Follow the Story
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We have always prioritized literacy as a core component of a San Domenico education. But literacy in the 21st century has become much more than the written word. Literacy has become visual. How do SD students learn to discern between honest and dishonest messaging? How can SD students learn to compose honest messaging that can change the world? How can SD students join the visual, online conversations of our times so they can graduate as empowered citizens?
These thoughts were top of mind this past weekend, as six SD Middle and Upper School filmmakers—along with Head of School Cecily Stock and Director of Digital Arts Harry Maxon—found themselves among thousands of students gathered in New York at the 2022 All American High School Film Festival. Four SD films (watch them here) were accepted into this prestigious festival and screened for a sold-out festival audience at the AMC Empire 25 Theater in Times Square, the busiest movie theater in the world.
Since we launched our film program nearly ten years ago, we’ve seen our students win accolades for their work. But this festival—like our Digital Arts program—is about so much more than that. All American was started by an English teacher who believes students in the 21st century must learn to compose visually. Similarly, our Digital Arts program is not just about making movies; it’s about empowering our students to give voice to what matters most to them.
It’s all about storytelling.
Growing our Digital Arts program to meet the needs of our students is a priority for San Domenico. From professional-grade cinema cameras and app-operated lights; to gimbals, drones, and car mounts; to virtual production using video game engines and motion trackers as seen on productions like The Mandalorian; to interdisciplinary learning between our Game Academy, Animation, and Visual Arts students to create 3D art and installations; recent investments in these tools ensure that there is no limit to what our students can produce. “This is what drives me as an educator,” says Mr. Maxon. “To be able to empower students to produce anything they can imagine is why we are all here.”
Of course, all the tools in the world are nothing without good storytelling, and that is at the core of Mr. Maxon’s approach to teaching literacy through Digital Arts. With brand new equipment arriving on campus at the beginning of summer, Maxon and his film students had ten days to produce a ten-minute film—a project that would typically require a full year on a normal production schedule—to meet submission deadlines for the 2022 All American High School Film Festival.
With an emphasis on storytelling, the team goal was to be accepted into the festival, where the students could then see what they are up against in terms of technical achievement, in preparation for next year. And that’s exactly what happened. Reunion, along with three other SD films, earned a spot in the most prestigious student film festival in the world.
A New York education.
After a late-night arrival, the group hit the ground running on Friday. With the festival centered around Times Square, Mr. Maxon and Ms. Stock wanted to make sure our students could see another side of New York. Following a subway ride down to the West Village, the group ate bagels in Washington Square Park, strolled through the NYU Tisch School of the Arts where they chatted with some film students, and—at the request of our students—visited the Stonewall Inn, recognized as the birthplace of the gay rights movement in the United States.
The dizzying day was capped off with a Dinner and Dance cruise for all festival participants. Touring around Manhattan and circling the Statue of Liberty, our students hung out with filmmakers from schools across the country and around the world, each marveling at this opportunity to explore New York City together.
Saturday was the big day for our SD filmmakers, as they rushed to the AMC Empire 25 Theater in Times Square to see their films screened in front of a sold-out crowd. Our students took their seats feeling nervous, but were soon thrilled by the audience's response. Reunion got the laughs where the students were hoping for laughs and concluded with grand applause, a rarity in these screenings. The audience responded how the filmmakers intended them to respond in all the right moments: a testament to the power of storytelling that Mr. Maxon is teaching his young filmmakers.
After rushing from theater to theater to see all four SD films, our students explored the festival’s college fair. Upwards of 25 colleges and universities were there representing their film and media programs, answering questions from interested students and connecting them with administrators who oversee the schools’ admissions process. (“What can I do to help improve my chances of being accepted into your program?” an SD student asked one university admissions representative. Their response: “Take AP courses, and make more work that gets into this festival.”)
Saturday ended with the Best of the Fest, where films from earlier in the day were handpicked by festival judges for special recognition. A packed event, our students got to meet the filmmakers whose films they admired, and saw the technical threshold that we will now try to achieve for all future years, to get San Domenico films featured in the Best of the Fest.
The future of filmmaking is here at SD.
On Sunday, our team visited one of the many workshops put on by the festival, where our students and Mr. Maxon discussed the future of filmmaking with a representative from the Ithaca College Roy H. Park Television and Digital Media Production (TVDM) program. Just a few short months ahead of what we are building here at SD, TVDM has implemented the same cutting-age technologies that we have invested in and are used in professional productions including The Mandalorian. Combining real-world motion capture with artificial worlds built via video game engine, the result is the ability to film actors within the virtual world without the need for green screens and compositing. In short, it is the future of filmmaking. This leap in film technology is as significant as the introduction of sound in 1927’s The Jazz Singer. And our students are at the forefront.
That evening, San Domenico hosted our students for a celebratory dinner at Carmine’s, a Times Square institution, before heading to Brooklyn for the Teen Indie Awards. Our students walked the red carpet and reveled in the excitement of the Oscars of the high school film circuit. More than $600,000 in scholarships were awarded to winning filmmakers during the event. Our students were excited to see their favorite comedy win in that category, with the award presented to them by HBO’s John Oliver.
With a flight back to SFO on Monday, our filmmakers were back on campus Tuesday and already planning for next year. In his Film 1 class, Mr. Maxon presented some of the winning films to his younger students so they can understand the landscape. “This is our goal,” says Mr. Maxon. “To get an SD film in every category at the 2023 All American High School Film Festival.”
We can’t wait to see it!