Harbor Springs High School may be one of the most idyllic school settings in the state, but it has some scary stories lurking inside… in the form of a budding young filmmaker. Freshman Emma Spencer recently won a Best Cinematography award for her horror film short, Derailed, at the 2nd Annual Film Festival hosted by Compass College of Film & Media, located in downtown Grand Rapids.
Article reprinted with permission from Harbor Light Newspaper, article by Kate Spaulding-Bassett
As part of Harbor Springs teacher Jason Byma’s career and technical education-accredited Audio Engineering & Video Editing (AEVE) program, Spencer’s creative spark – which began with music in middle school – now includes filmmaking.
“We’ve taken the middle school concept of ‘music production,’ and through various donations, proposals, and a great deal of dedication from our students, transformed the course into AEVE,” Byma said, noting the Char-EM ISD and state of Michigan’s career tech designation for the course “means that students can earn credit and/or hours towards college and internships in the many fields that fall under the umbrella of AEVE, from being a studio producer/mixer to script writing, to video production.”
Harbor Springs eighth grader, Quinn Myers, stars in freshman Emma Spencer’s horror short, Derailed.
Byma said the program is working hard to build relationships with Northern Michigan College in Traverse City for audio and Compass College of Film & Media, “to provide the most avenues of opportunities for our students.”
It was the relationship with Compass College that sparked Spencer’s decision to start showing her films more broadly. The Compass College representative for the region, Chad Campbell, came to Harbor Springs High School to speak to AEVE students about the school, and the competition. “The festival is open to all high school students enrolled in a video/ film course,” Byma explained. “The submission needed to be between three and six minutes, including credits. There were five prompts given, and students were required to use at least two of them. Each school district was also given a specific prompt they were required to use, different from the other districts. Prompts were used to ensure students didn’t create their films outside of the timeline parameters. Students had roughly two months to create their films.”
“When Mr. Byma first invited Mr. Campbell into the classroom, I was immediately in awe. Never had I heard of a film school that close to home,” Spencer said. “When the idea of submitting something was first proposed, I was skeptical. After throwing around some mock ideas, I realized what an amazing opportunity it would be to even enter. Overall, this experience was too great to pass up, so I had to try.”
The five prompts that were given included: open with a computer/cell-phone zoom out; film the entirety of the movie in a vehicle; include the line “You know I don’t like losing” anywhere in the film; have a scene outside a door; use a frying pan as a prop. Harbor Springs entries also had to “have a chicken anywhere in the film” (perhaps the easiest prop for Spencer to find, given that her family owns and operates Pond Hill Farm).
“I suppose I’ve always been interested in filmmaking. Every summer for many years now, I’ve made short horror films with my friends. Being able to be creative and see my ideas on the big screen is incredible to say the least,” Spencer noted. “When creating this film, I immediately knew I wanted to use a local friend’s abandoned church. It has a rich history and an ominous feeling that I knew would make an amazing set. From there, I was inspired by the themes given. Specifically, the fact that a chicken was needed in the film. In a brief description, the film follows a young girl as she takes on a newly found deadly disease,” she said.
There were 11 participating districts, and more than 40 submissions. The films were judged by film critics in the industry from around the country.
“At first, I was extremely picky about whom to show my film. It felt like my own child going to school for the first time, scared at what its peers may say,” Spencer recalled. “The first people to see the film were my parents. As expected, they gave no critique. I guess the fear of getting bad responses held me down. After letting some classmates view it, I was shocked to see an overwhelming amount of support and praise.”
Campbell, the representative for Compass, said Spencer’s film was competing against films from schools with much bigger cameras “but still managed to do a good job making us uneasy.”
“One thing that Mr. Byma has his students do really well is audio, and the radio beginning was perfect at setting the mood and setting things up without needing to speak it right to the audience. Location is a major benefit to this video, taking full advantage of the weather and creepy spot. The final shot where it moves away to become a blur was chilling,” he added.
“Having one of my shots be described as ‘truly horrifying,’ was honestly one of the best compliments I’ve ever received,” Spencer said, referencing a comment Byma made when he finally was allowed to see the film.
“I was astonished by the effort and ability of storytelling with very little spoken script. Now, I enjoy watching others’ reactions while they watch the film for the first time,” Byma said. “It takes multiple viewings to catch all the subtle nuances within the film. It brings us joy to see such enormous growth in Emma spanning from 8th grade to the end of the first semester of ninth grade. We look forward to what she’ll accomplish by her senior year.”
Students who are part of the AEVE program, Byma noted, have really taken ownership of its design and future. “They assist with making decisions on projects. One student, Nat Mills, also created new logos for our program,” Byma said, explaining that students from other area districts are able to participate as well, because of the Career Tech designation.
Harbor Springs superintendent, Brad Plackmeier, said the transformation of the AEVE class has been fun to watch. “The class started in an elementary music room and evolved into the professional level studio it is today. The opportunities the students have through the program are endless. We are proud of our students who submitted projects to the film festival and enjoyed hearing about their experience when they were at Compass College,” he said.
Harbor Springs Middle School principal, Heather Keiser, agreed, adding it has been great to watch the growth that happens through the lens of this program. “We are so excited to see students with creative talents like Emma thrive in our middle school and high school AEVE classes,” she said. “The classes allow students to explore creative interests and potentially pursue post secondary education and careers in the audio engineering and video editing fields. We can’t wait to see what the future holds for Emma and her classmates.”
For Spencer, having the opportunity to thrive through this form of artistic expression is a gift, but having the chance to do so with the tools of the professional trade is really what sets the class apart. “We are so lucky that our program has access to a wide variety of state-of-the-art equipment. Having hands-on experience with tech used at the professional level is one of the many things this class has to offer. We are given so many opportunities, including this festival. Being able to do whatever my mind can imagine is incredible. The sky’s the limit,” Spencer said. Students in the AEVE program have the resources and training to create, record, edit, mix and master both audio and visual media.
“We also just added a new script writing and storyboarding software, Cetlx. Our other educational program is Ripple Training and provides professional level training in our audio and visual editing software,” Byma said. “With our newly awarded CTE certification we will be able to continue to build our inventory of both software and hardware inventory.”
“I don’t think people realize how much time goes into productions. For this three-minute film, I spent approximately 76.5 hours start to finish,” Spencer said. “ I’d like to extend a huge thank you to Kathy Cozad, because without her donation– which allowed us to buy five MacBook Pros– I would have no way to work at home. “This film also had me doing lots of improvising. In many scenes, I thought the footsteps or door creaks were not loud enough. To fix it, I ended up doing folly recording to get things exactly as I wanted. Another huge worry of mine was incorporating a chicken. Eggs are a huge part of the film (I honestly don’t know why) but I knew that probably wouldn’t cut it. To be sure, I taped a chicken sticker to an egg carton. If you watch closely after the neighbor enters the house you may spot it. Interesting fact about the site of the church scene: a local unsolved murder mystery happened just down the hillside of this church. The victims were said to have been frequent visitors, and some say they still haunt the hillside and its surrounding buildings,” Spencer said.
As a young filmmaker, the contest definitely increased Spencer’s interest in pursuing art as part of her future, she said.
“This experience confirmed what I have been debating for quite some time now. For the longest time, I’ve wanted to work in the field of science. I figured it was a respectable profession, and made good money. Now, I realize I could never be happy if I cannot work towards something creatively. Even on the car ride home from the event, I couldn’t stop thinking about new ideas for films…I’ve set myself a goal of having one short done per season. Currently my main genre is horror, and I plan to stick with that,” she said.
Campbell stressed the district should be “immensely proud” of this program and Spencer.
“To have a class D school competing against AA schools can feel like an automatic loss, but not only were you able to bring in some great submissions, you were able to take home an award.”
Spencer premiered her film at the Harbor Springs Board of Education meeting on Feb. 13, 2023.