Video Keeps School Year in Focus : After Son's Death, Father Tapes 'Yearbook' for Classmates

Times Staff Writer

It's the perfect keepsake for the MTV generation: a year's worth of good times compressed into a fast-paced, 60-minute video that may someday take its place on bookshelves alongside traditional hard-bound school yearbooks.

While not unique, video annuals are still a rare and relatively untested commodity. But if the reaction among students at Whittier's La Serna High School is any indication, there is a market of video-hungry teen-agers ready to plunk down $25 for the high-tech collectible. At a recent school dance, students cheered a sneak preview of the video, the brainchild of a La Serna parent-teacher group that coined the idea to raise money for school activities.

Impressed by the Images

"It was outstanding!" proclaimed junior Darin Barber, one of those impressed by the images of friends and faculty flashing on the big-screen at the gym dance. "Can you imagine pulling that baby out just before my 20th reunion and having a few laughs?"

For generations, yearbooks have almost always been a must, particularly among high schoolers. Each spring, as school winds to a close, the ritual of signing annuals preoccupies even the most ardent bookworm. And this year appears to be no different, with yearbook companies across the country reporting record sales.

Yet videos are an increasingly popular medium among teen-agers, thanks largely to rock videos and the growing access to videocassette recorders and cameras.

So when Friends of La Serna--the support group that raises money for sports, music and academic programs at the school--pitched the idea of a video version of the yearbook, school officials bought it with one caveat: Show as many events and people as possible. The group then turned to Lee Vierling.

A producer of industrial videos for Pacific Bell, Vierling has been the main man behind the camera and editing of the La Serna video. Since September, he has filmed more than 30 events at the hillside campus in east Whittier, and has spent about 120 hours editing hundreds of feet of videotape. If commercially produced, he estimates it might have cost the school $6,000 to $10,000.

But it's not money that prompted Vierling, whose daughter Amber is a La Serna sophomore, to shoot the video. He is doing this for free, largely to help himself overcome the loss of his teen-age son, Chad, who died in an automobile accident last year.

Chad would have been a junior this year, and Vierling said he wanted to do something for the people who "have done so much for my children in the past." The video, he said, is not a tribute to Chad, but a way for Vierling to meet and work with people who knew his son.

Unsure of Results

Pushed by his emotions, Vierling plunged into the video last fall, unsure how it would turn out.

Although the video opens with the start of the school year and a student wondering aloud about his new teachers and classes, there is no real story line. To give it some continuity, the student is heard several times during the video talking about the school year, almost as if making an entry into a personal diary. But the bulk of the tape is mostly people and events set to contemporary music picked by students. No more than two minutes on any single subject is shown.

"We were conscious about not making a sports highlight tape," Vierling said. "That would have been too easy and unfair to the rest of the student body."

He has taped dance and drama productions, the campus blood drive and club meetings. He even staged an event or two. One sequence has a group of teachers and administrators, including principal Leo Camalich, lip-synching a 1950s tune while pretending to play instruments. "It's a nice touch," Vierling said of the teachers who are seen strumming the air like guitar players. "It it helps humanize the teachers."

'It's Like Gold'

In Vierling's mind, students won't appreciate the real value of the video until reunion time, when they dust off 10- or 20-year-old memories of faces and places.

"It's like gold, and the kids don't know it," he said. "What would it be worth to the average 40-year-old if they could take their high school annual and stick it into the VCR. . . . It would be incredible. It would be like your own personal Big Chill--the music, the clothes, the funny phrases and expressions."

Orders for about 100 of the videos have been received by Friends of La Serna, which is handling sales to the school's 1,600 students. But Jim Longman, the school's activities director, predicts that orders will grow as the end of school nears.

"At the outset we weren't sure how many would sell or how many kids even had access to VCRs," said Longman, who ordered one of the videos. "This is a real experiment, but it is working--so far."

One fear was the effect the video, which sells for $25, might have on sales of yearbooks. About 1,000 hard-bound annuals, also selling for $25 each, were ordered at La Serna this year. And Longman and students say most who buy videos will also buy yearbooks.

No Threat to Yearbook Seen

"Videos will never replace the book," said sophomore Chris Petersen, "because it is tradition to have people sign your yearbook."

Spokesmen for major yearbook companies say they have no plans to offer a video yearbook in the near future.

Rick Chappell, customer service manager for Jostens Inc., said it would be too costly to produce individual videos for each high school. In the West alone, he said, Jostens prints more than 1 million yearbooks for 3,000 high schools annually. The company, he said, has considered producing video annuals in some test markets, but added that the cost to students might run as high as $45 or $50 each. So far, he said, video annuals have been tried in more affluent areas, like La Serna.

"It would be extremely time-consuming because you have to film so many events to come up with enough material," Chappell said in an interview last week from Jostens' western headquarters in Visalia, Calif. "Besides, the video annuals at this point don't pose any real threat to our business."

After a downturn in yearbook sales in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when, Chappell said, it was fashionable to buck tradition, annuals are a hot item again on school campuses. "We are going through a sort of renaissance with yearbooks," he said.

Demand for Video Annuals

For that reason alone, John McKinney of rival Herff-Jones Yearbooks, said he believes it is not a matter of if, but when, video annuals will arrive in a big way. He said the demand for some sort of visual annual by teen-agers caught up in the "video revolution" will force yearbook companies to move in that direction.

La Serna is one of several dozen California schools offering video annuals.

Edison High School in Huntington Beach was among the first to sell a video yearbook almost five years ago, according to Catherine McGough, a spokeswoman for Huntington Beach Union School District. This year, the Edison student body hired a local film maker to produce its video, which sells for $29.95. But McGough said sales have been slow, about 125, at the 2,800-student campus, and unless there is a flurry of purchases before June, school officials may scrap efforts to offer the video next year.

"Apparently a number of students are pooling their money and buying one or two videos and then copying them for friends," McGough said.

Some Taped by Students

To cut production costs, some schools are allowing students to shoot most of the video footage. But McKinney said that can be a problem because students are generally novices at film making. "Kids are used to seeing the slick videos on TV, lots of flash, great sound and clarity," said McKinney, who lives in Lakewood. "Try to sell a student-made video that is out-of-focus for $30."

Although a friend has helped him with some filming, Vierling wanted to do most of the work on the La Serna video himself. "I didn't want to have 10 cameramen," he said, "and 10 different qualities of tape to edit."

Vierling has not decided--or been approached--about doing a second video annual next year. But if he does, the memory of his son Chad won't be far away. "Next year would have been Chad's senior year," he said. "It would have been a special year."

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