Lights, camera, competition! Vote for these Louisiana students' entries to a film fest

Leigh Guidry
Lafayette Daily Advertiser
Ian Haigler (with camera), a senior at Bossier Parish School for Technology and Innovative Learning, films his friends to create "Dark." The short horror film was submitted to the 2021 Film Prize Junior, the South’s largest online student film festival. This year's festival runs from April 15-25, during which all student films submitted from across the state are available for viewing and voting at FilmPrizeJr.com.

Middle and high school students from across Louisiana have been writing, acting, shooting and editing short films this year, resulting in a record-breaking number of submissions for the South's largest online student film festival that kicks off Thursday.

Film Prize Junior, the student version of the popular Louisiana Film Prize, had 68 short films submitted by students from 37 schools across Louisiana, including 13 Title One schools, organizers announced.

Some used iPhones and class time. Others lugged camera equipment into the woods by their house or a coffee shop downtown on weekends. Some found friends and family to be actors. Some placed and replaced Lego figures to create stop-motion animation.

No matter the logistics, students wrote their own scripts, planned, filmed and edited the projects themselves, for a chance to win awards or scholarship money and hone new skills along the way.

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Students are responsible for taking their films from concept to completion and then marketing their films to help to secure votes. The festival awards more than $10,000 in scholarships and media grants to winning schools.

They compete for Best Film as well as Best Comedy, Drama, Sci-Fi/Thriller, Stop Motion/Animation, and Documentary/PSA during the festival. It runs April 15-25, during which all Louisiana student films are available for free viewing and voting at FilmPrizeJr.com.

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All viewing and voting for the short films ends at midnight CST April 25. The winning films will be announced during a Facebook Live awards ceremony at 5 p.m. 

Learning about life and cinema

To participate in the contest, teachers and students must follow a program where they learn how to create a screenplay, produce the film and promote their film to an audience, with no prior experience required. 

Ian Haigler, a senior at Bossier Parish School for Technology and Innovative Learning, and his friends film a short horror film he wrote called "Dark." The film was submitted to the 2021 Film Prize Junior, the South’s largest online student film festival. This year's festival runs from April 15-25, during which all student films submitted from across the state are available for viewing and voting at FilmPrizeJr.com.

"We train and support the teachers and the kids to teach them filmmaking and how to be a creative entrepreneur," said Gregory Kallenberg, executive director of the Prize Foundation.

Part of the contest is getting people to see and vote for their film, which means movie posters, social media campaigns and other marketing strategies come into play.

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"These are life skills that are required for these young women and men to advance themselves towards college or trade school or to be successful at a job in the real world,"  Kallenberg said.

Joshua McClymont, director of fine arts at Ascension Episcopal School in Youngsville, saw his theater students grow in autonomy and self-direction throughout the process.

He helped keep the high-schoolers on deadline and gave advice when appropriate, but he remained out of the fray for most of the making of their two submissions. "The Actress" and "The Pond," both thrillers, were written and produced by McClymont's two theater classes.

"I tried to be very hands-off; that was my most difficult part," he said. "I was just the guide from the side."

McClymont saw his students hone life skills like organization, planning and collaborating on top of the cinematic ones.

"People don't all work the same," he said. "How do you work with someone with a different schedule? You learn those bigger life skills. A true leader is able to work with someone who is different from you to move the project forward."

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Broussard Middle eighth-grader Jaslyn Lewis learned about perseverance as she created her short film "Crown."

"The process was stressful because, in the middle of it I just gave up because of school, my life at home, and even self-battles," she said. "There was a lot going on in my life at that time, but I still kept a smile on my face."

Jaslyn returned to the project and saw it through thanks to encouragement from two of her teachers, she said.

"They made me realize that I had an amazing project and it was too good to just shove away, so I created the film," she said.

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Shreveport eighth-grader Olivia Ostendorff discovered something important about herself as she worked on the project: She doesn't want to be a filmmaker.

"I enjoyed the process and the experience, but I have realized filmmaking is not for me," Olivia said. "This process had definitely been a learning curve for our team, but we learned to work together and get this done. I really enjoyed the creative freedom our teacher gave us and the experience of writing a script."

'It's really cool to see your idea come to life'

Others, though, had their filmmaking dreams solidified through this competition.

Ian Haigler, a senior at Bossier Parish School for Technology & Innovative Learning, wrote and filmed "Dark" in October. It began with a prompt his teacher gave to write a scary film and eventually became his Film Prize Junior submission.

"I didn't think I'd actually make it, but then one weekend, we just went out and filmed it and had fun," he said. "I was going to make it just for fun, but my teacher said I should submit it."

He shot the movie with his friends in the woods by his house. The dark, important to the story, of course, made for a difficult shoot, so he had to figure out the best way to use the camera in little light. Another challenge was editing the horror film in a way to not show violence or blood, per contest rules.

Ascension Episcopal students have created a short film that is part of the 2021 Film Prize Junior, the South's largest online student film festival. This year's festival runs from April 15-25, during which all student films submitted from across the state are available for viewing and voting at FilmPrizeJr.com. Wednesday, April 14, 2021.

Film Prize Jr. was right up his alley. The 17-year-old wants to study film in college and then enter the industry after graduation.

"I like creating stories for people to watch," he said.

Hannah Evans, a senior at Airline High School in Bossier City, got to emulate her favorite satire and documentary-style shows in creating a "mockumentary-comedy sort of thing" following three adrenaline junkies.

Her teacher and sponsor Shannon Bamburg called the movie Evans' "baby" because of the work she put into it from start to finish.

"She has a great eye as a director," Bamburg said. "If she needed expertise I helped her find the right person to ask, but for the most part it was all done by her. This is her baby."

Ashtyn Raxsdale, a senior at Ascension Episcopal in Youngsville, loved getting to see what she and her classmates created become a finished product.

"It's really cool to see your idea come to life," she said. "It was just on paper for the longest time. Then when we got to see the actors do what we envisioned."

Contest served as outlet for pandemic-related feelings

Kallenberg with Film Prize Junior attributes the record-breaking number of entries in part to a school year amid a pandemic being so "crazy" for teachers and students. 

Hannah Evans (right), a senior at Airline High School in Bossier City, wrote, directed and edited a short film called "Junkies." The "mockumentary" is part of the 2021 Film Prize Junior, the South’s largest online student film festival. This year's festival runs from April 15-25, during which all student films submitted from across the state are available for viewing and voting at FilmPrizeJr.com.

"Amid all the online learning, Film Prize Junior allowed the teachers and students to work on something outside the regular curriculum," he said. "It provides an amazingly fun opportunity to make a movie and, when they complete it, for it to be seen on the big screen. I think that had a lot to do with our success for 2021."

The contest also served as an outlet for COVID-related feelings, as several of the Louisiana films featured that theme.

Jade Burks, a senior at Booker T. Washington New Technology High School in Shreveport, and her classmates made "The Flashback," portraying the events of March 13, 2020, when schools across the state were closed due to the virus.

"We got out on a Friday and were told COVID shut schools down at least 30 days," said Burks, 17. "We brought that day back to life — basically the week, really —  and then how it impacted from that day until now."

It took at least 25 students to write, serve as film crew, shoot scenes and play characters, plus the extras, she said. Burks acted and produced.

Jade Burks (left), a senior at Booker T. Washington New Technology High School in Shreveport, works with teacher and film sponsor Katrina Gillam on her class submission to the 2021 Film Prize Junior, the South’s largest online student film festival. This year's festival runs from April 15-25, during which all student films submitted from across the state are available for viewing and voting at FilmPrizeJr.com.

"It was a fun experience, stressful some days," she said. "A lot of times things won't work out, especially technology."

Mary-Allen Nichols, in eighth grade at First Baptist Church School in Shreveport, directed a film about teens during COVID, she said, and 15-year-old Lafayette High freshman Miles Siner based his drama-comedy on a his own family's experience with the virus.

"The movie is based off a true story of my sister might or might not have COVID — I don't want to spoil it," Miles said. "It was my first real direct experience with COVID and it was recent enough that I thought I could write about it."

He wrote, shot and directed it, so he asked his younger cousin to play him in the movie, alongside Miles' mom and 11-year-old sister, playing themselves.

"The actors did really great, especially since I had to shoot it twice," he said. "The first time I filmed it I messed up really bad."

His talented teacher, Monique Derouselle, helped him figure out a way to re-shoot it and continued to guide him in the editing process, he said.

"I learned that making films is a lot harder than it seems," Miles said. "It's also really fun."

Competition gives students 'a place for them to belong'

The project provided an opportunity for Amy Willis, journalism teacher at Ouachita Junior High School in Monroe, to incorporate technology into class, while developing skills her journalism students could use after middle and high school, she said.

"I'm really proud of my students for seeing it through to a completed product," Willis said. "I think they had a great experience and the feedback will motivate and encourage them to do more. I hope they consider how they could use this experience in a career, that it gets them thinking: 'How can you take what you're learning now and apply it to a career long-term?'"

Fellow middle school teacher Kari Turner, at First Baptist Church School in Shreveport, cited this as a major goal for these grade levels.

Ascension Episcopal students have created a short film that is part of the 2021 Film Prize Junior, the South's largest online student film festival. This year's festival runs from April 15-25, during which all student films submitted from across the state are available for viewing and voting at FilmPrizeJr.com. Wednesday, April 14, 2021.

"Our goal in middle school, especially, is to provide opportunities for students to explore their interests and hone their skills and confidence in different areas so that they may excel in these and other areas in high school and beyond," Turner said.

Taylor White, English language arts at Neville Junior High, said this program exposes students, like eighth-grader Roland Willis, to a new creative outlet and others interested in the same things.

"It means exposure for the students who don't have the opportunity to create in this sector," White said. "I'm so glad this program is allowing students to express their creativity in that matter. It means exposure and a place for them to belong, a community."

Roland, 14, created a stop-motion animated short film with Legos, a smartphone and an editing app called Stop Motion Studio. He wrote the story, directed, animated and did the voiceover work for "I Told You So."

He describes it as an action-comedy Star Wars parody with the moral of listening to authority.

"I always felt my dream was to do something like this," Roland said. "I was always into movies. This is a foundation for me to push it. This is my first project I want to get out there."

Another big plus participants find is the competitive side of it all.

Eric Crowder, Haigler's film sponsor and teacher at Bossier Parish School for Technology & Innovative Learning, said competitions like this give students a chance to showcase their talent and compete against others.

Roland's animation won't be the only one in its category, of course. He'll compete against others from across the state, including one from a student at Caddo Middle Magnet School in Shreveport called "Night of the Living Chest Hair."

Teacher and sponsor Kristy Spillane described her student's short as "a fun and quirky stop-animation masterpiece."

"It is the kind of humor that only a middle school student could come up with, but I must admit, I laughed out loud at parts," Spillane said. 

She said the project has increased his confidence and creativity.

"This gave him permission to embrace his creative side and allowed him to feel pride in his final project," Spillane said. "He really enjoyed creating his film and stop animation is not an easy thing to do. ... I think finding solutions to technical issues really made him feel proud."

Contact children's issues reporter Leigh Guidry at Lguidry@theadvertiser.com or on Twitter @LeighGGuidry.