New Media team travels to NYC to compete in film fest

And they meet Anderson Cooper along the way

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New Media team travels to NYC to compete in film fest

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Select students of the New Media program headed for New York earlier this month to attend the All-American High School Film Festival.  Chaperoned by New Media teacher Steve Douglass, the young filmmakers were tasked with the rigorous challenge of filming a six-minute short in the first two and a half days of the festival with the only prompt being that the title must include, “The Art of.”

The opportunity was opened up to New Media through a connection with the head marketing director of Final Cut Pro during Chicago Summer Stories.  As an Apple Distinguished Educator, Steve Douglass and other media teachers around the Chicagoland area collaborated with Apple on a project called Chicago Summer Stories.  Students were tasked with producing short documentaries about Generation Z with other students from the Chicagoland area.

Senior Nick Wnuk and Junior Caroline Zeeman were selected to be a part of the project and did a great job representing LFHS.  The head of Final Cut Pro Marketing suggested she, Wnuk and others should come to NYC for the All-American High School festival for a presentation on CSS at the launch party, along with competing in the 3-Day Challenge.

“As you can imagine when I brought this opportunity to all of the advanced students in my classes, everyone wanted to go,” said Douglass.  “So I built the crew around the upperclassmen who collaborated well in the previous MMEA 7-Day contests and that momentum continued through the 3 days.”

The 3-Day challenge was fairly simple: shoot, edit, and submit a movie filmed entirely in NYC in the three days and the winner would be announced at the Teen Indie Awards, along with a $5,000 prize for media equipment for the school.

In the previous two months leading up to the festival, students were allowed to cast actors, assign crew and roles, and compose a script.  Andrew Rempala and Kate Stephenson took on the roles of head writers; however, the entire crew helped edit and refine the script. “Writing this short was incredibly fun, it never once felt like we were doing tedious work – even though we made 15+ drafts of the script,” said Kate Stephenson.  

The team of 10 consisted of eight LFHS students, Homewood Flossmoor senior Jalen Robinson and Batavia senior Tyler Neander.  Both talented cinematographers met Douglass, Wnuk, and Zeeman during the Chicago Summer Stories program. Impressed by their work, they were invited to attend the film festival as a part of the LFHS team.  

“Working with Tyler and Jalen over the summer was incredible. They have an outstanding array of talent, but more importantly, they are great guys to work with.

I hope one day I can work professionally with them, and if not, with people like them”

— Senior Nick Wnuk

,” said Wnuk.

The crew departed for New York after school on Oct. 2 and stayed in the Sheraton Hotel Times Square, where the majority of other AAHSFF film crews stayed.  On the first day to shoot the team bounced around the city from Bryant Park to Grand Central Station. Then a subway ride to Brooklyn, and back to Grace Church School.  The day concluded with one more subway ride out to Davey’s Ice Cream in East Village and one ride back to the hotel.

The first day was not only a logistical challenge, but also a physical.  

“Lugging around film equipment across NYC was no easy task.  Michael Pasquella ended up being water-jug-guy and carried a gallon of water everywhere we went,” said Andrew Rempala.  

“I thought I had pulled every muscle in my back by the end of day one,” said senior actor Pasquella.  

The team walked around seven miles day 1 and prepared for day 2.  Rinse and repeat. The crew went back to Brooklyn early the next morning to fix some shots with audio bugs.  Then took a subway back to Manhattan, to the CNN building on Central Park for some filler shots. The crew then ventured into Central Park to film the notorious ‘Breakup Scene’.  

The original intention was to shoot at CNN studios the following night but as that plan fell through by way of the dreaded release form, the crew improvised.  Pasquella called upon his father, Mark Pasquella to request access to CBRE’s downtown Manhattan office, which he thankfully was able to grant the crew.

“Our whole idea, all of the six weeks of script development and two days of shooting would have been for naught, but with a slight pivot in the script, we were able to finish the project with the story the students honed through 15 draft critiques,” said Douglass on the clutch adjustment.

But that incredible save was not even the highlight of the day, as the whole program ventured to CNN studios to be given a tour thanks to a connection to Kara Kasarjian, a senior producer for Anderson Cooper 360.  Kara gave the crew a tour of the studios and introduced them to Anderson Cooper himself as he invited everyone into his office and told some stories of the pictures on his walls before scurrying out to immediately go on air.  

“The way he designed his office reflected how he got to where he is today.  He took the time, seven minutes before reporting breaking news, to bring us in and tell stories,”  Wnuk said. “It reflected his ability to be present and it inspired me, as a producer, to apply that trait to the way the crew functioned on set”

Kara then led everyone to the control room where they watched the behind-the-scenes of the show.  The control room was especially hectic as Brett Kavanaugh had dropped an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal right before showtime.  The entire opening to the show had to be rewritten in just eight minutes.

“The room was electric, fast-paced and everything was calculated.  It truly is incredible what goes on behind the scenes, and that type of work environment is high pressure and definitely not meant for everybody,” said Pasquella.

The crew concluded the shoot on the 5th and rushed back to the hotel to edit.  Tyler Neander and  Wnuk split editing credits, as Wnuk produced the rough draft and Neander ran with it from there.   Stephenson handled mixing the sound. The final product was completed turned in about five minutes before submissions closed, leaving no breathing room whatsoever.

“It was honestly the most relieving moment of my life,” said Andrew Rempala said.

With the weight of the film(and literal gear) lifted off their shoulders, the crew was able to enjoy the rest of their trip stress-free.  They attended the opening night party of the AAHSFF where Nick, Tyler, Jalen, and Caroline gave inspiring presentations on their CSS experience the packed audience.  Later that night, the film crews from across the world were brought together and mingled in a high school dance type format.

In the next two days, the crew watched several screenings of independently submitted student films at the AMC in Times Square.  As well as their own screening of the “The Art of Strawberry Ice Cream.” The festival also hosted a college fair for the students with several big-league film, technology, art, and communications schools hosting.

“I know we are all incredibly proud of the final product, and seeing it on the big screen at AMC cemented this passion for all of us. It reminded us why we do what we do, and we couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity,” Stephenson said.

The next day all the crews from around the world gathered for the Teen Indie Awards, or the Tindie’s.  LFHS, unfortunately, did not nominate for their 3-day challenge video, but they did have some major takeaways.  “Other groups did phenomenal jobs with their projects all around us, and it inspires you to make your work better,”  said Wnuk.

The next major project for the New Media program will be the MMEA 7-Day Challenge, where they have seven days to start from scratch and create a short film.  LFHS has won this contest in the past,t and hopes to take bring home first this year against schools across Illinois. Production will take place Nov. 6-13.

“I always learn so much from these experiences, how to move a lot of students in an out of the NYC Subway certainly tops the list. We absolutely won with the 7-day pass. But my biggest win was seeing both Andrew Rempala and Kate Stephenson figure out the right fit for their next steps in pursuing film and sound design respectively,” said Douglass.“Everyone had something different they loved or shared as their top experience and that’s when I knew it was a successful trip!”