They're Video Savants : 2 Teen-Agers Win Kudos With Cameras


A boy sits spellbound in front of a flickering television set. Missiles flare, cities explode and Harry S. Truman comes on, announcing that the United States has just dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Frightened, the child runs to the front lawn of his suburban home and scans the blue sky for doom. Then he picks a dandelion, closes his eyes and blows. The discarded dandelion drops to the dirt.

This is "Wishflower," a three-minute film made by two honor students at Los Altos High School in Hacienda Heights who want to challenge complacency and get people thinking.

Last June, "Wishflower" and a companion piece, "Life's the Pits," won first prize in a national video festival called Hometown USA, beating out 39 other entries in the youth competition.

But Todd O. Radnitz and Kristen Perry are not just a couple of avant-garde kids making esoteric videos. Practical and motivated, they have spent the last 2 1/2 years honing their technical skills as video producers for community access TV Channel 53 in the City of Industry, which reaches about 40,000 households.

Although they aren't paid, Todd and Kristen have the run of the station, helping to shoot, report and edit a weekly news program that serves the communities of Industry, La Puente and Hacienda Heights. In their spare time, they make their own videos.

"They have an unusual way of seeing things . . . they're very creative," says Cande Larson, Channel 53's public access director.

For viewers who tune in regularly, the La Puente pair are as familiar as Diane Sawyer and Sam Donaldson.

"From the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple in Hacienda Heights, this is Todd Radnitz live," the 17-year-old reporter says, signing off a news broadcast at the temple's grand opening.

Sometimes the two chafe at the restrictions of being 17 and still in high school. Things are often sleepy in their corner of the San Gabriel Valley. When they do find local excitement, professional news crews swoop down and shove them aside.

"We're behind the cable station curtain," Todd jokes. "Even here we're called 'the kids.' "

But the kids know a controversy when it arises.

Todd reported doggedly on the local "morbid books" controversy last fall, in which the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District board banned a series of literature-based reading books that some parents called satanic.

"What I saw at those book-banning meetings scared me," Todd says. "A small group of very vocal parents won; they scared the board into returning the books."

Both students, who are seniors, say they want to pursue careers in broadcast journalism. They agree with the journalistic adage that a reporter's task is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

"The media is definitely a way to right wrongs," Todd says.

His next project is making a public service announcement about AIDS, which he will enter in a teen-age video competition sponsored by public television station KCET.

"I want to do issues that affect someone my age, and AIDS is an important issue," Todd says. "I might have a better view than someone middle-aged sitting in an advertising firm."

Kristen's next project, still in the planning stages, will deal with the inchoate feelings of a child trying to make sense of the mysterious grown-up world.

Bruce Williams, a TV producer who does consulting work for Disneyland, was so impressed after seeing their videos that he offered them jobs helping him produce a teen-age dance show for Disneyland. Although the show is on hold, Williams says Todd and Kristen already have displayed more talent than some college seniors.

"They're able to tell a complicated story in a simple way," Williams said. "That's something that takes years to develop."

Todd and Kristen are forced to operate on a shoestring. Cameras were borrowed from the station. Parents and neighbors were enlisted as actors in "Life's the Pits," and a 2-year-old boy Kristen baby-sits was the star of "Wishflower." The industrial streets of the City of Industry or the residential tracts of La Puente provide the backdrops. Their total budget: $4 for videotape.

The teen-agers became friends two years ago at Los Altos when they sat next to each other in math class, Todd says.

His video is the more light-hearted "Life's the Pits," a visual pun that looks at what happens when people make hasty assumptions.

The idea for "Wishflower," Kristen's video, came in a discussion with a teacher about nuclear war. The teacher quoted Albert Einstein, who once said he didn't know what kind of weapons World War III would be fought with, but that World War IV would be fought with sticks and stones.

Kristen seized on the implications and made "Wishflower," which she says is about the danger of glorifying war.

"When it comes to nuclear war, we're all children . . . in a quandary of misunderstanding," she says. "We get so wrapped up in the idea of freedom fighters and the Stars and Stripes. How can we give our soldiers medals but overlook the cost in human suffering?"

The film mixes contemporary shots with 45-year-old public service announcements and historical footage.

As bombs explode across the TV screen, Mozart's Requiem Confutatis plays, the soprano voices rising to a crescendo along with the flaming visuals. The Latin libretto translates: "When the consuming flames of fire engulf us all/Call me with the blessed."

Kristen says that during the making of "Wishflower" she too became seduced by the war imagery. "We got caught up . . . in looking through old footage for the biggest bomb, the best explosion."

Kristen and Todd's next joint effort will be a 15-minute documentary on the Juvenile Court system in the San Gabriel Valley. The two want to follow a case through the courts, interviewing the teen-ager and legal officials.

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