Smile Politely

Pens to Lens: You won’t know unless you go

As I waited outside the Virginia Theater last Saturday, I tried to fight the idea that the Pens to Lens red-carpet gala was going to be a big fancy effort to puff up some kids and endure some well-meaning but ultimately childish “art”. I knew from reviewing SP’s coverage that this was supposed to be a BFD, with VIPs and formal gowns and I hated that my cynicism was invading and telling me that it was all going to amount to a big thumbs-up because kids are cute.

Ok, I’m not gonna lie, these kids were totally cute. Do you see these three guys? They came out just as the 007 theme began playing. Right? I can hear you squee from here. I called the center boy over as he left the picture, my notebook in hand and from the other side of the rope, asked him if I remembered him from UPDYT’s The Pajama Game, which I did. His name is Liam Henry, and rather than writing, he appears in Farmball, where he has to teach barnyard animals to play baseball. He has been acting “since [he] was little,” and he is considering acting as a career. I felt like a paparazzi, he felt like a star, and I’m not ashamed one bit.

Fully engaged, I noticed the audience was mostly participants and artists. That being said, “participants” incorporates a lot of folks. It’s highly advertised that CUDO members design the movie posters, but I learned this year that the FabLab created the writing awards given out for having the best scripts that couldn’t be made into movies — they look like film reels and are personalized with the screenwriter’s name. While C-U Film Society and Champaign Movie Makers produced the films, actors from Parkland and the Station Theatre donated their time and skills, artists like Phil Strang created scenery, Matt Wiley designed things, and musicians like Larry Gates, Kenna Mae Reiss, and Tara Terra contributed songs and score. These are cool people, things, and musics, so where is the rest of the C-U community? Just general people who like good music or want to see good movies? Because these films… are good.

(Pictured above, cast & crew of The Feeling of Music aka the tears)

As the curtain drew back and the Pens to Lens trailer rolled, people clapped proudly, like only people who know they did something well can do. And right out of the gate, the laughter in the audience was both raucous and genuine, until the tears kicked in, which were just as heartfelt. As was the discomfort brought on by the horror film. Productions featured hand-drawn animation, puppets, CGI, and stop-motion. Costumes, effects, and props were polished and professional. Can I say it again? These films are good!

(Pictured below, cast & crew of The Nightmare on Walnut St. aka the horror)

When six-year-old homeschool student Lydia Hacker was asked what she thought about her script’s film, the stop-motion version of The Moose Emergency, her comment was, “It turned out well.” She’s more restrained than I am, because I spent a good while wondering if anyone would notice if I nabbed the bunny puppet from the prop room. Answer? It was affixed to the table. So yeah, probably they would.

While the first half was predominantly funny, there were some moments where it was clear that the plot or dialogue was written by children in the style of children, but nothing seemed… childish. Of course, the producing, staging, and directing by adults helped, but when a child draws or writes something nonsensical, it is very hard to decipher, and there was none of that here. Another thing that struck me about the younger films is that they tended to feature young actors, with the main characters mostly being children the same age as the writer. There’s the saying “write what you know” to explain it, but I really liked seeing how inclusive this made the experience — if the actors weren’t already friends with the authors, by the time the Gala rolled around, it seemed the kids had all grown close.

(Pictured below, cast & crew of Just Another Day at the Station

Alternately, in the second half, the topics were mostly serious, and mostly featured adult actors. For the High School block, the films displayed much more sophisticated and polished concepts, emotions and themes. Thankfully, podcasters Lindsey Gates-Markel and Andrew Schiver were there to lighten things up a bit (well, except when Markel showed up in the Alzheimer’s film, yeah, that was a downer) with their self-inflicted 60 second time-limit to give all of the teens all of the advice they could.

The rest of the P2L films continued with unrelenting feels, making me wish there was a bit of a break in between each one so I could process. The most prevalent theme was pressure: to fit in, to excel, to keep the family together, to pay the bills, to fulfill conflicting messages, and to prove one’s worth. It was intense, I’m not going to lie. In the last one, there was a dog. And a relentlessly fierce girl Viking. That helped. I felt like I could stand up and leave without having the giant weight of what it feels like to be a teen holding me down. As I left, so many teens were milling around in the street that I talked to a few to see how their P2L experiences differed, and if it really sucks that much these days.

Alahna Van Matre, author of Sun Black and the Cannibal Dwarf just graduated from Centennial and is headed to SIU in the fall. Her background is in theatre arts, which she plans to study in Carbondale. In fact, the script she submitted is a sketch she wrote for a drama class and modified when her Creative Writing teacher required all of his students to submit a screenplay to Pens to Lens.  She says she was surprised it was chosen, but she really liked the dark, twisted fairy-tale feel. While seeing her script brought to light was pretty amazing, she doesn’t feel as though it has changed her perspective, and she would still rather be in front of the camera than behind.

Lillian Hall has been writing screenplays for a while, she says, and is already working on a script for next year’s P2L. This year’s script, Artificial Intelligence, was written as a prequel to the popular videogame Portal, and was good enough to be cannon for this fan. It was brought to life by Anne Lukeman, board member of CU Film Society, and embodied by several noteworthy local actors such as Malia Andrus and Warren Garver as well as one cleverly constructed computer puppet. Hall was invigorated by seeing her words made flesh, or sentient machine as it were, and says the experience may just give her the push she needs to send Dan Harmon her scripts for a continuation of the television show Community. When asked what it felt like to see her film, she replied, “Watching it, I felt a mixture of trying not to cry, trying not to scream with joy, and trying not to hug everyone involved to death.” 

(Pictured below: creepydoll, moose & EMT bunny, clever computer puppet and more)

Jessie Denning, winner of the Pens to Lens High School Film Festival, credits her experience with perhaps influencing her career trajectory, or at least giving her a new perspective. She began acting in high school, and is headed to Asbury University in the fall to study in their Theatre and Cinema Performance program. One of her older brothers participated in P2L in the past, and she followed his lead, walking behind the camera to write a screenplay that ended up being made into a film for the 2014 P2L competition. This year she decided to follow the path further, and instead of just writing the screenplay for others to realize, entered the P2L High School Film Festival required her to create the film herself. Modifying a poem she had written into a screenplay, she still performed, supplying the voiceover as her friend acted out the meanings behind her words. She’s confident that there are classes at her future school to accommodate her newfound interest, or at least help her decide on which side of the camera she will end up. Who says she needs to choose? Certainly not Jodie Foster or Angelina Jolie.

So to sum up, this event was well worth the time spent. It wasn’t just some rah-rah thing to make kids feel good where everyone gets a participation award. The scripts were good, the films were quality, and it did provide opportunities and encouragement to a younger generation. So if you didn’t go this year, go next year. You won’t regret it, and you’ll help it keep going for years to come.

All good photos by Scott Wells. Photos of dog & A.I. still from P2L press kit. All other bad photos by the author, my apologies.

More Articles