It's a movie set. The scene is the interior of a submarine. The actors, in costume, look and sound convincing. But they look a little . . . short.
In fact, though, they are normal-sized sixth graders and the movie set is on the second floor of a classroom building at Taper Elementary School.
These children are making a movie, which will be edited, sound-mixed and ready for its premiere at Taper's Sixth Grade Awards Night in June.
Movie-making may be new to these students, but not to Taper's faculty. Every year since 1972 the sixth-grade class has produced a movie.
"Last year we did Peter Pan," said Principal Al Fasani, "but we prefer original scripts like this one."
This one is "High Hopes," written by teacher Betty Wilker with a lot of input from the sixth graders. "It's about smuggling diamonds and stealing satellite secrets," said Wilker, who also designed the submarine interior and supervised the students who built it.
Every one of the school's 145 sixth-graders participated in some phase of the production, Wilker said.
Fasani says students are not required to take part in the film, which is considered an extracurricular activity, but "we feel it's very important for them, and most do participate."
The movie's production takes an entire year. Script development begins during the summer before school starts.
Rehearsals begin in January and filming starts in February, wrapping up in May.
First Production in '72
Productions have come a long way since the program's beginnings in the early 1970s, teacher and sound man Andy Vitalich said. "In the beginning, we just filmed interviews, a football game, then a stage play. The more elaborate staging came later," he said.
The first production in 1972 had one stand-out performance, Vitalich said. "Mike Lookinland was one of our stars. Later, he starred in TV's 'Brady Bunch.' He'd been into acting for a long time, though."
During one afternoon of filming last week, a quick, patient woman streaked back and forth across the set, hovering for a moment, then hurrying elsewhere, always watching the actors, listening to the lines.
It was Doris Cashman, the teacher who coaches the actors. She also supervises the prompters, smoothes recalcitrant cowlicks, adjusts costumes and reassures the cast with lines like, "That's good, very good, guys. That was just great!"
Teacher Bill Richard, a veteran of all 13 Taper movies, is the production's cameraman and film editor.
"Bill is due to retire in a couple of years," said Vitalich. "That will probably be the end of our movie making. None of the rest of us has the know-how or capability with all the equipment: reel-to-reel tape, 8-millimeter film, editing gear, laying the sound stripe."
Richard, who provides most of the equipment, acknowledged that he spends a lot of time on the productions. "It takes about an hour for each minute of film that runs," he said. " 'High Hopes' will run for an hour."
Production Is Expensive
Movie production is expensive and Taper movies do not use public funds, said Richard.
The movies are financed by fund-raisers. This year's fund-raiser was a garage sale. In addition, Richard adds footage of the awards night ceremony to videotapes of the movie and sells the finished tapes to parents and others.
"Last year we sold 80 of them. That brought in around $600 for production expenses," he said.
No one except Richard will see the film until awards night.
"It's going to be exciting when we actually get to see it," said student Michele Goldwasser, an actress in the film. Another student, Kim Wright, said that being on the crew that built the scenery taught her the importance of teamwork, "because if we weren't a team, it would just be a big mess and we couldn't get anything done."
Richard credits the students for their dedication and the amount of time they invest. "We don't use school time to shoot these things very often. Usually it's after school or on the weekends."
The students rehearse every day at lunch time, with Cashman coaching.
Teachers as well as students invest time and energy. Jane Harris, a sixth-grade teacher, acts as musical coordinator. Gary Norton, a third-grade teacher, is in charge of titles.
Next year it will be Vitalich's turn to create a script. "I like the mysteries," he said, recalling the 1982 production of "The Mummy's Curse."
"We were filming at Bill's and we scared his 6-year-old neighbor, who went running to his mother screaming that a mummy was coming up the street," Vitalich said.
This year's students are enthusiastic about the production and will probably remember their involvement for years, Vitalich said.
"When I run into students who have graduated and are working at Jack-in-the-Box or the Wherehouse or wherever, they always say, 'What's this year's movie?' " he said. "It's the first thing they ask."