Baltimore School for the Arts’ New Film Program Builds on Success of Summer Pilot Course

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Students await their turn to audition for the Baltimore School for the Arts’ new film program on Feb. 11, 2017. Photo courtesy of Baltimore School for the Arts.

Shannon Hutchinson, a senior in the Baltimore School for the Arts’ acting program, is used to playing characters on stage and screen. Last summer, however, she had a chance to learn just how much work goes on behind the scenes to make a good film, thanks to a pilot program offered by her school.

“Sometimes it’s hard to conceptualize until you’re behind the camera seeing what the frame actually is,” she said.

This fall, the prestigious Baltimore School for the Arts in Mount Vernon will launch its Film and Visual Storytelling program with an inaugural class of 17 ninth-graders. The school announced the new program in January, accompanied by the news that founder Mark Joseph and his wife, Patricia, had donated no less than $3 million to fund it.

Eighth-graders from around the city auditioned for the coveted spots in the first class of the program earlier this month. The film school has already sent out acceptance letters, said BSA spokeswoman Stephanie Jayakanthan.

The new track will incorporate the success and lessons from the school’s summer 2016 pilot program, which was funded by the Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation. For six weeks, teachers Tom Ventimiglia and Beatriz Bufrahi led Hutchinson and 15 of her peers through a crash course on filmmaking. The first two weeks covered screenwriting; the next two weeks, production; and the final two weeks, post-production.

They met every weekday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. – while other students were enjoying days off from class, Bufrahi noted.

“The students were so open-minded to everything,” she said. “It was a very vigorous day.”

The cohort consisted of freshmen, sophomores and juniors, ranging from visual artists to dancers and theater students. “It was so nice that these students were able to work outside their discipline,” said Bufrahi, who has taught visual arts and some film courses at BSA since 2004.

Ventimiglia, a writer by trade and an English teacher at the school for the last 10 years, said a few students who weren’t as academically engaged as their classmates during the school year were “100-percent engaged” during the filmmaking pilot program. There were a couple by whom he was “blown away,” he added.

A student auditions for a spot in the Baltimore School for the Arts’ film program on Feb. 11, 2017. Photo courtesy Baltimore School for the Arts.

Beyond instruction and collaboration, the program also gave students an array of real-world examples of how they could use those skills in a professional setting. Screenwriters, documentary filmmakers and staff from the Baltimore Film Office, which works with all filmmakers scouting and filming in Baltimore, came to speak with them during the first two weeks; the construction coordinator for House of Cards, famously filmed here in Baltimore, stopped by during the second segment; and film editors and staff from the Maryland Film Festival came by during the final two weeks.

They also traveled to Studio Unknown, a recording studio in Catonsville, and the House of Cards film set, among other places, “to see what’s out there…not just the cameraman or the lighting or the acting,” said Bufrahi.

At the end of the six-week pilot, the students had produced two final narratives and two documentaries. Ventimiglia said Joseph, formerly chair of the BSA’s board, took the time to see what young budding filmmakers had created.

“Mark ended up watching all the films 100 percent through,” Ventimiglia said. “I think he saw that this was a viable program.”

The progress was enough to spur the Josephs to personally fund a full film track for the school within the year. Their latest contribution brings their donation total to BSA to more than $5 million.

Hutchinson said the program is “much-needed” for her very talented classmates. “There’s a lot of people who come into the school really wanting to do film, and they do other things that they also love, but they also have a passion for film,” she said.

Despite the widespread technologies that enable anyone to make a clear video today, there’s a lot more than goes into it, as she learned.

“Outside of school, you can play around with the camera and make nice-looking films, but there’s so many things that you don’t know you didn’t know about filmmaking until you have someone tell you in a classroom setting,” Hutchinson said. “There’s just such an importance to technique, even if it’s just a little bit.”

BSA director Dr. Chris Ford noted in the school’s January announcement that the program will enable students to tap into a $300-billion film and TV industry. Bufrahi said she hopes some that can start right here in Baltimore with an infusion of new filmmakers from the Baltimore School for the Arts.

“That model is amazing. It’s the interaction with the real world and having it all in Baltimore and the surrounding world,” she said. “I feel like we have all this amazing infrastructure already; we just need the businesses.”

Ethan McLeod
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