The active culture of Interlochen’s Motion Picture Arts program

  • Interlochen's 10-year-old Motion Picture Arts program is housed in the DeRoy Center for Film Studies.

  • Groundbreaking on the DeRoy Center for Film Studies.

  • MPA students listen to filmmaker Ken Burns (at right).

Director Michael Mittelstaedt talks about teaching visual storytelling—and its role in understanding art and oneself—on MPA’s 10th anniversary

Ten years ago, Interlochen launched an innovative program aimed at providing young film students with a progressive interdisciplinary education through writing, critical studies, and hands-on curriculum.

The Motion Picture Arts program is housed in a remarkable 26,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility on Interlochen’s wooded campus called the Aaron and Helen L. DeRoy Center for Film Studies, which is the only building of its kind in the country. In this unique facility, students have access to the key elements of filmmaking—four edit suites, a sound stage, a 178-seat projection space and classrooms equipped with cutting-edge technology.

There, film students can get a taste of all aspects of making a film—conceptualizing, screenwriting, storyboarding, production, editing, sound, and even entering films into competition.

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Motion Picture Arts at Interlochen is “an active culture,” said the division’s Director and Instructor Michael Mittelstaedt. For example, the orientation trips many Academy students and instructors take at the beginning of the school year may serve a slightly different purpose in Motion Picture Arts; Mittelstaedt said past trips have included working at the Peace Ranch.

“It is a way in which we can observe students work and see them collaborate on a physical, mental and creative project that is the same sort of animal that filmmaking is,” he said of the trips. “We … have an opportunity to observe them in novel situations doing things that are very similar to filmmaking.

“So, while cutting down a tree and hauling logs and digging a hole is not filmmaking, it also is, because we have a goal—we know how much we have to clear. We might have to think of ways we're going to do this so that it’s aesthetic and also safe … the opportunity after that is that we have a visual physical memory of what we just did.”

There are other benefits to such trips, Mittelstaedt added.

“We did something for someone else that is lasting ... which also invests in the community, who may be offering us locations and opportunities, things like that,” he said. “It's a small thing but I always admired schools that were doing service as part of their regular curriculum because I think that also helps build identity. This idea of ‘my experiences will help build my art’—if I don't have experiences in the community, then what is fueling my art?”

“These experiences are helping tie them into the idea that there's a community in motion picture arts there's a community at Interlochen, there's the world community that we need to belong to—otherwise I think any sort of artwork we're making is going to start to ring inauthentic because we haven't put ourselves out there and we aren’t thinking about other people and being empathetic in the way that we could be (through experience).”

Mittelstaedt believes that such variety in experience is crucial to the creative process—and to the students’ success, whether they become filmmakers or something else entirely.

“It's like, I could build a really fancy sports car, but I don't know anything about combustion engines. Or I am trying to write a love story, but I've never been in love,” he said. “My hope is that as we continue to build the program, it's not just within the department, students can go on internships that don't have to be about film—they could be about science or nature, those kinds of things, that would then fuel some of their work in filmmaking.”

Mittelstaedt said this also helps guide students toward thinking of themselves as artists, and developing their identities as such.

“We spend a lot of time making them work together, having them think more about how they fit together,” he said. “It's not just us talking about art and artistry ... we are writing stories about humanity and beauty and truth, and if you can get your head wrapped around that and see that you need to have experiences in those kinds of things ... it will help you then be more open and porous in having those ideas come in.

“We help them work on believing in themselves and believing that they can have an effect—and I think that translates really well into them thinking of themselves as artists and how they have an important role in society.”

Being part of the Interlochen community of artists doesn’t hurt. Students are fed a steady diet of guest artist appearance and master classes that range from photography and songwriting to poetry and, yes, filmmaking. Guests such as Ken Burns, Michael Moore, Andrea Nix Fine and Jeff Daniels have visited motion picture arts students over the decade, sharing lessons, words of wisdom and inspiration.

“We bring the spectrum of guest artists that represent a number of different places in filmmaking—music and screenwriting and those kinds of things,” Mittelstaedt said.

But it’s visits from former students of the Motion Picture Arts program that can inspire in a completely unique way.

“We really like getting the students who have graduated to come and engage with the current students and let them know what they can do coming out of here,” he said. “It's not always becoming a director. It can be many satisfying roles in visual storytelling, which has become pervasive in every career.

“That’s what's so exciting about it—they can do anything. They're coming out of here as storytellers and leaders, students who are familiar with how to calendar and prioritize and how to lead a group of 10 to 12 people through a project. That (can be applied) to really any career.”

In its first decade, the program has developed a network aspect, almost cooperative in nature, with former students working together and with others to build new works and feed each other’s creativity even further. And that’s something Mittelstaedt would like to see much more of in the future.

“I want people to start to think of this place as a cycle instead of as a place where you have a one-way path,” he said, “where you come in here and you come out, and you’ve exhausted everything you could've possibly done while you were here. I like to think that we can keep cycling them back.”

This idea of students in a cycle, creating new works together and coming back to share with and inspire the next generation, even encompasses the Motion Picture Arts faculty, who are also working film professionals.

“I think of it as a stream … if it starts to stand still, it gets stagnant,” he said. “Clear water is always the water that's running. So we’re thinking about our faculty in the same way … they are artists, and they need that opportunity to run.”

Mittelstaedt aspires to this same ideal in his own work. His current project, a film called “Chasing Daylight,” includes former students among its crew. And when he launched his crowdfunding effort for the film, he heard from many other former students—including some he wouldn’t have expected to reach out, who might not have had a perfect experience while at Interlochen.

“I was hearing that while it was tough here, they still had an opportunity to learn and to mature,” he said. “It made me think on how all students have an experience here, they all experience it in different ways. And they may experience what they need now, or they may experience something that germinates years out from now.

“I’ve been really valuing these reconnections with people that I haven't heard from in a long time and getting to hear about the work they're doing.”

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