Smile Politely

Big Ideas on the Big Screen

Some months ago, an invitation went out to young writers in the Champaign-Urbana area that was both impressive and ingenious: The Champaign-Urbana Film Society invited students K–12 to submit original screenplays to the Pens To Lens Screenwriting Competition. At the conclusion of the competition, a gala screening night would be held a the Art Theater Co-op for the students, their families, and the general public — a chance to see the finished films and celebrate student writing with awards and an audience.

Responses began to pour in, scripts were read, and winners were chosen for production. The selected stories and their plot synopses are as follows:

The Devil Uses Purell: Cassie trades the devil her soul for a hamburger, but the devil makes a big fuss over it because it’s not clean, so Sammi and Danielle have to save Cassie from herself.

Dinner Party Antics: Jim and Jenna are waiting outside of Jim’s cousin Dave’s home, reminiscing about prior dinner parties.

Even and Odd: Ivy and her dog Idris are invited into a parallel world by her unconscious self to help finish a quest.

Fluffystein: A little girl’s beloved toy bunny goes missing and is used for malicious purposes.

Into The Mine: Two boys are ready to mine, but someone’s watching them, and they don’t know who it is.

Super Duper Low: Super Quinn teaches Mr. Machine about diabetes during their fight.

Susan and Daisy’s Adventure: Episode I: Two poor people need money to get a house, so they catch an eel.

Tunnel To Greenland: A young girl and boy try to dig a tunnel to Greenland to see snow and ice during the summertime.

Unexpected Trip: A story about a Mexican family that experiences poverty and immigration problems as they come to the U.S.A.; it is based on a true story and it talks about the lives of illegal immigrants and what they go through.

An incredibly diverse range of topics and styles, to be sure. Once the scripts were selected, the film society went to work finding directors and actors for the projects, all of them local filmmakers and performers eager to work on imaginative short films, straight from the minds of local kids.

I reached out to many of the (very enthusiastic) adults who were involved in the execution of the Pens to Lens movies. To my delight, as was the case when the call for scripts went out, the responses poured in. Everyone involved in this fantastic project had plenty to say about the experience.

Chris Lukeman: “For the film society, the competition so far has been a great success. Everyone appreciates how important and exciting these kinds of events are to the kids. We have really had overwhelming support from the arts and business community. As this is the first year of the event, the whole thing is a bit overwhelming, but we’re looking forward to it.”

Mike Trippiedi: “Pens to Lens is not only a great outlet for kids to showcase their creativity, but it also gives us adults a sometimes much needed jolt to our own imagination. I’m glad that kids in this area have this opportunity. Growing up in the 1960s, we had to find our own outlets for creativity. Fortunately for me, my dad had an 8mm movie camera left over from World War II, so I was able to make my own movies at an early age. Kids have more access to technology these days, but through Pens to Lens they can have their vision become a reality through professionals that have the expertise to bring these young writers’ imaginations to life.”

Even and Odd

Lindsey Gates-Markel: “I wanted to be involved with Pens to Lens as soon as I heard about it. I’m a central Illinois farm kid who grew up writing and illustrating little stories, practicing plays, and making short movies with my family’s Camcorder, but my creative life gained a whole new motor once I began to collaborate with other people. If kids are writing movies, let’s make those movies. I can think of no better encouragement.”

Victor Miely: “It has been somewhat surprising, the level of responses and involvement from the community in this Pens to Lens competition. Before getting involved with local filmmakers a couple years ago, I had no idea that there was such a large local community interested in making movies. I only wish I’d gotten involved sooner. I have to say, with this being the first Pens to Lens project, I think it’s been an awesome, fun, and invaluable learning experience for everyone involved.”

Tunnel To Greenland

Joe Taylor: “I decided to work on the Pens to Lens project because I love the fresh ideas kids bring to creative works. The stories, especially the K–5 age range, were just full of raw imagination. I work with Bill Kephart a lot, and we decided to team up on this project. The story we picked is called The Devil Uses Purell. It was a very fun story written by a young lady in third grade. I don’t want to spoil the story, but I will say that it involves the Devil, hamburgers, and hand sanitizer. Making this film was really no different than what we were doing when we were eight or ten years old, only now we have nice cameras and expensive computers to help out a little.”

Bill Kephart: “For me there was no question about being involved; it’s a great cause.  Plus, it was an opportunity to work with Joe Taylor again. Joe chose the script, which is about a girl who trades her soul to the devil for a cheeseburger. I think the fact that Joe has a giant cheeseburger prop may have influenced his decision. Because the script is so wacky, and takes place in the devil’s lair, he felt this was the perfect opportunity to try some green screen techniques. So, he painted a wall in his garage bright green and that served as our studio! This really has been a project of firsts for both of us. We both got to meet and work with some talented young actresses; Joe got to practice green screen techniques; and I got to create the credit sequences and some original music for the film. While all the filmmakers in town like to impress each other (and themselves) by raising the bar on each personal project, this project is something more than personal; we’re all giving the best of what we have to offer to honor these young writers. It’s been a rare opportunity to give something back to this film-friendly community, and best, to inspire its young creators.”

Thomas Nicol: “Working on Fluffystein was an absolute delight. First and foremost, it’s a fun script: A little girl in search of her stuffed rabbit has to brave the room of her evil genius little brother. It also gave some fun challenges, such as animating the stuffed rabbit on a very short timeframe and working with child actors. As it turned out, Mr. Fluffy-Ears proved an amiable stop motion puppet and the two kids were great to work with (especially Veronica, who’s an absolute pro at age six). Everyone on the cast and crew gave it their best, and it really shows.”


Mike Trippiedi: “This has been great for the filmmakers as well. Life tends to jade us all from time to time, and these scripts bring back the innocence and raw creativity that we all had when we first realized that we could turn make-believe into stories. There are some real gems here, and I can’t wait to see what my filmmaking peers have done with these wonderful scripts.”

Chris Lukeman: “Our partnership with CUDO, the Champaign-Urbana Design Organization has been amazing. As of right now, local graphic designers have contributed nearly fifty poster designs for the student screenplays — both for screenplays that were made into films, and others that we didn’t have a chance to produce. That amount of graphic design talent is absolutely staggering. I love how much of the arts community we’ve been able to draw into the event. We’re trying to make it as amazing an experience for the students as we can. It has also been a great way to solidly introduce just how much filmmaking talent there is in the community, and how filmmakers can fit into the larger arts scene in C-U. We’re also definitely open for suggestions for making the event even better next year!”

Thomas Nicol: “The Pens To Lens project as a whole has been fantastic. We were blown away at the response from everyone: the students (over 120 scripts submitted by local students!), the film community (nine scripts produced by CMM!), and the design community (nearly sixty posters designed by CUDO). We’re looking forward to planning next year’s event, which could be even bigger.”

Chris Lukeman: “Matt Metcalf, one of the hosts of CI Living will be our MC for the night, which should be fun. I’m also looking forward to seeing the local improv groups that will perform a few of the scripts live in front of the theater.”

Thomas Nicol: “I’m continually floored by the incredibly talented people in this community, and I am so excited to see so many of them coming together to bring these kids’ stories to the screen. I’ve loved watching all these projects develop in so many ways: While I was animating a stuffed rabbit in stop motion, another team digitally animated their script using a Kinect for motion capture, and another project involved the animation of an actual dead eel. Some teams worked with streamlined crews of two or three, juggling tasks and adapting quickly to whatever tasks arose in the course of the shoot; some worked with a crew of twenty, calling in professional friends from Chicago and St. Louis who were so excited about the project that they drove in on their own dime to help out for free. Some were shot in the director’s back yard, or a family member’s house, or out in the woods; a number were shot on green screen with fantastical backdrops added digitally. But they all came from the minds of the students, who get to see their words visualized at the Art Theater on the 29th.”

Into the Mine

On the night of the gala, the doors will open at the Art Theater (126 W. Church Street, Champaign) at 6:00 p.m. Students will walk the red carpet, and then attendees can save seats and view the movie posters that were inspired by student screenplays and created by members of the Champaign-Urbana Design Organization. The two-hour awards and screening ceremony will start promptly at 7:00 p.m. A one-hour encore screening of the films will begin at 9:30 p.m.

This event is free to the public. It is expected to be very popular, so plan to arrive early to get a seat. Students with scripts that have been made into films may request reserved seats for themselves and their guests.

This entire competition, from its announcement to its culmination in the May 29 gala, is a testament to the undeniable amount of talent and dedication amongst the film and theatre communities in the Champaign-Urbana area. But beyond our recognition of the great artists that currently live and work in our community, there is an additional layer of greatness to these proceedings: the fact that so many young writers will, for the first time perhaps, see just how far their imaginations can take them.

Lucky them, and lucky us.

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