WESLEY CHAPEL — Taylor Gonzalez and Nelia Berry settled into their seats to get one final look at their short film, Unhinged, on the big screen in Wesley Chapel High's performing arts center before the room would fill for the school's annual film festival.
The girls, who both won awards for their work about killers who hear voices in their heads, talked about their pride — as well as their nervousness — at having their art displayed for all to see.
"I think it's, like, really cool," said 17-year-old Taylor, a junior. "But there are parts in your movie that are really vulnerable."
"You can't listen to other people who might put you down," added Nelia, 17, a senior.
These are just a couple of the lessons that drama teacher Sean Gaudet aims to impart to students with his film contest, which he began 13 years ago and has watched grow.
"Who doesn't want students who have to organize themselves, learn from their mistakes, work together and make something?" Gaudet said, as he worked on timing and lighting for the afternoon event. "This is building something. This is like the art version of shop class. This is our birdhouse."
The integration of film, technology and core academics continues to spread as teachers seek more ways to keep students' attention by entering "their world."
John Long Middle School took steps into the realm this year with its first film festival, which is set for Tuesday. More than 150 students created short films based on books they enjoyed.
"The point is to get them excited about the selections that are out there," principal Christine Wolff said.
What also came through, though, was students' passion for film, added seventh grade teacher Jennifer Norris.
"Gone are the days of the traditional book report," Norris said. "Our kids are very tech savvy. You need to spark their interest."
Seventh-grader Maya Hogan, who based her film on the novel Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver, found the competition right up her alley. She entered even though her class hadn't been assigned to participate.
"I like to edit videos all the time," said Maya, 13. "Sometimes on my own, I'll go out and film."
Eighth-grader Colin Bishop said he liked the concept, but would have preferred having fewer restrictions.
"I would rather do it on anything, and we get to make the film not about a book," said Colin, 14.
It's rewarding but hard work, competitors in Wesley Chapel High's festival said. They encouraged middle schoolers with an interest to stick with it.
"My advice would be not to let your eyes be bigger than your stomach, try to balance it all out," said junior Emma Schlechty, 17. "Don't put more pressure on yourself than you need to. All you're going to do is make yourself panic ... and you're going to end up hating it."
Senior Aaron Schaefer, who acted in best picture nominee Chasing the Sun, said he had no idea entering high school that he would be interested in drama.
"People looked at me as an athlete," he said, noting he got involved with the theater program to meet girls.
From the moment of his first on-stage role, Schaefer, 18, knew he had found his place. He advised younger students thinking about staying involved in film to "hunker down" and remain focused on their work so they don't get distracted.
He also offered some advice on acting, which he suggested is practical for just about anyone: "We tend to make these walls. You really want to break down the walls very quickly and put everything you have into your character."
With each year, Gaudet said, interest and talent grows for the film festival. The students this season created enough high-quality projects to fill the finalist list twice over, he said.
Wolff said she could see Long Middle expanding its world of film, too, based on the positive feedback she has received so far.
"It's a creative outlet, a different way to showcase what kids have learned," she said. "I've seen many of the videos. They're very good. We were very pleased with the quality of work that we received from the students."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.