Reeling them in: Light House Studio offers a head start on filmmaking careers


Light House takes the classroom out in the field to give aspiring filmmakers real world experience. Photo courtesy of Light House Studios. Light House takes the classroom out in the field to give aspiring filmmakers real world experience. Photo courtesy of Light House Studios.

For the past 14 years, Light House Studio has offered filmmaking workshops for local students, providing a hands-on education that rivals many college-level programs.

I was a student at Light House in its first class during the summer of 1999, and was crowded into a studio space in the basement of The Jefferson Theater with seven other students and four or five instructors during the very loose, informal beginnings of the program. Our topics were not assigned, rather we were paired into buddy groups, assigned a mentor, and told to go out and shoot whatever we wanted.

A lot has changed in the world of video since then. Digital cameras are everywhere
and A/V editing software is easier to find and use than ever. Teenagers making their own media is a commonplace trend, rather than an infrequent occurrence.

Light House has grown as well, and now offers a wide variety of classes year-round, each on a different aspect or genre of filmmaking. When I returned last year to teach a film history class, I was astonished at how knowledgeable and accomplished the students were. The Internet has given them access to decades of cult classics, and their projects were more ambitious than anything a young person could have made in the ’90s.

“We run into kids now that make their own movies by themselves and don’t even know about us,” said program director Jason Robinson. “The main thing that we offer—more so than the equipment—is the opportunity to be around people who are making stuff. Your work is stronger if you’re with people doing similar stuff.”

Light House runs programs year-round, and is busiest in summer when students have more time for immersive classes. The upcoming 2013 summer schedule includes a total of 13 day camps and advance workshops, many of which are already filling up. “This is our most packed summer ever, in terms of the things we’re offering,” Robinson said. “We’ll have something going on every day from 9am-3pm, sometimes two things in the classroom at once, in addition to groups going out into the community.”

“When you take a class here, it’s a three to one ratio of students to teachers,” explained development coordinator Lucy Edwards. “You’re working in small groups with adults who are professional filmmakers and who are dedicated to your group.”

The classes during the school year include Keep it Reel, Light House’s longest-running program which focuses on outreach in the community. Currently, students from the Westhaven Community Center are working on a documentary about the controversial topic of nearby restaurants that refuse to deliver to the Westhaven neighborhood.

“We just got a grant to do a doc on a local food hub,” Robinson said. “Rather than put it on our site and make it a class, we did it as a project with the Renaissance School during the school day. The kids who were interested went out and shot on a farm, and at the distribution center. They interviewed people, it was a crash course in filmmaking. But it’s also educational—the farmers there are all from the International Rescue Center, from Bhutan. They’re really neat guys.”

“That’s how we run a lot of our programs,” Edwards said. “We’re able to offer classes at a discount, or sometimes for free, because of those grants.”

Light House has also been active in sending out the students’ completed films for entries in festivals around the country. “One of the music videos we made last year has just won a ton of awards,” said Robinson. “We were really flabbergasted. The students were 13- to14-year-old girls and they made a video for an unreleased Sarah White song called ‘Last Day of May.’ Billy Hunt was their mentor on that, and it’s gotten into the L.A. Film Festival, NFFTY in Seattle, the Pendragwn Youth Film Festival in Seattle, and the Virginia Student Film Festival.”

“We have a lot more that we’re pushing,” Edwards said. “It ebbs and flows. Traditionally we have at least one or two films that will win a whole bunch of awards, and this year we have five or so films that have been honored as finalists or award-winners at film festivals. There are even a couple of festivals that have a whole Light House block.”

“A lot of our students stay in touch, and a lot of the really active ones go to film school, all over the country,” Robinson said. “We have students who are graduating now from VCU, SUNY-Purchase, Columbia, and Chicago. They go to cool places. A bunch of them just got accepted to Emerson. We do keep in touch, and a lot of the students end up coming back later to mentor.”

“The workshops at Lighthouse are taught by knowledgeable professionals in film, making it easy to get past a lot of the early rookie mistakes beginners can make. It’s all around an incredibly effective learning environment,” said Greg Nachmanovitch, a sophomore at Charlottesville High School, who first got involved in Light House through a summer animation workshop. “The flexibility and possibilities of the medium fascinated me,” he said. “And after that I knew I wanted to pursue film for the rest of my life.”


Watch the award-winning video for Sarah White’s Last Day of May here.



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