Dialogue through documentaries

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Close-up of a film projector

The San Diego Teen Producers Project, a series of production classes through Media Arts Center San Diego, is designed to teach teens principles of filmmaking. Media Arts Center Executive Director Ethan van Thillo said the program is a partnership with Speak City Heights, a program that aims to spark dialogue between different San Diego communities, but is open to teens from all over.

“The library is putting in a multimedia studio and that installation is related to this idea of public access: how do we get community members access to equipment, and then get their message out?” van Thillo said.

Students will have state of the art computers, lights, cameras, van
Thillo said, “but we still need to teach about production, editing, and all the good stuff,” and have found making documentaries is a good way to start.

Beginners, he said, learn pre and post production skills at the new library multimedia hub, creating short films while they learn about basic production skills, camera skills, and how to edit their projects in Adobe Premiere Pro.

“In the introductory group, we really try to have structured ideas and then they go from there. We’ve learned it’s best to not show up and ask
‘What do you want to make a video on?’ We start with five or ten ideas, then break into small groups,” van Thillo said.

Advanced producers, who will ultimately shift to classes at the downtown San Diego UCSD Extension, write longer scripts, learn about calling for actors and a crew, work on advanced filmmaking techniques.

“The advanced group is more flexible so if someone has a script idea, they go through the pitching process, write the script, vote on it as a group,” van Thillo said.

The Media Arts Center also has camps for younger kids, he said, who “know more than us about making Tik-Tok videos on smartphones” so the challenge is teaching the storytelling process.

“How do you create a good story? We go through storyboards and they learn that preproduction is challenging: there’s researching the topic and scriptwriting before you get your hands on the camera. We show them there is a long and somewhat tedious process to make a good film, learn about things like lighting. They have the technical skills but they work on the craft,” van Thillo said.

Although the organization offers many after-school classes, he said, the Saturday project class is unique because it tends to draw teens who are more interested in making films than participating in weekend sports, and will likely go on to work in the industry.

As each season of classes wraps up, program leaders organize a film screening for students to exhibit their final pieces.

“We always believe in public performance. We have a community and family screening— there’s always that process of presenting to the world, feeling confident enough to go up and answer questions. Even when we had to switch to a virtual format through the pandemic, we had livestreamed questions,” van Thillo said.

Dialogue through documentaries