At Universal Studios, students get a crash course in filmmaking

A 12-year-old girl crouches into a corner in an alley, talking on a cellphone. The tone of her voice, her body language and her facial expressions convey distress.

Nearby, another girl holds a boom microphone over her as other 10- to 13-year-olds look on. The filming stops, and instructor Suzanne Kent's voice rises over the students' chatter as she tells the actress to come out and face the camera.

“That's gorgeous,” Kent says, and another take begins.

On a recent Friday, about 250 tweens, teens and adults aspiring to act or make movies were spread out across the back lot of Universal Studios, cameras in hand, directing, rehearsing and filming. The girl crouched in the alley was Sarah Lee — who normally directs — playing the part of a captured American soldier who was talking with a CIA agent.

Sarah and the others in her group are part of the New York Film Academy's two-week summer workshop for tweens. Workshops take place throughout the summer, said Benjamin Morgan, who has overseen the summer workshops for 15 years.

About 400 teenagers will participate in the program this summer and Morgan expects about 125 tweens this summer.

Many programs start and stop and overlap, and students in the four-week program make three films. Three-week students make two films, and one-week students make one film, Morgan said. All filmmakers get to write, direct and edit their own films and are encouraged to submit their work to film festivals.

“What we really try to do here is give them the real experience,” Kent said. “We try to make it as if they are doing this and getting paid for it. We teach them set manners, set protocol, and every time they defer from that, we are on them.

“We have to let them know how difficult this career is and how much concentration and how much sacrifice it takes. We're not trying to scare anybody away from the craft, but we're trying to tell them the truth about the craft.

“Then maybe they'll question it or maybe they have a total passion for it. You can't take no for an answer. But it really has to be a total passion. So we're testing them at this young age … it's money from the parents; it's time away from school; it's a whole other way of learning things.”

Nicholas Monaco, 12, whose last name is spelled “just like the principality,” he said, is from New York and took part in an NYFA workshop there.

“I decided it would be fun to come out here — because I have never been to Los Angeles — for two weeks and do this one, especially since we get to shoot on this great back lot here,” he said.

Instructor Scott Hartmann said a big part of what they do is teach the students how to talk to and work with actors. The fundamentals of filmmaking, including shot selection, were also covered.

“We let them go where they want with it,” said Hartmann, who has been teaching with the NYFA for about a year. “There is so much energy and creativity, and it's so unfiltered. They have such enthusiasm for doing this. It's hard to keep up, but it is a lot of fun to do.”

Not far from where the tween group was working, a teenage girl was directing two actors.

To kill a zombie, a male attacker needed to raise his golf club at a certain point, and should not turn his back to the audience. The female zombie would need to run to a particular spot to engage the attacker, the 17-year-old director said.

Nina Estrella of New Zealand said she was searching on the Internet and found this opportunity.

“I really love film,” Nina said. “I'm trying to up my skills.”

Estrella said she wanted to make a unique film.

“Most of the films that my friends are doing are the usual stalker movie, love story, and I wanted to do something that was more fun and entertaining,” she said, her crew huddled around her.

Pavel Trishin, 15, from Moscow, Russia, is the actor tasked with attacking the zombie. He carried money, dynamite and a golf club. Pavel said his mother told him about the program.

“She said, ‘Do you want to go to L.A.?' I said, ‘Why not?'”

Back in the alley, another group was rehearsing.

A young female director was instructing an actress to get into the frame.

“Camera ready, actors ready, sound ready, rolling,” she said. “Slate.”

Scene one, take one, a boy said, snapping the slate.

“Action,” she yelled.

Liz Stewart, an L.A.-area resident, said she looked at a NYFA pamphlet and thought the program was “awesome.”

“I said, ‘This is perfect for me,’ and begged my mom for two weeks,” Stewart said. “Eventually she agreed because I annoyed her too much. I really love this camp. I think it’s one of the best camps I’ve been to.”

The 12-year-old added: “I have a heart for directing, editing, producing and writing. And that’s what I really, really love to do."

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