Apodaca: Nurturing budding filmmakers

It was a little slice of Cannes in Newport Beach.

Girls in impossibly short dresses and stratospherically high heels posed for pictures on the red carpet next to boys self-consciously styled in everything from hipster black suit and shades to skate chic. They munched on canapés and crudités, chatted excitedly and tried to ignore the gale-force Santa Ana winds that threatened to topple the strategically placed potted palms.

This was the scene as the crowd gathered for the first-ever Newport Mesa Film Festival, where finalists in design, photography, animation and film were about to learn who among them would receive the top prizes in their categories. They'd been culled from entries produced by students enrolled in various digital media arts classes offered at four Newport-Mesa high schools under the auspices of the district's Career Technical Education program and Coastline ROP.

The awards show, the brainchild of Newport Harbor High School film teacher Lisa Cermak, was held Monday evening at the school's Loats Auditorium.

I'll admit right here that I'd thought about skipping it. I'd had a bad case of the Monday blahs after a busy weekend, and the NCAA men's championship basketball game was on TV. Though I intended at some point to write about the media studies classes as part of a recurring series on CTE, the thought of rousting myself to venture out on a blustery night was a bit off-putting.

What's more, the Daily Pilot had already published a fine story highlighting one of the student award finalists, "Undead Hunger," a wry and clever film about a boy who battles zombies during a quest to score a bag of Cheetos.

But Cermak convinced me there was much more to see at the awards show. I'm glad she did because frankly the event was a hoot.

The best thing about it was that, despite the involvement of teachers and administrators, this was the kids' show all the way. Students hosted the event, presented the awards and manned the technical crew. Some even helped Cermak construct giant Oscar-like sculptures to decorate the stage.

Teens from another CTE program, Newport Harbor's culinary arts courses, cooked and served the bite-size appetizers and desserts distributed before the show and during intermission. They'd begun the prep work the previous week, and many had been on their feet nonstop since 11 that morning. (Whoever made those puff pastry-goat cheese things, my taste buds thank you.)

In the theater lobby, displays showcased many of the student offerings in various subcategories, from "glamour" photography to animated shorts.

When the awards ceremony got underway, there were a few glitches, from screeching microphone feedback to awkward pauses while finalists made their way to the stage. A couple of winners were inadvertently revealed at the wrong time.

But, like Jennifer Lawrence's tumble on her way to receive her best actress Oscar, the students' occasional missteps only made the event that much more charming.

Best of all, the film festival clearly illustrated the most important feat of all: These kids have really learned something of worth.

Whether the task was designing the artwork for the program, announcing the winners or producing a film, the students gained experience in shepherding their creative visions to fruition. Their projects required them to write, plan, organize, collaborate, improve their technique and self-edit. And in gathering to honor some of their own, they displayed poise, maturity, enthusiasm and an unbridled love of their craft.

Alexis Martin, a junior at Costa Mesa High School who won the grand prize for best overall film, told me he'd decided to sign up for the film and video class at his school, taught by Javier Espinoza, after completing his foreign language requirement and realizing he had some freedom in his schedule to pursue another interest.

He'd been filming on his own for a few years before taking the class, and had taught himself how to achieve certain digital effects that he was able to incorporate into his award-winning entry, "Vacant," about a boy who dozes off in class and dreams of being chased by a shadowy figure.

Alexis said he and classmate Justin Fisher came up with the concept for the film, and through Espinoza's help, learned about the myriad details that must go into a "real professional production," such as securing the rights to film in certain locations. "There's a lot of paperwork," he said.

He also learned filming and editing techniques to help achieve a seamless "flow" from scene to scene. "When we'd shoot a scene, we'd shoot a certain way so we could edit it well," he said.

Alexis plans to sign up for a more advanced film class next year, after which he wants to study film in college.

"I really like to be able to think of an idea and have it come to life," he said.

Well said, for that is the essence of art, after all; it is a vision realized. That these young people have had an opportunity to become creatively adventurous, learn valuable skills, and see their products celebrated is yet another example of how Newport-Mesa's CTE program is fulfilling its mission of offering students experiences that are at once diverse, practical and highly fulfilling.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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