Silent is Golden | Billy Miller

Three years prior to The Artist becoming only the second silent movie ever to win a Best Picture Oscar, philanthropist JP Palanuk founded the International Youth Silent Film Festival (IYSFF).  Those under age 20 are invited to make three-minute silent films to themes scored by organ prodigy Nathan Avakian. Finalists get judged by movie pros (like X-Men producer Tom DeSanto and Gus Van Sant) as well as audiences in Portland, Oregon, Mansfield, Ohio, and Adelaide, Australia.

Support from Caldera Arts enabled me to offer three-day workshops at Portland’s public arts magnet da Vinci Arts Middle School. Billed a “Silent Film Smackdown,” each grade had a little over six hours to write, produce and edit a silent film using one of the IYSFF’s six themes, including action, romance, slapstick, horror, mystery and sci-fi.

Our sixth-grade boys wrote simple scenarios of who/where/what on an index card then connected the dots adding onto each other’s sequences. Everyone invests in the plot as it organically reveals itself. A good idea can come from anywhere, all voices are heard in the writing and we could focus on creatively filming each beat for best effect.

Kodak Zi8 point-and-shoot cameras enabled us to work quickly with minimal technical instruction so we could focus on story and movement. For that, inimitable Caldera alum Taylor Scheetz immediately got them acting broadly and asking questions later. This group of four rambunctious sixth-graders enlisted Scheetz as their foil, “The Sinister Slapper,” who picks them off before waylaying them into submission, just like he was once threatened, as the students deftly allude to in flashback.  Yet Scheetz plumbs the role for dignity and grace, moving nimbly from each ambush to with considerable pride. Like one audience member noted, “He’s sinister, but not too sinister.”

All credit goes to IYSFF for designing a contest perfectly geared toward young filmmakers. Without dialogue, the true nature of cinema emerges, requiring each shot to get across the point. At only three minutes and with only a few required titles to clarify, the guiding light is Avakian’s evocative compositions. Once students have a song in mind, it can set the tone, provide contrast and offer a ready-made mood to structure by. At the last minute, our sixth-grade crew was even able to change their theme to one they knew accompanied their piece best.

Only six hours total put major strain on the edit, which can often take longer than production. Using the freeware program MPEG Streamclip, their files were joined into one large block they had to watch projected, deciding what didn’t fit to cut away. My seventh-grade daughter Mabel polished in Final Cut Pro and they had a film which made it to the finalist stage.

Seeing it on the big screen at Portland’s Hollywood Theater with Avakian’s live accompaniment was a thrill, especially when it was warmly received and viewers laughed in all the right places. Two days later “The Case of The Sinister Slapper” won the Audience Award, ensuring we’ll be back and hopefully joined by more young people looking for a fun way to make films — very quietly.

Here is the full film.  Enjoy!

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