A blond teenage girl with an angelic face stands in the center of the stage while her classmates stand to one side watching. Class instructor Jeff Boortz frames her face in his camera and displays the results on a monitor as he adjusts the camera angle and brightness.
“Where does natural light come from?” he asks the class. “From above?” someone volunteers. “That’s right,” Boortz replies. “But what happens when it comes from below?”
The brightly lit face is suddenly plunged into semi-darkness as the key light changes and the camera shoots her from underneath, mimicking the effect of a flashlight held under her chin. “If you see light coming from this direction, you know something’s wrong,” Boortz explains. Indeed, the girl no longer looks innocent but sinister, maybe demonic or possibly possessed. “By changing the position of the lights, you can defy expectations and be meaningful,” Boortz continues. “Don’t be afraid to do crazy things if it’s trying to convey something specific about your character.”
This is not a college film school class, but a lesson in lighting and blocking being taught to kids between the ages of 11 and 17 at Camp Flix, a non-traditional summer camp focused on teaching them how to make movies. The group is clearly entertained by seeing their classmate transformed from an average teenager into an alien presence and then just a silhouette, shrouded in mystery. But are any of them absorbing this in a way that is going to trigger their inner creativity? Will any of them end up one day standing on the Academy Awards stage giving their Oscar speech and recalling this moment?
Camp Flix, now in its second year, has some distinct advantages over similar operations in other cities. Atlanta has become quite the filmmaking mecca in the last few years, and the camp has been able to profit from this, bringing in local and nationally known professionals to speak to the students and offer instruction in filmmaking basics.
Last summer, for example, the class got inside exposure to Hollywood filmmaking practices from Tom Luse, executive director of “The Walking Dead”; special effects expert Stuart Robertson (“Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and “The Abyss”); sound engineer Whit Norris (“Identity Thief” and “Fast Five”); and actor Chris Lowell (“The Help” and “Up in the Air”).
Co-founded by Tom Karsch, formerly general manager of Turner Classic Movies, and Dan Lipson, Camp Flix offers two six-day sessions, with overnight accommodations for out-of-town students. The first session takes place at Oglethorpe University and the second at Emory University. Utilizing the classrooms and grounds of both schools, the program takes a hands-on approach to making movies, from the planning stage of writing a script to acting for the camera to blocking, lighting and shooting a scene.
With an average enrollment of 90 students per session, the campers are divided into groups, with each assigned to a role based on preference: director, screenwriter, actor, cinematographer or editor. By the second day of camp, each group has already formulated an idea for a three-minute film and has started the pre-production process, with the aim of delivering a completed movie for a Friday night premiere in front of fellow students, staff and parents in attendance.
The Camp Flix approach is one of total immersion and surprisingly sophisticated. Local filmmaker Angela Gomes and Eddy von Mueller of Emory’s film studies program tapped into cultural connections, knowing it would resonate with the students and keep things hopping.
Taking every aspect of a film production, from casting to costuming to set location to actors’ performances, Gomes proposed alternative approaches to movies (“Iron Man,” “Finding Nemo”) and TV shows (“Glee”) that were thought-provoking and sometimes hilarious. Does the joke still work if an actress instead of Tyler Perry plays Madea? Would “Breaking Bad” be the same show if it was set in Los Angeles? What if you changed the costuming on “Deadwood?”
Gomes also challenged the students in analyzing directorial decisions in well-known movies, such as “Why does Chewbacca carry a crossbow instead of a light saber?” A comparison between Heath Ledger’s interpretation of the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” (2008) and Jack Nicholson’s portrayal in Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman” demonstrated just how different two approaches to the same character can be.
“You have to know before you even pick up the camera what your movie is about,” Gomes stressed. “The main thing directing is about is making choices.”
Driving home a similar theme, guest speaker David Bruckner told the group, “Nobody makes movies by following the rules. You make movies by breaking the rules. It’s the Wild, Wild West.” Bruckner, an Atlanta writer-director who co-wrote and co-directed the horror anthologies “The Signal” and “V/H/S,” may have been an ironic choice to address the students, since his films are R-rated and most of them were under age 17.
Sharing his experiences of having both films accepted at Sundance and winning a Hollywood distribution deal, Bruckner’s candid manner connected with the kids. But what really got their attention were the trailers for “The Signal” and “V/H/S,” which resulted in spontaneous applause and excited chatter.
Perhaps his talk had a stronger impact than expected, because the majority of the 12 student films that premiered at the Friday night red carpet event were horror-themed. While there was no mistaking these three-minute exercises as something other than first student films, there were flashes throughout of wit, genuine surprise and clever improvisation.
“Crazy Casey and the Orphans,” a story of a cruel orphanage director and his eventual destruction by a deranged specter, stood out for its three-act structure, the first two acts presented as a silent film with inter-titles and the third with speaking parts. Lucas Parker, who played the villain and served as camp counselor for his group, revealed that the silent film approach was not a stylistic one but born of necessity. When their sound equipment proved to be erratic, the kids were forced to improvise at the last minute, proving that unexpected technical problems can sometimes lead to inspired creative decisions.
“Agoraphobia,” one of the more ambitious efforts, was notable for its innovative approach to conveying the anxiety disorder experienced by the heroine, much of it rendered as interior thoughts and sound effects. And without undermining the dramatic structure of “Agoraphobia,” the filmmakers effectively ended their tale on a light note employing a funny sight gag.
Even though Camp Flix is only in its second year, both sessions sold out this summer, and approximately one-third of the students are returning from last year. Obviously, the operation has hit on a winning formula. The interesting thing to see will be whether Camp Flix becomes a breeding ground for future filmmakers. They certainly are getting a great head start.