Looking Forward: Motion Picture Arts at Interlochen Arts Academy

"Why would you leave a city like Chicago to be a camp counselor?" a friend asked me.

I took a lot of heat when I left the city nearly eight years ago to explore what I thought was the most brilliant opportunity.

Interlochen was developing a program for cinema dedicated to high school students, charting a course that was all but unexplored. I had never heard of anything like it and instantly knew when I arrived to campus I wanted to be a part of it. I felt the openness of the faculty and other divisions to embark on this department and the investment of the administration. Motion Picture Arts Division (MPA) was poised to become something tremendous.

In our first year, Motion Picture Arts was housed in The Writing House. We were adopted by the creative writers who gave us a classroom, a multimedia room where we planted our editing bays, and a long, narrow utility closet where we stacked our cameras and grip hardware alongside orphaned holiday decorations. Among creative writers, it was a perfect fit, a slew of brilliant instructors dedicated to story in a setting where the coffee flowed freely. We spent the summer prepping and developing curriculum for our first Academy season in 2005. There were plans to break ground on the new facility that August. None like it.

It’s hard to believe that we are now in our eighth year of the program, while at the same time it’s hard to believe we are only in our eighth year of the program from the standpoint of programmatic development and our students’ quickly mounting achievements. We began with 12 students and have grown to 28. During Arts Festival at the end of our first year, we screened six completed thesis films, which felt like a feat. This is rivaled now by 15-16 imaginative full productions each year.

Student works have been recognized with ample numbers of awards. Aaron Jaffe, the first student officially enrolled in MPA, earned the Panavision New Filmmaker Grant, the first given to a high school student, bringing home the opportunity to shoot using a professional Panavision camera package. 600lbs of gear. Funded by grants he wrote, it was an award that, in the spirit of the department, he then shared with a fellow student by asking him to act as camera operator so that he could focus on directing and story. His collaboration was a shared gift.

Our students have hit the film festival circuit, showcased alongside professional productions. They swept the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival, taking their top honors, and their work has received high recognition at Seattle’s NFFTY, Ann Arbor Film Festival, Los Angeles Film Festival, Heartland Film Festival, and Chicago’s CineYouth, to name a few. Recent graduate Jesse Einhorn-Johnson was a finalist in the NFAA YoungArts program, the competition that grants Presidential Scholars. In May 2012, Nic Weinfeld earned an internship at Cannes Film Festival with his thesis film, setting the pace for the department’s initiatives to guide our multi-year students to off-campus experiential education, internships, and study abroad.

MPA student work in visual storytelling and leadership is recognized by top universities and film schools: USC, CalArts, Art Center College of Design, NYU, Pitser, Northwestern University, Johns Hopkins and many others. Some are finding their way into meaningful mentorships that feed directly into the professional world. MPA grad Chad Engel is now working as a make-up effects artist assistant, his most recent credit on Rian Johnson’s film "Looper," starring Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

The core of Motion Picture Arts philosophy, no matter what the next 50 years brings, is story. Students progress through the program considering story from all angles; the dramatic questions in screenwriting, directing, production, editing, and critical studies. Dedicated faculty and the addition of resident filmmakers bring unique offerings and perspectives to the department. MPA and Creative Writing faculty Lesley Tye treats her critical studies classes as hands-on courses in which students are challenged in project-based instruction in Film History, Genres, and Aesthetics. Andy Hiss guides students through exploration of dramatic questions in Story, Scenes and Short Film Analysis, and Directing. Resident filmmaker offerings have included postproduction, production management, compositing, and camera movement. Our course offerings possess the breadth and depth of university curriculum. The combination of leadership, collaboration, communication, project management, effective storytelling, and skills in new media prepare our students for professions of the future.

The best knowledge of cinema is earned through the study of its components. As a requirement, our majors enroll in arts classes outside the department, which they use to inform their work in cinema. Some of these classes include fiction, art history, photography, dance, acting, and playwriting.

As a fundamental value, MPA works under a workshop and portfolio model, engaging students to begin to develop their identities as artists. Students are complex, and their work ought to be viewed with their entire portfolio in mind: story, visuals, and critical analysis. Working toward this goal, MPA majors develop an Artist’s Statement and a select compilation of their works that they believe best represents them at this point in their study, and which they then present to faculty for portfolio review.

MPA thrives because the department enjoys collaboration with the talented students and faculty from all departments, arts and academics. MPA prospers because its collaborators are strong. Theatre students perform in productions, musicians and composers write and record original scores, visual artists develop production designs/concepts, and design and production majors conceive, design and build sets. All the key components of a working studio are here at students’ fingertips. All the departments on campus at one point have been a partner to the visual stories created since 2005. There are now increased opportunities for collaboration with the additions of the Comparative Arts Division and Singer-Songwriter Program.

MPA majors study in the DeRoy Center for Film Studies, a facility built specifically for the program and envied by many college programs. The intention was that all its components were organized and developed in the spirit of a medium-sized production studio. It’s easy to become transfixed by the beautiful mix of form and function of the DeRoy Center for Film Studies: a commons and projection space seating nearly 200, three classrooms, four edit suites, a soundstage, all connected by fiber optic, and room to grow into the next phases of Motion Picture Arts at Interlochen.

In the DeRoy Commons, the Future of Cinema Film Festival began in 2007 as an initiative to create opportunities to mix students with professional artists for meaningful interactions and conversations about the direction of cinema while showcasing students’ current works.

Our professional guests artist list for Future of Cinema (FOCFF) is growing. Each year, the festival invites guests who will share face-to-face time with students in masterclasses and workshops, which distinguishes FOCFF from other festivals where guests are only voices from a lectern. We bring guests of many different backgrounds to help spur the conversation of what is next in visual storytelling. In turn, the event attracts the attention from students of all art forms. Our past guests have been Ken Burns (documentary filmmaker), Dennis Muren (senior visual effect supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic), Andrea Nix-Fine (Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker of "WarDance"), Robert and Shana Parke (Harrison visual artists), Jad Abumrad (host/creator of RadioLab and a MacArthur Genius), Doug Stanton (New York Times Best Selling Author of "In Harm’s Way" and "Horse Soldiers"), and Jeff Wozniak (senior digital artist at Industrial Light & Magic). This festival recognizes the value of young students’ education in visual storytelling and celebrates the work of high school students from all over the world. The aim of the festival is not only to inform and introduce young filmmakers to one another, but to begin to generate creative works during and after the festival.

Interlochen’s eye was on the future when it considered Motion Picture Arts as a major. The next step is the expansion of our offerings toward advancing forms of cinema. Animation and Documentary are aspects of cinema that are being developed, with the goal that they will become components of the Motion Picture Arts Academy curriculum that then sets the pace for the potential of interactive media. This past summer camp season’s launch of both these programs was a test model for what is to come. Documentary students learned the essentials of non-fiction storytelling with a professional project during which they were challenged to create a short documentary on one of the filmmakers at the Traverse City Film Festival. Animation students were working with hybrids of cell, stop motion, and digital moving images.

In an effort to grow the Academy as a lifelong destination of learning, the MPA Division has begun to develop the concept of the Interlochen Cinema Collective to embrace the notion of students, guests and faculty as future collaborators. The goal is to build MPA into a worldwide summit of flimmaking that may become one’s lifelong well of experience and professional education. Its mission will be to structure opportunities for faculty to continue to generate projects and work as professional artists while allowing students to collaborate on professional work. MPA graduates will submit applications to return to campus to take on roles as resident artists, while at the same time they will fulfill roles as members of the Collective crew on films in development, earning professional credits and networking. In its future generations, MPA graduates will have the chance to submit work for development within the Collective for workshop, development, and production. The target is 2014-2015 as the official launch - the 10th Anniversary of Motion Picture Arts.