Filmmaking is not for sissies; that's one of the many things I learned while hanging out with the Plains of Saro Film Productions crew. It takes hard work, theatrical talent, clever thinking, quick reflexes (occasionally), a sense of humor (often) and a whole lot of imagination and motivation. Sound challenging? Maybe. But for this indie film troupe of free-spirited and sharp-witted 14-year-olds from East Aurora, it's merely passion at work.
Plains of Saro Productions is just one example of what is becoming a growing populace of teenage "underground" fiction moviemakers. Now that film is becoming increasingly accessible to youths, especially with the rise of attainable and easy-to-use technology, there are more and more young, independent artists discovering the medium and publishing their work. Not only is their work amazingly good, it has a completely unique flavor. In fact, it's evolved into a sort of subculture of localized, homegrown art, created by "regular kids" with some blooming skill, electrifying imagination and honest spunk.
Ted Kutina, a freshman at East Aurora High School, could perhaps be pinned as the ringleader of the Plains of Saro mischief and magic, as he's technically its founder. But Saro is actually just one part of a master network of high school film groups in Western New York; it's called Orion Films, and includes Plains of Saro, Lucian15 Pictures, SueProductions101/FourStarFilms and Llama'sGate (yes, that's a play off of media giant Lionsgate). As the astrological name may suggest, it all fits into a bigger picture: Individuals become friends, then collaborators, then band into constellations and expand into the entire universe of motion picture artists.
In the deep forest that is Plains of Saro's shooting/production grounds, I was able to hang out with some members of the gang for an afternoon. The circle included Ted, Keenan Lasch, Jacob Kaiser (of SueProductions101), Ethan McAtee (of Lucian15 Pictures), Maria Seeber, Matilda Musial and Mary Burt, all 14-year-old freshmen at East Aurora High School.
And the story begins ... in a land and time called middle school, the earliest workings of Plains of Saro started with just Ted, Keenan and Jacob; three friends making goofy short films together. (The name Plains of Saro came from one of Ted's early short stories about a mythical realm.) As the group expanded, everyone started doing independent projects, people started taking on acting roles and then the seriousness and depth of the films grew, and the circle of friends became an association of film artists.
For Maria, the love of film was fostered by an old crank projector at her house, and she says that her mom still has an old film camera from the 1960s. Maria calls what's happening today "a film renaissance!"
"In the '60s, it was a new and cool thing for ordinary people – not just big-name producers – to start making their own movies," Maria said. "We're trying to bring that back."
Everyone in the Plains of Saro group has some kind of traditional theater training/experience, from school musicals and the Aurora Players' annual "Project Stage" for young actors in the summer.
Matilda said her family has always been involved in local theater.
"My first onstage appearance was at 5 months [with the Aurora Players], and I've been doing it ever since," she said. Acting in movies with her friends was a natural transition, she added.
While all of them say they've dabbled in various film roles, Ted is the main editor, director and cinematographer, and the rest are involved as actors and screenwriters.
"I'll have an idea, completely random, and just kind of scribble it down," says Jacob. "Then, we might talk about it together or watch other movies or something and let it take shape."
The group usually comes up with a general idea for the plot and its turns, and from there, they don't do too much actual scripting (kind of Christopher Guest-style). In truth, they often make up lines as they're shooting; dialogue is adapted to fit each situation, allowing the movie to progress naturally as an artwork.
The general genre of their movies? It tends to be sci-fi/thriller with some comedy thrown in (influences include Monty Python, "Doctor Who," "Star Wars" and other cult/indie films), but they've experimented in different time periods and characterization styles. Keenan is working on a film now about 1920s mobsters. A bunch of Ted's films, including the "Time Trilogy" ("Time Shifters," "Time Hunters," "Time Apocalypse"), mess around with time travel and some take place in the future. Jacob is working on a film called "Blue Guy, Green Guy," which is loosely inspired by the "Batman" movies. They're constantly generating new ideas. In the middle of our discussion, Ted's face lights up and he says to the others, "Hey, maybe we should do a silent film!"
Then, a bit later, Ted runs in with a bag. The group passes around a few silver and black spray-painted plastic pistols that will be used as props in their next film. There's also a cardboard ax in Ted's belt loop, a pair of handcuffs on Maria's, and a couple of light sabers on the floor. Basically, it's a "bring your own weaponry" kind of affair. Yet, this is only one of the quirky idiosyncrasies that have become a trademark of this particular art movement: projects rooted in do-it-yourself ethic and plain fun.
Another thing they make on their own are the sound effects for each film. For example, Ted says, "Take a head of lettuce ... wrap it in a towel ... hit it with a stick ... it's amazing." This creates a kind of a comic-style "shwoom" sound that might be used as one character's fist whizzes through the air at another character's face. They record the sounds and then drop the sound bites into films, avoiding using flimsy prerecorded sounds, buying effects or actually punching people in the face.
They don't need to use elaborate equipment either. Ted's camera is a Canon T21 Rebel, with an added microphone. He says that it cost about $600 "but that was a result of lots of saving. Besides, five years ago, that camera was about $5,000."
"We're in the middle of a digital revolution, and we should definitely take advantage of that," Maria said.
While some of Ted's equipment was selected with specific interests in mind, he maintains that any standard, cheap camera will do what you need it to do.
"If you want to make films today, all the tools are out there for you ... the only thing stopping anybody is not trying [to find them]," he said.
To edit footage, Ted uses a program called VegasMovieStudio, which he bought and downloaded as he became interested in moviemaking; however, Keenan and Jacob both use iMovie. Everybody agreed that iMovie is the best place to start, as it comes with Macs or can be downloaded easily. As for the group's film skills, they're all either self-taught or they did research on the Internet. Some of the biggest aids have been resources such as Film Riot and Indy Mogul (both YouTube channels with DIY film tutorials).
"Remember, you can Google anything," says Keenan.
While tools and skills are important, the most essential component is innovation. The most recent Plains of Saro project, "The Free for All," is an ambitious endeavor. Ted's idea was to do a film where anyone who wanted to be in the film could; the catch was that they all had to create their own characters independently. Participants started by filling out a "questionnaire" about their characters, and then Ted worked them all into a master plot. The questionnaire included topics such as the character's name, physical description, personality, skills and motivations.
The characters finally ranged from a Gypsy healer (inspired by Bollywood dance culture) to a Romanian femme fatale assassin to a confused banker whose killer alter ego is only triggered by the sound of his own name.
"I was actually really proud of my character," Mary said. "I worked really hard on creating her. And, she has little bit of me mixed up in her, too."
The 33-minute film was recently posted on YouTube and is also available on DVD. The "Free for All" project embodies the principles of Plains of Saro's films and the DIY "cardboard sword" film movement.
"The world could use some more imagination," Mary said.
So what's next? None of them is quite sure. Ted and Jacob said they would be interested in pursuing film in college and perhaps even as a career. But even for those not necessarily aiming for professional film careers, the goal is to just keep having a good time with moviemaking and keep creativity in their lives.
Their message is that you don't need to be professionally trained or ridiculously rich or even an adult to make good films.
All you need to start is basic iMovie, a camera, a few props and imagination, said Keenan and Jacob.
A few simple tools and a passion for creation, and you can make a mark. Sometimes the plastic light-saber films that are made with friends on fall weekends in the woods turn out to be the best ones.
"If you have an idea, just do it," said Ted. "The most important thing is to have fun."
Plains of Saro films can be found on YouTube at www.youtube.com/user/theplainsofsaro and at www.theplainsofsaro.webs.com. All other film groups/channels mentioned, including Film Riot and Indy Mogul, can be found by using the search feature on YouTube.
Caroline Francisco is a junior at Springville-Griffith Institute.
Placing: A Column: 1
Scaling: 36 Format: Cutline
@Cutline:Taking a break from filming in the woods are, from left, Ted Kutina, Keenan Lasch, Matilda Musial, Maria Seeber and Jacob Kaiser.
@Photo credit:Photo by Caroline Francisco
Channels: Western New York