Lee, Newman flicks picked for Film Fest
ARMANI COOPER in “Alarm Clock Alley,” directed by Sonoma resident Mike Lee.
The Sonoma International Film Festival has become a safe harbor for young filmmakers to flourish. This is especially true for the students of Sonoma Valley High School’s Media Arts Department, who every year are invited to showcase their work at the Sebastiani Theatre for the community and their peers.
These are not your average student films, as the media arts moviemakers have access to equipment that would be the envy of most independent filmmakers. That fact, paired with the tutelage of program director Peter Hansen, who pushes students to reach their potential, means these young filmmakers produce movies that often rival the professionals in the festival.
On rare occasions, a student produces a film so successfully that festival Director Kevin McNeely pulls it into the general festival line-up for one of the programs of short films. Mike Lee was a senior at the high school in 2009 when his film, “The D.D.” about the perils of drinking and driving, was selected for the general line-up, marking the first student film to be included in the regular program.
“That was fantastic. It definitely felt like I got my foot in the door,” Lee said.
Since leaving high school, he has continued his arts education at San Francisco State University and the Academy of Arts, but found his greatest passion with a group called Team Backpack.
“It’s a collection of talented artists from all mediums. We all kind of get together and plan events that support each others’ arts,” Lee said.
That is how he met hip-hop artist Armani Cooper, an up-and-comer in San Francisco’s more underground music scene. Writing lyrics that express what it means for young people finding their way in the current state of economic uncertainty, Cooper voices many of the concerns of today’s youth.
“Out of high school, kids are coming up and they want to find an identity or a purpose, and that’s a really hard thing to find,” Lee said.
Using the video skills he learned in high school, Lee created a music video for Cooper’s latest single “Alarm Clock Alley” off his “Bad Dream City” album, which was shot entirely in San Francisco.
“It’s very spontaneous but it does have a deep concept. It’s not sure if it’s a dream or not,” Lee said, adding that he worked closely with Cooper to capture his ideas for illustrating his lyrics. “It’s really a shared vision.”
Shot in early January, Lee submitted it to his hometown film festival as soon as it was completed. He was ecstatic when it was accepted into the festival line-up, and not just because it meant a chance for him to show his skills.
“I think the music is amazing and really deserves to be shown in this light,” Lee said. “I think I also wanted to bring a refreshing generational bump to Sonoma. To show what the youth are doing.”
Lee is the first student filmmaker to have two of his films shown at the festival. This year he will have Cooper at his side, and the pair hope to connect with other artists who have a similar vision to Team Backpack. But Lee said he wouldn’t be where he is now without the media arts department.
“It’s been the concrete foundation for my ability,” Lee said. “It’s really a golden playground for kids to learn.”
Ky Newman is still in that playground, a place where he has been flourishing. The Sonoma Valley High School senior is likely heading to UCLA next year, but before that, he’ll watch his film “Outro” in the general festival line-up, making him only the second student to have a film included in the Shorts Program.
“I was sort of blown away,” he said.
McNeely said the decision came down to raw talent, “Ky deserves to be in this festival.”
In “Outro,” Newman explores the fine line between dreaming and being awake. Using no dialogue and only a cleverly placed voiceover from a television, the film relies on intricate special effects to convey the story.
“I’ve always been sort of into dreams. I’ve only seen a few movies that have done a good job of showing what it feels like to be in a dream,” he said, explaining that the special effects were done using Trapcode Particular in After Effects. “I actually taught myself that program, it took a couple of years for me to get it down.”
Newman joined the media arts department last year and quickly threw himself into the class, picking up the intricate editing programs by spending much of his free time in the media lab. “Outro” took him two full months, from storyboarding out his vision to night shoots in San Francisco to tedious hours editing the effects that make the video pop.
“Most of that time was spent in post production,” he said.
Hansen encouraged him to submit the film, and was delighted when it was accepted into the line-up of short programs. “Ky is one of my star seniors this year,” said Hansen.
“Outro” can be seen in the Short Program on Friday, April 13, at 1 p.m.; and Sunday, April 15, at 3:30 p.m. at Vintage House senior center.
Providing students with access to professional-grade equipment and instruction is one of the festival’s main missions as the largest financial supporter of the high school’s media arts program. With help from the festival, the program has grown from four cameras shared between 40 students, to 25 cameras and 34 high-end editing suites, utilized by the 150 students in the program, which now has a waiting list. Most of the equipment and 40 percent of Hansen’s salary is covered through private donations, most significantly from the film festival.
“I’ve been fortunate to have 10 years of unrelenting support from the film festival. I’ve had lots of individual donors, too, but the festival has never faltered. Every year they give. At one point the program was cancelled due to budget cuts and the film festival resurrected it. Without the support of the film festival for the past 10 years, we wouldn’t be here now, and it is the festival’s promise to continue with funding that keeps this program alive,” Hansen said.
The community can watch the work created in the classroom on Thursday, April 12, from 9 to 11 a.m.; and Sunday, April 15, from noon to 2 pm.
For tickets, go to www.sonomafilmfest.org, where tickets to individual programs and films are now available.