Yesterday I returned to Lake Howell High School in Winter Park, Florida where I graduated from years ago to talk to five classes and around 350 students total. The groups were a mix of students in video and TV production, radio, graphic design, journalism and entrepreneurship. Since Lake Howell was where I took my first photography class and wrote and directed my first videos I was thrilled with the opportunity to speak to them about much of what I write about on this blog.
I believe that high school students today who are interested in various forms of production are in a great position. And so this post will be an abridged version and recount of my talk yesterday.
When I was 18 years old there was a place called Fotomat where I used to take my still photography film (Not one student could tell me what Fotomat did). It was cutting edge for that time period. You would drop your film off and the next day you’d get it back. (Lots of mock “oohs” and “ahhs” from the students.) At its peak there were over 4,000 Fotomat booths throughout the United States.
I asked them why all of those Fotomat booths if they still existed were no longer Fotomats and they correctly pointed to one-hour developing and digital photography. That is the technology changed the game.
A photographer friend from San Diego tells me that in 1980 the president of Fotomat gave the keynote address at a big convention in Las Vegas where he basically said that Fotomat had nothing to fear from the new “mini lab” industry. The next year they lost 50% of their business to mini labs.
Technology is a two edged sword in that it opens news opportunities while at the same time closing the door on older ways of doing things (usually resulting in jobs loses…like the whaling industry in days of old, and more recently the newspaper business).
Today digital technology offers amazing opportunities for high school students. It is common today for students to be editing video projects on non-linear editing systems. And not unheard of for students to be editing on Final Cut Pro which is the same editing system that the Coen Brothers edited “No Country for Old Men” on which won an Academy Award for Best Picture last year.
There are also DVD and Internet tutorials available to ambitious students. (Sometimes for free in the case of tv.adobe.com) Movies can also be studied on DVDs and there are filmmaker commentaries for additional insights. There are plenty of instructional books and magazines on screenwriting and other areas of production. The quality of even consumer cameras has improved greatly. There are free versions of screenwriting software kicking around and even the top of the line programs only cost around $200. And there are places on the Internet where you can pitch your ideas and scripts and try to connect with producers.
Years ago when I made my video projects they were watched by a class and then eventually lost or the master tapes recycled for another class. Today a young person can make a video that can be watched by hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands or even millions of people via You Tube or other places on the Internet. (Speaking of You Tube, I just discovered some Rod Serling interviews of him talking about writing.)
It is crazy and stunning what a teenager can learn today before they even graduate from high school. (And most of it probably outside the classroom.) Stuff that even graduate students just a few years ago were not exposed to.
And all of this is not limited to high school students. Not long ago I had an eighth grader show me a documentary he did on Buddy Holly. Nikki Reed was 13 when she co-wrote the movie Thirteen. The Hollywood Reporter recently announced that 9-year-old Alec Greven’s book How to Talk to Girls was recently picked up by Fox to become a movie.
Of course, those are the exceptions. And as it’s been said, while it only takes a few hours to learn how to play chess it takes many years to learn to play the game well. Alfred Hitchcock said it only takes about two days to learn what you need to know about the technical aspects of making films, but making good films is obviously a different story.
I told the students yesterday about one of my favorite quotes, “We tend to overestimate what we can do in one year, and underestimate what we can do in ten” (Richard Foster). And that while I had traveled to all 50 of the United States and over 15 countries that, in fact, when I graduated from high school I had only been to a total of 3 states in my life. (Only if you included the Atlanta, Georgia airport.) With that said I told them to dream big, but take little steps in working toward their goal. To borrow from a phrase from Anne Lamott, the way I traveled to all 50 states was state by state over several decades. And the way you build a career in production is script by script, film by film, short story by short story, photograph by photograph, video by video, and/or blog by blog.
So if you’re in high school (or even middle school) student know that there is no better time to be learning these skills. So keep writing scripts and making films and getting better at what you do. Use all that youthful energy to work those long hours needed to hone your skills. I do believe that today you are better position than any group that has gone before you to have a career in production.
And for the teachers out there my challenge to you is to take you most talented and focused students and make a feature film over the school year. You have a huge set full of props (the school), you have actors (students, teachers, parents, school workers), you have the time of the school year, all you need is a script. Maybe one semester students write the script and the second semester have some students shoot the script and some edit it and then have a big screening the last week of school. It doesn’t have to be that good, the learning comes in the doing.
I would like to thank the teachers, administration, tech crew and students for giving me the opportunity to speak yesterday and I hope some of it sticks.
*LAKE HOWELL TRIVA…After speaking I was given a tour of the school and saw for the first time my name listed on a wall as some kind of special mention for playing wide receiver back in the day. Actor Scott Porter who plays injured quarterback Jason Street in the tv program Friday Night Lights also played wide receiver at Lake Howell. And I graduated with Claude McKnight who is the Grammy winning founder of the group Take 6. Go Silver Hawks!
copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith