Student filmmakers have red-carpet moment at film festival
By DIANNE REBER HART / Sonoma Valley Correspondent
George Lucas, step aside. Up-and-coming filmmaker Austin Smith is premiering his science fiction short, “Death Run,” at the Sonoma International Film Festival and he’s already earning two-thumbs-up reviews.
“He’s going to be the next ‘Star Wars’,” said Peter Hansen, Austin’s filmmaking instructor.
Austin is only 16, just in his sophomore year at Sonoma Valley High School. And he already has a red-carpet moment for his resume.
Austin is a student in the media arts program at the local high school, one of several student filmmakers screening 18 of their works at the 16th annual film festival, which completes its five-day run on Sunday.
“Death Run” showcases computer-generated zombies and futuristic alien attacks playing out at warp speed. Austin created his film with the school’s state-of-the-art cameras, computers and production equipment, available thanks to community and film industry donations exceeding $600,000.
The expansive, six-room media arts department features professional-quality audio and video equipment, a broadcast studio, control room and high-tech editing stations with specialty computers and software.
Austin was among the 150 students lucky enough to get into the electives program. Other teens anxious to learn about filmmaking and broadcast journalism are on a waiting list.
For kids like Austin, video arts is a natural fit.
“Every free minute I get is working on something video related,” he said.
The young filmmaker plans to pursue a career in computer-generated imagery and dreams about working at Industrial Light & Magic, the film empire established by George Lucas of “Star Wars” fame.
Hansen, 51, is the media arts program director and its lone teacher. He’s the leading man of sorts, a mentor so dedicated to his craft and his students that late days and Saturdays are the norm.
Since January, he’s stacked up 300 hours of unpaid time so students could complete their film festival projects. Each short represents at least 60 hours of work.
“They can’t do it from bell to bell. I recognize that,” Hansen said. “Stuff happens. Kids get grounded or their actor fails algebra.”
Ciara Smith, no relation to Austin, is another 16-year-old sophomore with a film debut at the festival. She and classmate Delaney Swanson, also 16, made a nostalgic film about enduring friendship.
“It’s about two girls who meet very young and stay friends their whole life but then go to separate colleges,” Ciara explains. “But I can’t give away the whole thing.”
The film was inspired by Philip Phillips’ hit song, “Home,” and was much harder to produce than the teens imagined.
Just getting the cast of “Moiety” assembled for filming was a challenge “because everyone is so busy.
“It was a lot more stressful than I thought it would be,” Ciara said. “It took a lot of work to get everything perfect.”
Ciara and fellow student filmmakers will have a moment to bask in their accomplishments. Their films already screened before a student audience and will be featured as part of the regular film festival viewing from 9:30 a.m. to noon Sunday (April 14) at the historic Sebastiani Theatre on the Sonoma Plaza.
Hansen is grateful to the film festival, a longtime sponsor of the media arts program and also one of its most dedicated champions.
“There are dozens and dozens of industry professionals in one place, and my kids have access to them,” Hansen said. “They have a backstage pass to filmmaker lunches, and they’re only 15.”
Hansen studied broadcast journalism and advertising at San Diego State University but spent his early career in corporate sales. In 2002 the longtime film buff was volunteering with a fledgling group called the Sonoma Valley Film Society, which later evolved into the Sonoma International Film Festival.
A school administrator saw him helping out with a film workshop for teens and asked him to establish a part-time media arts program. When it was cancelled after two years, film festival officials stepped in and provided funding, even covering Hansen’s salary.
The two have been working in unison ever since.
When the part-time media arts program was cancelled after two years, film festival officials stepped in and provided funding, even covering Hansen’s salary.
Today, in its 11th year, the full-time program is thriving. Hansen has been at the helm since day one, giving up a corporate career that paid “a ton of money.
“Then I fell in love with the kids and their idealism,” he said.
His goal is to open doors and possibilities for students interested in every aspect of film production and broadcasting.
The foundation, he says, is storytelling.
“Storytelling, storytelling, storytelling. I say it over and over. And beginning, middle and end. That’s what they’re going to remember me by,” Hansen said.
His approach to media arts is working.
“Everyone I’ve talked to who has taken it is really passionate about it,” said Jessica Marioni, 17.
She was working in an advanced video class last week with fellow seniors Greg Maggioncalda, 18, and Stephen Montano, 17. They praised their teacher and program sponsors for providing an exceptional video arts experience.
“It’s really incredible our school has this, especially a public school,” Stephen said.
Greg, whose film “Breathe” is part of the screening, plans to study business in college but doubts he’ll walk away from media arts.
“It’s definitely something I’m gonna stick around with,” he said.
The media arts program is split between filmmaking and broadcast journalism, exposing students to broad career possibilities.
About 20 percent come to the program with a career path in mind. For the others, it’s an opportunity to explore the unlimited options.
“They come in here and they end up being the most incredible editor or the most incredible camera person,” Hansen said.
In addition to filmmaking, the program offers a chance for students to work on live television broadcasts. Some 1,400 students and staff members tune in weekly for “Dragon News,” a 20-minute closed-circuit newscast that’s entirely student-run.
Advanced students produce the broadcast, from budgeting stories and writing scripts to reporting, filming, editing, engineering and anchoring. The studio equipment is cutting edge: fancy lights, wireless microphones, a teleprompter.
“It’s such an opportunity for them to cut their teeth and shine like nowhere else,” Hansen said.
That the school even has a professional studio and equipment is worthy of a lead story. Hansen has reached out to private donors and corporate sponsors, generating donations from community groups, anonymous donors and some of the best-known names in town.
The Sonoma Valley High School Boosters Club offers funding and the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation has awarded grant monies. Industry giants like Pixar’s John Lasseter, Dolby Digital and Comcast have made an impact as well.
Occasionally, Hansen will receive an unsolicited donation along with a note of praise about the program.
He considers the film festival support blockbuster caliber.
“It’s a synergistic entity that’s become unstoppable,” he said.
The highlight is watching students develop skills and pursue careers in media arts. Twice he’s had student films selected for the film festival’s regular program – a huge honor – with one receiving the audience choice award.
Several former students are majoring in media arts and some are working as professional filmmakers. Current and former students are addressing powerful themes like teen pregnancy and drunken driving, bringing those “storytelling” skills to life.
For more information about the media arts program at Sonoma Valley High School, visit svhsvideo.com