CAMBRIA – Michael Pyskaty, a junior at Starpoint Central High School, has established himself as one of the nation’s leading young documentarians.
Michael recently was named an honorable-mention winner in C-SPAN’s national student competition for documentary videos. It’s the sixth consecutive year Michael has won an award in the network’s StudentCam competition.
This year, he zoomed in on the Federal Aviation Administration’s failure to implement all the reforms Congress ordered in the Airline Safety Act passed in the wake of the 2009 crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Clarence Center.
“One of the main reasons I made this documentary is it’s almost disgusting the FAA hasn’t implemented these regulations. The bill was passed four years ago,” Michael said.
“Safety in the Skies: The Story of Flight 3407” featured interviews Michael did with Rep. Chris Collins and Karen Eckert of the Families of Flight 3407.
Also included were C-SPAN archive videos of House floor debate on the reform bill affecting regional airlines. Actually, it wasn’t much of a debate, as the bill passed the House unanimously.
Some remarks by Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, got into the finished production, along with some testimony before a Senate subcommittee by Scott Maurer, whose daughter was killed in the crash.
Michael said one of the rules of the contest is that material from C-SPAN, the cable network that televises House and Senate proceedings and numerous committee sessions, must be included. Fortunately, he said, C-SPAN has a vast online archive.
“The topic came out toward the end of August,” Michael said. He spent most of September gathering information and lining up interviews.
He interviewed Eckert in her home and Collins in his local district office.
His final cut also included cockpit and air traffic control voice recordings of the final transmissions from the doomed Colgan Air turboprop, as well as still photos of the fires on the ground in Clarence Center.
“The government really needs to stay on top of making sure flying is safe, because we all fly at some point in our lives,” Michael said. “If you’ve ever seen that flight map that shows where all the flights are in the United States, it’s kind of scary how many airplanes are above us.”
The videos were limited to seven minutes, not counting credits, a length that Michael said has been reduced by a minute as the number of entries has increased.
This year, 2,355 videos were submitted by the Jan. 20 deadline from students in 46 states and the District of Columbia.
Meeting the time limit “is always a struggle for me, because I like to tell a lot of aspects to a story,” he said. “Cutting things out is always difficult for me.”
The contest is open to all students in grades 6 through 12. Michael first entered in sixth grade and won third prize, which was $750. For five years running, he has won $250 for an honorable mention.
He said that he was told about the contest by a sixth-grade teacher and that another Starpoint teacher, Brian Scully, taught him how to use video-editing software.
“I was very surprised. I won third prize that year. It was very exciting,” he said.
Michael also took a summer video production class at Lockport Community Television, the Time Warner Cable public-access operation in Lockport. “And now I’m a junior counselor for that class,” he said.
Some of the LCTV students helped him tape his on-camera narration for the Flight 3407 piece in the Lockport studio, he said.
Michael said most of his prize money over the years has been invested in upgraded video equipment. “I bought my own camera, my own tripod. I bought a new Macbook computer a few years ago so I could do the editing by myself,” he said.
Every year, C-SPAN chooses a different general topic. This year, the theme was “What’s the most important issue the U.S. Congress should consider in 2014?”
The three most common subjects for the resulting student videos were the economy, gun control and education. But with the Flight 3407 piece, Michael went his own way – again.
“My first year in sixth grade, it was about the auto industry. It was right after the recession started, and I live only a few miles away from Delphi. That one won a third prize in the middle school category,” Michael said.
“I like to choose things that have both national implications but also local connections,” he said.
His other winning topics have included poverty in Niagara Falls, border security, airline security and college costs.
This year, he is among 328 student honorees from across the country who won a total of $100,000, including one $5,000 grand-prize winner, four first-prize winners, 16 second-prize winners, 32 third-prize winners and 97 honorable mentions.
All 150 winning videos are available online at www.studentcam.org/winners14.htm.
C-SPAN will televise the grand, first- and second-prize videos during April. This year’s grand-prize winner, by a team of three ninth-grade girls in Long Beach, Calif., is called “Earth First, Fracking Second.”
“StudentCam serves as a yearly reminder that young people are not only passionate about issues of national significance, but their ideas and opinions are also worthy of our consideration,” said Craig McAndrew, C-SPAN manager of education relations, in a news release. “The level of critical thought, effort and initiative that students have demonstrated in creating their documentaries is inspiring, and we are thrilled to share this year’s winning videos with both Congress and the public.”
Michael learned that he was a winner when he checked the contest website on the morning of March 5.
“They did it a little differently this year. When I first started, there were about 1,000 entries to this contest, and this year there were 2,300,” he said. “There’s one grand prize for grades 6 through 12, and for everything else there’s a middle-school category, and they split the high school category into East, Central and West.”
Michael said most of the winners seem to come from the East, and a district in Silver Spring, Md., seems to make a major issue of the contest, since it has by far more winners than any other school in the nation.
Asked about his college plans, he said, “I’d really like to go into broadcast journalism or television production, with a minor either in political science or international affairs.”
But first, he can hardly wait to enter the C-SPAN contest one last time, in his senior year. Will he be entering? “Definitely.”