Highlander Excerpt: The Power of Storytelling Through Film

This feature story is an excerpt from the upcoming Highlander Magazine, which will be a digital-exclusive edition coming out this fall! In the meantime, enjoy this story of the growth and success of our Film Program and stay tuned for more sneak peeks!

The concept was simple — take a children’s book and bring the story to life through film. In the process, introduce filmmaking techniques like utilizing a green screen, applying basic special effects, editing the film, and selecting music to set a certain mood. Put all those ingredients together and see what happens.

For students in the spring 2019 grade 8 film production class, the semester-long project came together masterfully. The finished product was a six-minute film called “Outside” based on a winter-themed children’s book of the same name by Deirdre Gill. The film was accepted into student film festivals around the world, won numerous awards, and brought St. Margaret’s students and the school’s cinematic arts program into the spotlight.


“Outside” was an example of what a good idea, student creativity, successful collaboration and the application of filmmaking skills can do. Those are central tenets of St. Margaret’s cinematic arts program under the direction of film teacher Karen Bennett.

When it all comes together, it can be magical.

“We live in a visual world. Successful people in all careers need strong communication abilities, and the goal of the cinematic arts program at St. Margaret’s is to equip students with technical and artistic skills in visual communication,” said Darcy Rice, St. Margaret’s director of the arts. “The power of story remains at the base of human understanding, and that power underpins our students’ work as they create emotional narrative films, eye-opening documentaries and informative visual reports. 

“Karen Bennett has been crucial to the successful launch of the new film program, and her passionate teaching style and broad real-world experience have come together to help us reimagine what the cinematic arts program at St. Margaret’s can be.”

Cinematic arts is a visual arts elective for Middle School and Upper School students. Starting with a semester elective in grade 7, students are introduced to the art of storytelling through film and work on a standalone movie as a collaborative project. After the class collectively brainstorms an idea and fine-tunes the script, students split up duties and work various roles in the filmmaking process. There are opportunities to direct a scene, operate the camera, manage the props, edit and chop the footage, select music and incorporate basic special effects.

The entire class works on the same film, which brings interpersonal skills into the process, along with the technical filmmaking and editing tricks they pick up as the semester progresses.

“Students have to collaborate diplomatically, maintain relationships and work well with others on a creative project where ideas and visions often vary,” Ms. Bennett said. “There’s no better way to learn those skills than through filmmaking.”

The technical skills become more advanced as students progress. Grade 8 film production introduces more visual effects and dabbles in concepts like animation. Once students get to the Upper School, the electives are yearlong courses, and students begin to work independently pursuing their own ideas and creative vision.
In the Upper School’s film production class, Ms. Bennett teaches concepts through “showdowns,” in which students focus on one elemental aspect of filmmaking. One showdown emphasizes incorporating different camera angles, another focuses on stunts, one involves making montages, and others introduce equipment like a green screen or a 360-degree camera. With those skills acquired through showdowns, students then spend the second semester creating two long-form films.

Students hone skills and storytelling in advanced film production as they take on more complex projects like suspense films, documentaries and character arc films, for which scripts are written and deeply analyzed from the angle of each character in each scene to make it as authentic as possible to the audience.

All students have the opportunity to share their films at one of two showcases: St. Margaret’s winter film festival in January and its spring film festival in May.

“As their skills advance and they gain more experience, our students are empowered by the fact that if they can dream it, they can create it,” Ms. Bennett said.

Ms. Bennett came to St. Margaret’s in 2018 after spending 14 years as a teacher at Millikan Performing Arts Academy in Los Angeles. Before teaching, she had a career as a music editor for blockbuster Hollywood films, working with legendary directors and composers on films like Planet of the Apes, Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, Catch Me If You Can and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Her classes at St. Margaret’s have seen a growth of interest and involvement, as film showcases and Vimeo pages spotlight just what the students are capable of creating.
Their work has garnered acclaim outside of St. Margaret’s as well. Five Upper School students — Blake Jafari, Chloe Reder, Bobby Springer, Harrison Trikas and Emma Evanson — created a film in one weekend as part of a National Film Festival for Talented Youth competition. They wrote a script, created a set, filmed, edited and added visual effects within a strict 48-hour deadline. Their finished product, “Time Machine,” beat 24 other entries to win first place at NFFTY in Seattle.

Three other films — “Kick Me!” by Robbie Healy and Chloe Reder; “Just Ask” by Alexandra Meyer and Chloe Reder; and “Rush” by Paul Boranian and Emma Scharf — were selected to be screened at the All American High School Film Festival in New York City.

And then there’s “Outside,” which has attracted attention from film festivals worldwide. It won Best Visual Effects at the All American High School Film Festival in New York, won Best Student Film at the Edutain Film Festival in Taiwan, and was an official selection at the Adelaide International Youth Film Festival in Australia, the Boston International Kids Film Festival and the National Film Festival for Talented Youth.

“Outside” was an example of a creative project that goes right — the idea, the music, the acting and the editing all clicked. But whether a project receives critical acclaim or not, “Outside” and many other films created in St. Margaret’s cinematic arts department are unleashing the power of storytelling in students who have creative ideas to share with the world.

As Ms. Bennett puts it: “Our students don’t make films because they want to win something. Our students have something to say, and film is a great way to share those stories.”
An independent preschool through grade 12 college-preparatory day school in Orange County, California
St. Margaret’s Episcopal School
31641 La Novia Avenue
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675
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