Student Silent Film Fest gives teens taste of early cinema
On Wednesday, Jan. 25, students from 11 area high schools will be competing in the annual Student Silent Film Festival at the historic Tivoli Theatre in Downers Grove. Unlike other film competitions, the movies submitted will tell their stories in visual terms without the aid of voices or sound effects.
"This festival is a celebration of the art of silent cinema, as well as a unique educational opportunity for contemporary young moviemakers," said Ed Newmann of Hinsdale, one of three founders of the event.
"It's a way for young people to discover and appreciate the techniques and accomplishments of pioneering motion picture artists at the dawn of the moviemaking era."
All submitted movies will be shown at the Student Silent Film Festival with live musical accompaniment by Derek Berg, a professional pianist and CEO of the Clarendon Hills Music Academy.
The musical scores will be performed on the SilentFilmtronic 2000, a uniquely designed keyboard rig that employs virtual instruments sampled from classic synthesizers circa 1950-1980. Berg's original compositions will be inspired by the soundtracks from the Netflix series "Stranger Things."
Participating high schools and media instructors:
• Lyons Township High School -- Bill Allan;
• Maine East High School in Park Ridge -- Phillip Ash;
• Victor J. Andrew High School in Tinley Park -- Laura Robinson;
• Riverside/Brookfield High School -- Gary Prokes;
• Vernon Hills High School -- Sandy Martin;
• Barrington High School -- Jeff Doles;
• Lake Forest High School -- Steve Douglass
• Mundelein High School -- Kent Meister
• Maine South High School in Park Ridge -- Mason Strom;
• Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville -- John Gelsomino;
• Alan B. Shepard High School in Palos Heights -- Jodi Pelini.
The silent movie is an art form unto itself. The ability to tell a story in purely visual terms, without the aid of a synchronized soundtrack, is a special skill with its own set of challenges and opportunities.
Beginning in the mid-1910s, small suburban theaters employed a piano player, but large city movie palaces had massive theater organs that had a wide range of special effects.
Theatrical organs such as the famous "Mighty Wurlitzer" could simulate orchestral sounds along with a number of percussion effects, such as bass drums and cymbals, and sound effects ranging from train and boat whistles to car horns and birdsong.
Some could even simulate pistol shots, ringing phones, the sound of the surf, horses' hooves, smashing pottery, and thunder and rain.
"We believe it is important for the upcoming young moviemakers of today to understand and appreciate the art of cinema as it existed in the 1920s," Newmann said.
"At a time when almost anyone can create high-definition, stereophonic, sync-sound movies with a mobile device that fits in his or her pocket, many young people have little idea of the challenges faced by early filmmakers."
Each school was given four weeks to create its silent film entry.
For the festival, a panel of judges -- all professionals in the entertainment or art education industries -- will select three winners based on the quality of the story narrative, development, camera work, lighting, and editing.
Each participant will be provided with an HD digital file of his or her movie with the accompaniment sound track.
"In addition to being an incomparable experience for all the participating students," Newmann said, "the winning filmmakers will have powerful pieces of work for their portfolios."
The film festival, which starts at 7 p.m., will be held in the French Renaissance-style theater, built in 1928, at 5021 Highland Ave. in Downers Grove.
The public is invited to the film festival. Advance tickets are $18 and can be ordered at www.studentsilentfilmfestival.org. Same day tickets are $25 at the door.
The Student Silent Film Festival got its start in 2017 when three men met at an event for high school media educators. Ed Newmann, Bill Allan and Derek Berg had many common interests, which led to friendships. They agreed that film students would benefit from learning about and creating silent films. The inaugural film fest took place that same year.
Newmann, founder of Calabash Animation, is a well-known animator and entrepreneur. He has been an animator for "Pete's Dragon," "The Lord of the Rings," "Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown," several Charlie Brown TV specials, and many more.
Calabash's first in-house animated short, "Stubble Trouble," was nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Short in 2001. He taught college-level animation classes at Columbia College in Chicago.
Allan, supervisor of Television Services at Lyons Township High School, has been creating videos since he was 10 years old. He received a bachelor's degree in Fine Arts in Photo, Film, and Electronic Media from the University of Illinois Chicago.
He worked in the commercial film industry, later transitioning to television with Comcast. He later went back to school for his teaching certificate and became the teacher and station manager at Lyons Township High School television.
Over the years, he has made Lyons Township's TV into one of the leading high school media programs in the Midwest.
Berg, CEO and owner of the Clarendon Hills Music Academy, was fascinated from an early age with the creative side of music. He launched the music academy focusing on a student's musical interests, creative elements, and foundation material.