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Behind the Scenes at the Savannah Film Festival

Every year, the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), a private, nonprofit, accredited university for creative careers, hosts the Savannah Film Festival. Now in its 21st year, the event has grown from a student showcase, to include high-profile, international entries. Last year, the festival featured competition film showings, special screenings and workshops, and honored cinematic luminaries such as Richard Gere, Salma Hayek, Holly Hunter, Sir Patrick Stewart and Aaron Sorkin.

In addition to recognizing the achievements of top creative talents and screening films from emerging student filmmakers and award-winning professionals, the Savannah Film Festival features important educational components that benefit both SCAD students and the public.

To support SCAD’s efforts, Avid brings in video and audio professionals actively working in the industry to share insights, professional tips and career experiences with students and festival-goers. SCAD is a valued member of the Avid Learning Partner (ALP) program, which enables students to receive additional training on Avid tools and earn official certification in addition to their degrees.

A unique opportunity

The festival is a breath of fresh air in the entertainment industry, because of its Savannah, Georgia location and its format. As Alex Newton, film and television professor at SCAD says, “This is an incredible opportunity to engage with mentors and creative artists who are working in the industry… Those same artists who make content that students engage with daily. They’re watching it and studying it in their free time and interacting with it on a professional level, so it’s very exciting for them and for us.”

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Rough cuts to finals

Approximately 50 students were fortunate to learn from prolific editor (and sometimes actor) Colby Parker Jr. His work on Friday Night Lights with director Peter Berg put the film world on notice, popularizing a documentary style of editing that increased the requirement of authenticity in film. Recently, Parker teamed with Berg on the acclaimed feature, Deepwater Horizon. Parker came to the campus studio armed with plenty of footage to discuss before and after scenes and the finer points of cutting a film in an editing master class.

Using Avid Media Composer, he got ‘deep into the dailies’ of both Ant-Man and Deepwater Horizon. “It’s intimidating to do huge sequences like you see in a film like Deepwater Horizon,” Colby said. “I was able to able to duplicate the story with four or five characters and show how it happens over time – how to build complete sequences for all stories.” In addition to thoroughly enjoying the process of sharing his knowledge and experience, he was surprised by the students’ level of sophistication and enthusiasm.

I was really blown away by the festival. You can see that everyone involved loves and cherishes film and nurtures the filmmaking process. I was happy to share what I know.

Colby Parker Jr., editor

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Audiophiles

On the audio side, mixer Jonathan Wales shared his wealth of talent and experience in a two-and-a-half-hour master class. With students surrounding him in a mixing theater, he demonstrated on a Pro Tools | S6 console with a Pro Tools | HDX system. Jonathan, who started producing records in his native London before working as a film re-recording mixer, went on to work at world-class facilities including Universal Studios before creating his own company. Loaded with files from real-world projects to illustrate a range of mixing techniques, he, too, was amazed by the students’ savvy. “It was obvious to me that they were a very high-quality group of students with on-point, sensible and smart questions.”

Jonathan recognized the value of the hands-on experience for students. “Theory is one thing,” he said, “in practice it’s very different. The more students are exposed to real work, the better.” He also emphasized the practical nature of seeing artists at work. “It’s important to give them the opportunity to see working professionals as normal people. We tend to idolize anyone working in the job we want. This is a job—a difficult one—but you need to be careful how high you build the pedestal. Events like this make it more real and achievable,” he noted. Students took every opportunity to ask questions – everything from technical specifics to breaking into the business.

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Engineered luck

In the classes and joint panel discussion, which was open to attendees, both creative pros reinforced some common themes and offered practical advice to aspiring audio and video talent. “Don’t underestimate really knowing your stuff, especially the tools,” advised Jonathan. In addition to working 100-hour weeks for almost nothing, Jonathan spoke to the importance of a little good fortune, something he calls “engineered luck.” “You need to be at the right place at right time but you also need to have the right skill set and attitude. You need to be prepared to go for it. Once you’re in the door, you need to ask questions until you’re annoying. Soak it all up.”

The two also agree on how much times have changed. While the road to professional success is extraordinarily competitive, technology has made the learning curve easier. “Avid wasn’t around when I was in school,” offered Colby. “You had to study your film and compose your thoughts in a very linear way. With Avid, you can do it all within minutes. Try everything and quickly compose.”

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It’s all storytelling

The common thread throughout the festival was storytelling, but, it helps to understand all aspects of the process. Jonathan recommended, “Immerse yourself and learn as much as possible about as much as possible. You need to have a good understanding of the whole process. You need to know what makes things successful and cool—how a movie fundamentally gets made. You’re a cog in the wheel, but you need to know what the machine is for.”

Tips and preparations

Mitchell Gettleman, Department Chair for Sound Design echoed the sentiment. “Filmmaking is about collaboration,” he explained. “All accomplished professionals talk about collaboration and we model our teaching on what we learn from them and what our own professional experience teaches us. Mentoring students and fostering these industry relationships are extremely important to success.” Perhaps SCAD’s Alex Newton puts it into perspective best. “It’s our job to push them beyond the software and the workflows to what will prepare them for the positions they want once they’re done.” What better venue than one of the country’s most distinguished film festivals to see it all in action?

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