For over 20 years, innovative and exciting video production programs across the country have challenged teenagers to pick up their camcorders and create their own video movies. Now teen videographers, with their own TV shows, video contests and distributors, are the hottest thing going. But you won’t see any remakes of MTV here. These kids are a sophisticated bunch, using video to explore the issues of the day and tell their own stories as part of the growing trend of teen-made video.

Not Your Average School Assignment

Going beyond the standard school video projects of taping the school play, teens like Karla Medrano, 17, are exploring videomaking in the classroom through intensive video courses in school. At Episcopal High School in Houston, Texas, Karla is a member of ETV, the school’s video production crew, which creates a student-produced video magazine shown in a school-wide assembly. Each 20-minute episode is entirely student-written, shot and edited. In the past, students have produced experimental pieces on the environment, documentaries on the local music scene and narrative projects dealing with important teen issues like relationships, drugs, drunk driving and AIDS.

“When I first started taking video class,” say Karla, “I thought it would be so hard. But when I picked up the camera and started coming up with ideas, I discovered that it was more fun than anything else I had ever done! I love it!”

Although many high schools across the country offer video classes, Episcopal’s video program is unique, offering students a full four years of study that begins with a daily Media Studies course and ends with independent projects in video and 16mm film. With ample equipment–five Panasonic S-VHS camcorders, a Panasonic GY-X2 3CCD camera, Lowell lights, Bogen tripods, Sennheiser and Sony microphones and two JVC S-VHS edit suites–students are encouraged to explore issues and stories that have personal meaning to teens.

Since its inception in 1991, Episcopal’s video students have won national awards, been featured in video festivals and even had their videos shown on TV. Because Episcopal’s video program is so intensive and unusual for a high school, many Episcopal graduates receive scholarships to continue their studies in film schools like NYU, USC and UCLA.

Sam Douglas, a junior at New York University’s film school, began making videos in a school video class at the age of 15. As a high-school senior, Sam co-produced an entirely student-made TV series, Shoot Back: Student Television Takes Control, which aired on a local independent channel.

“When I started making videos in high school, I had no idea that I wanted to go to film school and become a cinematographer and videographer. All I knew was that I really had fun doing it. Then people started telling me they liked my videos and the TV show we did. But if I hadn’t picked up the camera that first time, I wouldn’t be here at NYU now.”

Tough Issues

School isn’t the only place kids are using video to tell their own stories. In New York City, over 60 kids between the ages of 15 to 19 attend the High School Documentary Workshops at the Educational Video Center (EVC). The teenagers, who come from alternative schools around New York, receive school credit for spending three hours a day, four days a week planning, shooting and editing their own award-winning videos in a well-equipped facility that includes a Media 100 editing suite. Focusing on such topics as school inequality, housing and depression, their hard-hitting programs have won numerous accolades and have been featured on PBS’s Frontline and in festivals around the world.

Angus Morgan began making videos in his high-school communications program and then joined the Documentary Workshops at EVC. Now, at age 20, he works for YO TV! another EVC program that pays teens to produce videos. This season, YO TV! members are training nine other teens to make videos and are producing a six-month series for cable access called City Stories, focusing on issues that affect teens in their neighborhoods. Angus’s controversial video, Hustling, looks at the ways inner-city teens make money–legally and illegally.

“I choose topics that mean something to me or to other teens,” says Angus. “Making these videos allows us to express ourselves and lets other people see how we think and feel. So many people think that hustling is a bad thing, but sometimes, it’s what we have to do to survive!”

Although the approach at EVC is more investigative and journalistic than other programs, it is the academic discipline of writing and researching that gives these teens the ability to tackle even the toughest issues. "Not much fazes these kids,” explains Karen Helmerson, Associate Director of EVC. “These issues–racism, drugs, violence, sex–and the way kids treat them may be upsetting to adults, but they are absolutely central to the kids’ lives. This is what they are dealing with on a daily basis."

Digging Deeper

Tackling tough issues doesn’t scare the teenaged videographers at Rheedlen’s Rise and Shine Productions in New York City. They regularly delve into race relations, violence, drugs, sexism and youth rights on their award-winning cable-access television program, The Real Deal, made by and for inner-city teens.

Rise and Shine Productions is a 12-year-old program of Rheedlen Center for Children and Families, a social-service organization in Harlem. It empowers inner-city teens to explore their environment and culture through extensive video and media-analysis classes. The 40 teens at Rise and Shine are selected through a stringent interview process. Once selected, they meet after school twice a week and receive free transportation to and from the studio on West 43rd Street.

Rise and Shine’s equipment is plentiful, including several Panasonic S-VHS cameras, four S-VHS editing suites, Videonics titlers and mixers, Sennheiser microphones, Bogen tripods, Lowell lighting kits and a few Sony 8mm cameras won from the Sony Visions of U.S. Contest. With this arsenal, the teens make videos that win almost every teen video contest in the country.

Pablo David, 15, began making videos two years ago as a member of the Rheedlen Youth Council. After learning the basics of video production, he produced a 60-second PSA on police brutality. The next year, he produced a poetry video about police mistreatment of kids in Harlem for Tamouz Media’s international series of short films on children’s rights.

“Kids have gut feelings about issues,” says Laura Vural, founding director of Rheedlen’s Rise and Shine. “But they haven’t been encouraged to give voice to them. Making videos allows teens to explore sensitive issues and encourages their own inner exploration as well.”

Within the year, Pablo will become a full crew member of The Real Deal, working with 25 other teens to produce an hour-long program each month on a different theme and topic. Pablo wants to mentor other young aspiring videographers and hopes to make a video documentary about his family heritage among the Garifuna blacks of Central America.

Things You Can’t See on TV

Each summer in North Long Beach, California, teenagers between the ages of 12 and 18 combine art and activism in VIDKIDCO’s summer programs sponsored by the Long Beach Museum of Art. With access to six Panasonic S-VHS camcorders, a professional S-VHS edit system, a Video Toaster, a full studio with lights and the Museum’s video art archives, the 10 summer-video teens work seven hours a day for 2-1/2 weeks to produce experimental documentaries, poetry videos and activist pieces on AIDS and controversial political questions. Their work has been seen in many festivals, museums and on Deep Dish TV. And a piece entitled, The Cultural Identity Crisis of an All-American Girl, by Kimiko Roberts aired on PBS’ In The Mix.

Introducing teens to “things they can’t see on TV” is VIDKIDCO’s strategy for helping them delve deeper into themselves and their communities. VIDKIDCO students spend a great deal of time looking at and discussing alternative video art and activist videos. “Many people think that kids can’t get into alternative art video, but they love it,” explains Gina Lamb, a VIDKIDCO teacher.

As a result of their studies, many VIDKIDCO students combine art and activism in pieces like Missing Latina, which is about the absence of Latinas on television. “Watching and discussing alternative video gives kids ideas for ways to approach videomaking that go beyond repeating what they see everyday,” says Gina Lamb. “It helps them learn to see, think about and use video in more creative ways.”

Getting Real

What makes VIDKIDCO, Rise and Shine, EVC and other innovative video programs around the country so exciting is their emphasis on creative, original and controversial work by and for teens. And when teens are encouraged to explore the issues that truly affect them, the results are often both startling and enlightening.

When Karla Medrano first showed her award-winning, three-minute silent narrative, The Eyes You Stole, about an abusive teenage relationship in which the lead female character kills herself after a long, violent affair, there was silence in the auditorium. It frightened and outraged many adults unfamiliar with teen issues. But teens responded positively to watching another teen address something that was true and real for many teenagers.

“So many kids came up to me afterwards and told me how glad they were to see a video that really talked about teen influences from a teen’s point of view,” says Karla. “That meant a lot to me because I really wanted to show something that was a real part of teen life–something that no one ever talks about, but that exists.”

In Marshetta Thompson’s and Nancy Hops’ VIDKIDCO poetry video about racism and gang violence, What I See, several teens from different ethnic backgrounds face the camera and scream racial epithets. For most viewers, it is a shocking and discomforting moment. But once the sparks stop flying, viewers realize the teens are using video to deal with the anger they feel when confronted with those words they hear everyday.

“The piece is very hard-hitting,” recalls VIDKIDCO’s director, Martha Cholmo-Helmsley, who worked with the girls to produce it. “But it came from the heart. It was about their anger. They let it out in the video and it became a terrific catalyst piece for discussions about racism and pain and shame.” Teen videographer Marshetta Thompson agrees and often presents the video at schools and conferences to resounding acclaim.

Although some young videographers want to be Hollywood filmmakers, most have no such aspirations; they just enjoy making videos and have something important to say to other teens and adult viewers. “For me, it’s important to make videos because I like to teach everybody about what happens in my culture and my neighborhood,” explains Pablo David from Rise and Shine Productions. “It makes me feel like I’m doing something positive, not being stuck inside the house.”

Angus Morgan from EVC agrees. “Every video I make is a piece of me. So much of what we teens experience is different from what adults experience. The freedom to express ourselves, to reveal that experience, is what I like most.”

Doing It

While making your own videos may seem daunting, teen videographers all agree that once you start, you’ll discover the joy of making video.

In most teen video programs, the process for making videos is the same: kids begin with a brainstorming session, asking themselves and each other what they want to make a video about. Once they choose an idea, the teens work to develop the script, prepare a shooting script, shoot and edit. When they finish the videos, the group watches and critiques them, helping each other learn from mistakes and successes.

“Coming up with the ideas is always the hardest part,” says Karla Medrano. “You don’t just want to do a rip-off of some TV show or get carried away with trying to do special effects. Just concentrate on what is important to you–your stories, your friends, your family, your community.”

Martha Cholmo-Helmsley explains that many teenaged videographers think they have to make a blockbuster hit movie or focus on some big issue, yet the most successful teen videos are much less expensive and much more personal. “The kids’ first reaction is often to do a huge story about AIDS or racism or war, but soon they realize that the best, most-accessible way to tell those big stories is through their own stories and experiences.”

“You don’t need fancy equipment to make powerful videos,” encourages Laura Vural from Rheedlen’s Rise and Shine. “The main thing is to tell a story–even if it’s a documentary–and be true to that story.”

The best advice of all is to “stick with it,” says Angus Morgan, who is opening his own production company, Rampage Productions. “Writing, shooting, editing–it all takes time. Whatever you do, don’t give up on your video. Be committed, work hard and you’ll be surprised by what you can do.”

Lauryn Axelrod is a documentary videographer and has taught videomaking to teens since 1987.

SIDEBAR

For Further Reading: Video Production Guides for Kids

YO-TV! Production Handbook. Educational Video Center, (212) 725-3534

This is the guideboook used by EVC teens to produce their award-winning videos. An excellent resource for teens ages 12 and older.

Make Your Own Video Movies! Vermont Media Education Network, (802) 375-6849

An excellent kid-friendly guide to videomaking covering everything from camera to editing.

The Bare Bones Camera Course for Film and Video, by Tom Schroeppel, 4705 Bay View Avenue, Tampa, FL, 33611.

Written by an experienced TV cameraman, this wonderful guide for improving your camera work contains instruction on everything from basic camera operation to designing and shooting a narrative sequence.

SIDEBAR

Where To Find Videos Made By Teens

Each of the following organizations has a catalogue of teen-made videos available for rental or purchase.

Educational Video Center (212) 725-3534

LA Freewaves (213) 687-8583

Rise and Shine Productions (212) 265- 5909

Vermont Media Education Network (802) 375-6849

Video Data Bank (312) 245-3550

VIDKIDCO (310) 928-7403

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