Young artists focus on role of filmmaker

Television: Baltimore middle-schoolers write, produce and star in their own videos in a joint venture with Maryland Institute, College of Art.

May 23, 2000|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

Anyone who happened into the exhibition in a gallery at the Maryland Institute, College of Art's Bunting Center last weekend ran into some odd goings-on: In one corner two girls were talking to a detective about an alien.

Not an alien from another country, but one from another planet.

The speakers were Baltimore middle school pupils, playing parts in a video production they conceived and wrote as part of Baltimore Youth Television (BYTV), a 6-year-old venture spearheaded by the art institute.

Each spring, groups of pupils from five city middle schools learn the essentials of video production. Over 15 weeks, they turn out five-minute productions that are shown in a gala presentation at the Baltimore Museum of Art each October.

"When you first tell them it's five minutes, they think that will take five minutes to make," said Amy Johanson, a documentary filmmaker who teaches the group from Garrison Middle School that has temporarily taken over the Bunting Center gallery.

They soon learn different.

The first weeks, meeting on Fridays at the schools, are spent learning how the camera works, how shots are framed, sound, lighting, editing and the other basics. Then time is spent coming up with the idea for the video and writing the script.

Then, meeting on Saturdays, the pupils move into the production phase. Next month, at WJZ-Channel 13, they will edit their final production and tour the station.

Over the years, BYTV pupils have made everything from murder mysteries to music videos. The Garrison kids concocted something of a hybrid, a mystery titled "Famous on the Farm," about a farmer who becomes a hit singer in New York but eventually decides to return to the farm he loves.

"The students sat around and threw out things they were interested in and decided which ones to keep in the video," Johanson said. The final list was a bit odd: farms, singing and aliens were among the keepers.

In the scene that was being taped Saturday, the farmer's two daughters were learning from the detective they had hired that their father's success was due not only to his vocal talent, but also to his agent's being an alien.

"I'd like to see a bunch of adults come up with a story that would use all those elements," Johanson said.

The scene was originally set outdoors on a New York street -- Mount Royal Avenue would do -- but the rain forced it into a faux Manhattan gallery. Director Chante Richardson, an 11-year-old sixth-grader, was behind the camera.

"I like working behind the camera," she said. "You learn about taking shots from different angles and stuff."

In another part of the Bunting Center, some Violetville Middle School pupils were deciding what they could do in the rain. Their video starts with their painting a mural in a food court at the Baltimore Arena -- which they actually did -- then depicts their dreams, the mural coming to life as they fantasize about what they would like to be doing.

"You can do things with the camera that you can't do in real life," said Greg Melendez, 12. "Like go into somebody's eye and see what they are thinking."

One fantasy is performing rock music, videotaped at Druid Hill Park last week. Saturday, the group was off in search of a skating rink for an ice skating fantasy.

A group of BYTV alumni is making a series of public service announcements about smoking, drugs, teen pregnancy and violence. They will be shown on the city's school cable channel.

For BYTV curriculum coordinator LaTanya Bailey Jones, the children are learning much more than video production. They are learning about teamwork and patience, about planning and discipline, about solving problems through creative thinking.

"We also hope to teach them something about video literacy," Jones said. "Reading is important, but we have to realize that video is the main information source for people of their age. They need to know how to understand and interpret what they are seeing."

Jones said the program reaches 40 to 50 middle-school pupils each spring and an equal number of high school students during a summer program held at the Johns Hopkins University. It is funded mainly by the Maryland Institute and a variety of smaller grants, and is looking for money for an expansion.

Maryland Institute President Fred Lazarus said the program works for his institution because his students, working as interns in BYTV, learn as much as the middle schoolers do.

"Learning takes place on both sides," he said. "Our students learn from what they teach, learn through their experience, learn from the entire experience. That makes it easy to justify all the work that goes on here to support the program because it really is interlinked with our core mission."

Lazarus said BYTV and the school's other major in-school program, the Community Arts Partnership, also demonstrate the importance of art in elementary and middle schools.

"These are advocacy platforms for us to build support to get art back into the core curriculum," he said.

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