Movie moguls in the making

A camp at Tampa Theatre is much more than busy time for kids.

By Steve Persall, Times Film Critic
Published July 20, 2007

Ahh, the joys of summer vacation: playing ball, swimming, exploring the great outdoors.

None of those pastimes occur at a unique camp in downtown Tampa.

Yet hundreds of children from grades 3 through 12 are obviously happy campers.

Rather than making Popsicle stick trivets for Mom, these kids are making movies.

For four summers now, the Let's Make Movies summer program has allowed campers to explore the great indoors of historic Tampa Theatre. Carrying digital videocameras and basic sound and lighting equipment, they seek out the best locations to stage scenes.

Keeping with the theater's haunted legend and spooky decor, many of the short movies they produce in five days are ghost stories.

But only after crash courses in acting and filmmaking terminology - pans, tilts, closeups, key lighting, etc. - and viewing examples of each. Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy movies are dependable "textbooks." There is Martin Scorsese's famous and tame opening shot in Goodfellas to identify a tracking shot.

The participants brainstorm ideas, solve logistical problems, draw storyboards and write scripts. They have a couple of days to shoot before downloading footage to computers for editing, special effects and scoring music using custom software.

Don't tell the campers but Let's Make Movies is a lot like going to school.

Hidden lessons

"This plan could absolutely work in the classroom," said James Welsh, a University of South Florida doctoral student who developed the program with his research partner Debbie Kozeras. They will present their findings at educational conferences to convince teachers that the cinematic arts deserve a place among curriculums.

"That's one of our subversive goals," Welsh said, "showing people just what this can do for kids."

During a lunch break between sessions, Welsh explained those advantages.

"When they're producing a video, there are huge amounts of literacy skills involved," he said. "If you can get kids excited about sitting down to write and read because it is part of the process of making a video that people will see, you've won before you've even started."

Welsh and Kozeras employ the same techniques used to instruct teachers in video arts and computer skills. Components designed to build reading skills have a few words changed to suit another medium. They use words like "transmediation" and "culture convergence" when children aren't listening, like cagey parents hiding broccoli under pudding.

More than movies

Max Kramer, 12, is a camper who sees through their charade after attending all four years.

"These are useful skills," he said. "Just the experience of being able to use the software is something I'll be able to use later in life, whether I'm pretty much anything."

His mother, Gerri, dropped off Max and four friends who had shared his overnight birthday party. She listened to the boys excitedly talking about their respective groups' video projects, or watching movies and pointing out the director's moves.

"They're really excited about this (program)," she said. "Their personalities really come out. The fact that five boys can come up with an idea they all agree on . . . believe me, after the past 24 hours, that's a huge thing.

"But it's not just about making movies. They have to be creative and organized. It has so many good things wrapped up in it that translate to skills you want your child to have."

Those skills are as complex as computers can be, or as personal as self-expression. Everybody learns each others' roles but takes on the one they're comfortable with.

"Maybe somebody's really strong on storytelling, somebody else is strong on the technical stuff and somebody else just wants to be in front of a camera," Welsh said. "Some kids only want to be in a movie. Others would rather die than be in front of a camera. They'd rather be running it and making decisions."

Jessika Southwell, 14, made a decision before she attended her first Let's Make Movies session. Then she changed her mind.

Her mother, Sherri Mcnamee, signed her up as a surprise, thinking it would be good preparation for a computer design program she's joining in school.

"She grumbled and griped," Mcnamee said: " 'I can't believe you did this without asking me.' She thought it would just be a bunch of little kids, I guess.

"When I picked her up Tuesday she said, 'Mom, this is so cool. I'm so glad you signed me up for this.' "

That night, Jessika and a neighbor grabbed a videocamera and headed off to shoot a Blair Witch Project takeoff.

More fun than a Popsicle trivet, and she crafted it in the great outdoors.

Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or persall@sptimes.com. Read his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.

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Focus on films

Let's Make Movies

Parents can sign up on a waiting list for Let's Make Movies for 2008 at the Tampa Theatre Web site (www.tampatheatre.org/summercamp.php).

Each one-week session costs $125 per child and they can attend multiple times. Morning sessions for grades 3 through 6 run from 9 a.m. until noon. Campers in grades 7 through 12 attend from 1 to 4 p.m. Prices and schedules may change.

After three weeks of digital filmmaking, this summer's camp concludes this week with a stop-motion animation program led by Emmy-winning animator Kevin Riley.

You're invited: The public is invited to the Let's Make Movies Film Festival on Aug. 25 at the Tampa Theatre. Each session's finished movies will be shown free of charge.