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Student Filmmakers Tackle the All American High School Film Festival with Blackmagic Design

Winning filmmaking teams created new short films with URSA Mini 4.6K, Video Assist 4K and DaVinci Resolve Studio

Founded in 2013, the All American High School Film Festival (AAHSFF) has quickly become the world's largest high school film festival. Receiving nearly 5,000 films representing 48 states and more than 40 countries, the festival gives a voice to those that have found their passion for filmmaking early. Packed with screenings, workshops, an Interactive Technology Showcase, award show and more, the festival brings together student filmmakers who want to showcase their films and learn from each other, as well as experts in the field.

The 2016 AAHSFF also had a unique opportunity for the students: they were invited to submit their creative ideas for a short film contest that would reward the winning teams with the filmmaking gear needed to bring their concept into reality. Judged by award-winning director Dan Myrick ("The Blair Witch Project"), filmmaker and co-founder of the Sundance Film Festival Cirina Catania and respected journalist Randi Altman (postPerspective), the contest selected student filmmaking teams lead by Julia Weber, senior at Glendale High School in Missouri, and Demar Gunter, senior at Saint Mary's Hall in Texas. The teams were given filmmaking gear from Blackmagic Design, including an URSA Mini 4.6K digital film camera equipped with a Shoulder Kit, a Video Assist 4K monitor and recorder, and DaVinci Resolve Studio professional editing and color grading software. Then the resulting short films were screened as part of the recent AAHSFF, which took place in October 2017 in New York City. 

"Return Policy"

Set in the future when overpopulation has nearly brought the world to its knees, Gunter's "Return Policy" short film follows the struggle of a father who has to decide if he should sacrifice one of his daughters to save the family by using the government's return policy that offers money in exchange for euthanasia. 

Gunter explains, "I have always been intrigued by dystopian interpretations of our society, so I wanted to make a film that was clearly apocalyptic but that also still spoke to real world issues such as overpopulation, global warming and human trafficking." 

To achieve the look of the apocalyptic dystopia, Gunter and her team of student filmmakers had to turn their neighborhood into a different place all together. 

"My favorite part was figuring out how to manipulate costumes, camera angles and locations to give the look a dystopian feel," says Gunter. "We used the camera and DaVinci Resolve Studio to give the film a very gloomy, desaturated look. They also helped us differentiate locations and mask that what appears to the audience as a hospital for example was really my house. A hospital flashback scene required a very soft yet jarring look that distracted viewers from the fact that the clinic was staged in my living room. DaVinci Resolve Studio helped us enhance the parts of the image that added to the clinical, austere feel of the scene. It's actually one of my favorite scenes of the film because of what we were able to achieve with the final look."

Gunter continues, "However, my overall favorite scene is in a park. In the script, this scene is intended to be the moment that the father decides he will trade in his youngest daughter's life to save himself and his oldest daughter. His final glance at his daughters seems to be loving but when you know the twist, it has a much more menacing implication."

When constructing the shots in locations around the neighborhood, Gunter and the team relied on the URSA Mini's dynamic range to help them get the shots they needed without letting the audience realize the true settings. Gunter explains, "The URSA Mini 4.6K is an incredible camera in a very compact, intuitive package. The image is so forgiving, which was important because we had to correct many scenes in post production with DaVinci Resolve Studio. We could resize, brighten and color correct our image without degrading it or making it visibly noisy. The URSA Mini 4.6K sensor had such a beautiful, distinct look that really helped carry the story. It was really helpful as a student filmmaker who makes a lot of framing mistakes. My favorite part of using the camera by far was how we could crop our images to up to half of their original size and still have an HD images because of the 4.6K resolution."

Using DaVinci Resolve Studio for all of the film's editing and color grading, Gunter describes, "I really liked that DaVinci Resolve Studio incorporated file management, editing, and color grading in one program. It was a very intuitive process that helped us visualize and develop the final cut from the start to the beginning. The grading features are easy to use but also so advanced that it allows clueless student filmmakers like me to greatly improve their use of color."

"Low Key"

Strange things begin happening when Dakota gets back to her apartment and misplaces her glasses in Weber's "Low Key." Captured in part through blurry shots showing Dakota's point of view, the short film keeps the audience in suspense as they try to figure out if Dakota's glasses are merely missing or if something more sinister is going on. 

Weber explains, "One day I was taking a shower and I was suddenly hit with the irrational fear of how vulnerable I would be if someone was watching since I have bad vision and wouldn't be able to see them. That inspired me to think of how bad vision could play a huge role in a thriller film and the idea grew from there."

"My favorite part of making the film was seeing our ideas and visions come to fruition. Compiling all of the ideas for the film and seeing them come to life on screen was very exciting. We also enjoyed getting introduced to a much higher grade camera and advanced editing software in the process," Weber continues.

Using the URSA Mini 4.6K alongside a Video Assist 4K allowed Weber and the team of student filmmakers to shoot in tight spaces. "The Video Assist 4K allowed us to have the flexibility to clearly see our shots and the technical aspects while shooting. We did a large majority of our shooting in a loft. Using the camera in close quarters sometimes limited our use of the fold out monitor, but the attached Video Assist 4K still allowed us to see our shot from anywhere."

Brett Baxley, the film's writer, co-director and editor, adds, "As student filmmakers, working with the nodes in DaVinci Resolve Studio was helpful because we could easily tweak things as we worked. Its editing page was really intuitive and made it easy for us to jump back and forth between tracks as we edited. Its tracker feature was also really handy because we had some aerial shots at the beginning of the film that were super unsteady and we were able to stabilize them."

Advice for Student Filmmakers

Now that both films have wrapped and premiered at this year's AAHSFF, Weber and Gunter have advice for other student filmmakers.

"Establish a detailed plan of your shoot and clear positions of your crew. Also be aware of your shot plans and shooting schedule so that filming can go smoothly and you can avoid reshoots. Be prepared for your editing schedule as well, allow enough time to make sure the vision of the film stays true all the way into the editing process," says Weber.

"Pre-production!" adds Gunter. "Slacking on pre-production almost always means you won't be satisfied with the final product. I keep learning this the hard way. Also, don't be afraid to add some length to your film. Of course, being concise in your storytelling is extremely important, but it does take time to develop your characters. Sound seems to almost always make or break a film as well. There's no such thing as too many safety takes (well, at least I think so)! You don't want to be stuck in your edit with no good move to make because you don't have a good take."

For the festival itself, Weber adds, "The festival was a great outlet to share the work of filmmaking with fellow young creators. We got to experience sharing a lot of creative freedom. The festival has showed younger people that their ideas were appreciated and their ideas got to be showcased in a great way."

Gunter concludes, "AAHSFF is an incredible festival that supports student filmmakers all around the world. What other festival hooks you up with a sweet equipment package from Blackmagic Design just so you can make your dream film come to life?" 

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