re editing, this grasp of modern media is evident. The kids are quick to figure out how to rip audio from YouTube into files they can throw into iMovie, even explaining to the adults in the room what they are doing, while rolling their eyes at their elders’ ignorance.
It’s not that hard, they say. They are adding sound, and becoming amateur foley artists, recording screams and slammed doors in the cabin, and laughing between takes.
Stinson, who worked as a screenwriter and what he calls a “script doctor” for Hollywood studios like Warner Brothers, joined the campers for the day to teach them about story structure, themes, and the elements that make a film connect with an audience.
The campers have already filmed all their scenes, and with a day left at camp, they are deep in editing mode. Stinson explains the three-act story arc, which he says every film should have, regardless of whether it runs for two hours or two minutes.
He asks the three groups to define the elements of the structure: the genre, the hero, the obstacle, and the plot points which pivot and direct the characters to the story’s climax. The kids comply, except for one of the groups whose film, Uncharted, is a time-traveling sci-fi thriller that defies normal story structure.
“He just doesn’t get it,” says one of the campers, who goes by the nickname Zero. The group and Stinson find a middle ground, with the core creative idea staying but a few editing adjustments made to help the film’s flow. The finished product is a fun, experimental, avant-garde short in which the characters find themselves jumping through time and space to alternate-universe summer camps.
Overall, all three groups’ films are successful, each with its own unique take on their week at camp. Some are technical and serious, while others are just plain fun. The three-to-five-minute shorts provide a glimpse into what they’ve learned, as well as their creativity, which they already had before they came to camp.
The summer-camp experience in itself is fun, but when the youth show interest in something like filmmaking and they can spend a week with their peers learning and making their own short films, the experience is even more fulfilling. Most of all, Waterhouse said, it instills a sense that a future in filmmaking is not too far off from their grasp.
“It’s not Hollywood in the distance,” she said. “It’s not out of reach. You can do anything you want to.”