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By Alan Scherstuhl
Everybody in this walk-in closet of an editing room at the A.W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach is talking at once: Daniel Thomas, who's queuing up Thicker Than Water, a ten-minute video, for viewing; Justin Connelly, the video's writer, who says Thicker was originally inspired by Chaucer's The Pardoner's Tale but doesn't resemble it now; Quint Dimick, who simply loves to talk; and the school announcer, whose voice is being piped through the hallways. Spring break begins tomorrow, and she wants to make sure all students know where to pick up their tickets for an upcoming school trip. "This must be done as a group," she demands.
The only person not talking is Dien Vo, a 16-year-old Vietnamese-American who was told two hours ago that his oddly titled video ( ) won first place in the high-school category of the Palm Beach International Film Festival's Student Showcase. The 13-minute video was one of 63 student works submitted to the festival, which runs April 9 to 18. First-, second-, and third-place winners were selected by four judges for three categories: high school, state college, and national college.
Dimick, a sophomore at Dreyfoos, can't contain his excitement. Vo's win, he says, is a victory for everyone. Although Vo directed the video, ten students served as actors, camera operators, and members of the production crew. As the school announcer stresses the word group, Dimick echoes her sentiments. "The thing is, you have a person like Dien, who knows what he's going for," he says, "but then you have everybody else helping because they can do it. It's not a one-man show."
As celebrity-centric as filmmaking appears to be these days, it is a collaborative process -- a fact made clear every "Oscar night," when costume designers, special-effects wizards, cinematographers, film editors, and makeup artists share the stage with "stars." But that's only once a year. "Teamwork" is a mantra chanted year-round at Dreyfoos.
"My peers," Vo says, "have influenced me a lot. [You learn by] just seeing what your peers can do and then just trying to make something to that quality."
It's no accident Dien feels this way. Ancil DeLuz holds the title of Dreyfoos' dean of communication arts, but he's a facilitator, not a dictator. He teaches film technology, lays down a few rules ("I tell them if they're doing something that's a murder scene, I don't want to see any blood"), and supervises productions. But the creative process is left to the students. In fact, shortly after learning of Vo's win, he allowed a reporter to visit the school on a moment's notice, then introduced a handful of students and disappeared for two hours.
Teenage anarchy? Not exactly. Dreyfoos, a four-year (9th through 12th grades) magnet school subject to the same academic guidelines as all other schools in Palm Beach County, demands that students applying for one of its five programs -- music, dance, theater, visual arts, and communication arts -- "audition" for admission. Once accepted, each student chooses his or her major. Separating Dreyfoos students from other high schoolers, Dimick says, "One difference is that we all want to be here."
Vo once wanted to be in the visual arts program. For the first couple years (prior to the 1998-99 school year, Dreyfoos comprised grades 7 to 12), he "took it all -- painting, drawing, sculpture, photography." Vo is a skinny, dark-haired kid who tends to mumble when he speaks. But as shy as he seems, he knows what he wants.
"I just had to come here," he says of his switch to communication arts, "because [with video] it's so much easier to present a concept than to do just one image and then have it represent everything you're supposed to be thinking."
Of the three videos he's made this year, Vo is proud of just one: the Palm Beach International Film Festival winner.
"He's a perfectionist, though," Michelle Millares, a sophomore, says during a group interview in DeLuz's office.
"Really?" she's asked, as laughter fills the room.
"Yeah, he doesn't like anything he does. Even this [video]."
"So how is he to work with?"
"You gotta understand him," says Thomas, a senior who was one of the camera operators on ( ). "He's gonna go for the perfect shot. And once he gets that shot, then he'll do it again."
On the small screen, at least, ( ) looks like it was shot on film. But film is such an expensive medium that all Dreyfoos productions are shot on video, then digitally edited and/or enhanced. "What we do is we teach the principles of film production, but we use video technology," DeLuz explains.
Vo isn't a fan of "explaining" anything -- as the wordless title of his film attests. "It's creative thinking," Barry Lewis, a student showcase judge, says of the title. "It pushes the envelope for me as a viewer. I have to decide what's happening in the film." It takes a few viewings to piece everything together. Although many of the images are film cliches, ( ) is a nonlinear piece featuring atmospheric music and lighting, fluid editing, and haunting sound effects. "What set that piece way ahead of the pack, in my opinion, was the narrative they were attempting to structure," says Lewis, who is also director of education and artistic development at the Kravis Center For the Performing Arts.
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