I never thought it could be fun to stay up all night working. But when I made nine short films in four weeks in a grueling summer arts program, it was amazing. I was sleep-deprived, and nothing came out exactly how I wanted, but for the first time in my life, other students saw my work and appreciated it. It made me feel like a great impressive Artist. That does not happen much in South Gate, where people seem to be mainly doing drugs, showing off their cars, or sitting on their front porches doing nothing.
As you can tell I hate South Gate, and when I got the letter saying I was accepted to the California State Summer School for the Arts, I couldn’t wait. I began to pack my stuff three weeks early. I felt so proud to be among the 500 students accepted into the InnerSpark program.
My dad drove me up to the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. When we arrived, I was impressed. It looked way different than South Gate. The clean white buildings stood silent and calm, surrounded by trees—so different from South Gate High, which is ghetto, ugly and filled with negativity.
That evening we met the director of the program. I thought he was going to lecture us about all the rules we had to follow and give us a dress code. Instead, he turned out to be a cool guy in a Hawaiian shirt. He thought of everyone as an Artist, and wanted us to have a great time and work hard.
The first night my roommates and I didn’t go to sleep until 2 a.m., because we were having so much fun talking. At 3 a.m. some clown pulled the fire alarm. We all had to evacuate in our pajamas. "We’re gonna do this every night," someone joked. After standing in the cold for half an hour we went back in for a few hours of sleep before class.
Going to my first class in the underground level, I was shocked to see the walls. They were covered with graffiti, not black gang tags but great art, extravagant color, faces, handprints, festoons and the hilarious message, "Bob Dylan for President."
The first class was cool. We all presented the film projects that we turned in when we applied to the academy. One student showed an experimental psychedelic film about a cat clawing into the camera. The image of the cat played back and forth, while the color changed with a whirlpool effect. It was amazing. Another fool showed a film about people doing all their daily tasks backwards. I loved it.
Then it was my turn to go up and present my project, Vicious Damsels, about two girlfriends. Jealous of a slutty college classmate, who is pretty and gets whatever she wants, they follow the girl and murder her. Then one of the friends murders the other friend for no logical reason—a weird story which had the whole class laughing and confused. Some of the students said I used weird vocabulary, others thought it was a cool ’60s-style film. It was the first time I ever got feedback from people who respected the way I think. Even though some people didn’t like my project, I didn’t get offended because I knew that everyone in the class was into film and video, and that everyone has their own personal style.
All work and no sleep
Then we got into the insane workload part of the summer. The main teacher of the class warned us that we were going to work under pressure. He told us we were going to breathe, eat and live film and video. In four short weeks we would complete nine projects.
My first assignment was a digital film project—but I couldn’t use any music or people. I took random shots of the hallway, the stairs and the city. I used a car engine remix, wind effects and a heartbeat for the sound. It came out great.
We also shot with 8-milimeter film. I learned how to splice and edit, add sound, check for a perfect frame and develop contrast. They also taught us to use 16-milimeter film. I worked on manipulated and found footage projects (meaning I would take film of strange ’70s sitcoms and scratch it with a razor blade, draw on it with a Sharpie and splice in random images.) Digital Video class was the coolest and easiest. Using professional software, I could add sound, video effects and text. It was amazing how easy it was to make your ideas into a movie. After we finished our projects, we watched them on a big screen. It was really exciting.
Our teachers turned out to be weird characters. My Super-8 teacher would stand and scratch his head for five minutes whenever you asked him a question. My history and aesthetics teacher looked like a punk, but hated punk music. She had a huge octopus tattoo, a piercing right between her eyes, dreadlocks and a chihuahua named Tattoo. My digital video teacher constantly drank Red Bull because he’d been up deejaying the night before. And a young woman, Jen, who helped out in all the classes which was cool, would sometimes fall asleep and begin to drool.
During the second week I was given my second digital assignment. I had to portray myself, or someone’s lifestyle. I decided to focus on my roommate who was always rapping. I admired the way he freestyled and just flowed without looking at any written lyrics. He talked about himself and the violence and crime of L.A. I set up a tripod in our dorm room and filmed him for 10 minutes as he was flowing. After I was finished, I took the video downstairs and transferred it to the computer. I had to add a title, credits and fix the tint. It sounds easy, but it was really frustrating because the whole class of 40 kids shared the eight computers in the lab. As I worked, there were three other people watching, wondering when I was going to be finished. I could only work for two hours, then I’d have to wait until my next turn. I was up ’til 6 a.m. for three days in a row, just to get 11 hours of time.
They hated my video
When I presented the video, my classmates said the worst things about my project. They asked me why I interviewed my roommate since I was supposed to focus on myself. Others said I used the same shot for a long time, and it was boring; others were annoyed by the rap lyrics. Someone else thought my roommate copied his lyrics from an industry rapper (which wasn’t true). My teacher suggested that I re-do the project. I felt so disappointed. I was filled with rage, especially since some of my classmates did even stupider projects, like films of tree branches. I wanted to kill everybody. Well, not everybody, just my teacher.
I decided to come back even stronger. I did a narrative about myself using artistic shots and it came out much better.
Even though sometimes I got bad comments from the other students, I woke up every day totally motivated to work hard on my projects. There was so much to do. We had to go up to total strangers and ask if they wanted to be actors in our projects. In addition to shooting and editing my own stuff, I was helping others with their lighting and camera angles. After staying up late, there were afternoons when we were so exhausted that we just had to go to our dorms for a short nap.
Luckily, CalArts offered all kinds of great services to keep you going. The dorm attendants kept the place spotless. The cafeteria staff made great lasagna, pizza, bacon cheeseburgers, sandwiches and chicken salad. I think I had 58 turkey and wheat sandwiches while I was there. At breakfast we had a choice of cereal, doughnuts, pancakes, eggs—anything we wanted. We could hang out in private group centers or an outside courtyard. The library, the coolest one ever, had a separate computer lab and all the software you needed.
For my last project, I decided to do a movie trailer, even though my digital mentor hated trailers. I made flyers stating, "Short Gorilla Film, Actors Wanted." I handed them out near the cafeteria. I got 25 students together, and took them to a grassy area near the cafeteria. For an hour, I made them run, run, run and scream, scream, scream.
For the whole last week, I stayed up late working on my weird gorilla movie. In the final video, it looked like all the students were trying to escape from a gorilla, which roared unseen in the background. My text informed viewers: "This summer, 16 college students will be chased by a voracious beast. One will receive college credit. The rest will be eaten." It was my wackiest and most successful project. It made everybody laugh.
The last day I woke up real late. My room was filled with guys shaking hands, taking pictures, recording videos and saying good-bye. I felt so sad. How did it go by so fast? I hated to think of going back to South Gate, where there’s no true friends. At this arts program, no one disrespected me for going to the library. No one thought I was weird for working hard. I was surrounded by nerds who had the most incredible ideas and I’ve never enjoyed myself so much. I felt encouraged to dream that someday I can show the world my talent and imagination. I’m not going to give up, no matter what.
To learn more about the California State Summer School for the Arts InnerSpark program, visit www.csssa.org. In addition to film, students can study animation, creative writing, dance, theater and visual arts.