It was a sun-washed Saturday afternoon, made for the beach, the pool or the sandlot (assuming there are any sandlots left). But the vast, cool darkness of the Goldwyn Theater at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills was full of young people, on hand for the Los Angeles Student Film Institute's eighth annual student film festival.
Some were very young, still in elementary school, in fact. All were film makers; many were animators. While the international varsity was discovering its own winners at the Cannes festival, as reported elsewhere on these pages, the jayvees from 15 or so Southern California schools were getting plaques or certificates for the best among about 250 short films submitted.
The festival is part of the ongoing legacy of a drive that began perhaps a quarter-century ago to make film study, including film making, part of the secondary school curriculum. The idea's most conspicuous prophet was a tall and affable Jesuit named John Culkin, the Johnny Appleseed of sprocket holes.
Culkin's urging led to the forming of the Los Angeles Film Teachers Assn., which continues and prospers, now largely as a film-screening organization, although it has also made its own awards.
The Student Film Institute, led by Brenda Norman, a former teacher now at ABC television, is an independent offshoot that concentrates on helping teachers to teach film, holds critiquing sessions with professionals for young film makers and is running the festival.
George Schaefer, the film maker recently appointed head of the cinema, television and theater department at UCLA, presided Saturday afternoon as the festival's honorary chairman. June Foray, the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel and many other cartoon characters, was one of several celebrity presenters.
This year there were four new awards for film storytelling, named in honor of the late Bill Scott, co-creator of "Rocky and His Friends" and the voice of Bullwinkle Moose. Scott, who died last year, was an active member of the institute.
As in prior years, the delight of the winning films was their energy and their refreshing humor (Godzilla said he never left home without his American Express card in one short parody film).
The surprise, which ought not to be a surprise eight years later, is how professional and assured the senior high work is.
The Bill Scott Award winner in its category was "The Nightwatch" by Jaime Cuadros and Stewart Pera. It's a spooky, shadowy work of frame animation using clay figures and telling a tale of hapless volunteers for a night-watchman's job in an old mansion. We watch one of them come to a powdery bad end, before the cycle starts again.
One of the delights in the grade-school category was an animation project involving a whole class (Akida Kissane Lewis' fourth-graders at the 49th Street School). "The Adventures of Ms. Punky Power and Friends" had voice-overs by what sounded like every member of the class and drawings--of a pumpkin character doing magical things--by several hands.
The role of the dedicated teacher is easy to detect. Rowland Heights under Dave Master is a powerhouse ("The Nightwatch," the labor of a whole school year, came from there, as did several others). Jutti Marsh at Loreto Street School gets enchanting animation from kindergartners through third-graders, as does Joanne Scheding at John Thomas Dye School. Three third-grade sections at Clover Avenue School, under Cathy Weinstein, Bob Bishop and Judy Solish, all had entries.
This year's finalists reflect the growing ethnic diversity of Southern California. In the academy auditorium, as on the credit sheets, you could see international consortiums of very young auteurs working together.
The originating notion, a quarter-century ago, was that film and television are going to loom large in young people's lives and that for their own pleasure and safety the young people should know how they work and influence us.
That was half of it. The other half was that making films requires reading, writing, study and patience and that the making of films is a motivation that lends great appeal to all of the above. So it has proved to be these several years.
John Culkin used to talk about a 12-year-old in the Bronx, already a productive film maker, whose mother wouldn't let him see Fellini's work for fear of corrupting his style.
It was one of those remarks that hint of the apocryphal. But the Student Film Festival has already seen some of its winners head for film school and the industry. This is not, I think, the primary value of the festival. The larger values come from understanding the media and being pleasurably motivated to combine persistence and imagination. But the festival is indeed identifying some of tomorrow's creative professionals, and helping them identify themselves.