Steilacoom film students win big in the Big Apple

No sleep, tight budget: Steilacoom HS film club dishes on NYC shoot

Steilacoom high students — Hannah Sheil, Emily Sagen, Emily Kuhlmann and Kaleb Ruff — share their experience shooting a film over three days for $600 in New York City. The film club captured "Best in Contest" in the Cyberbullying Film Invitationa
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Steilacoom high students — Hannah Sheil, Emily Sagen, Emily Kuhlmann and Kaleb Ruff — share their experience shooting a film over three days for $600 in New York City. The film club captured "Best in Contest" in the Cyberbullying Film Invitationa

You can’t call yourself a film director until you have cut your favorite scene.

That’s the maxim Steilacoom High School teacher Peter Johnson tells his film students. And it’s a lesson students in the school film club carried with them to New York City recently while competing in the Cyberbullying Film Invitational.

The lesson in editing apparently paid off, netting the four-student team the top Best in Contest award at the competition Oct. 9.

The three-day event challenged students from 24 schools to head to New York and produce a film on the spot that reflected the theme of cyberbullying.

Students were given a few prompts — along with a thick rule book — in August. The Steilacoom team — junior Hannah Sheil, senior Emily Sagen, junior Emily Kuhlmann and senior Kaleb Ruff — went to work immediately to begin crafting their story. They met before and after school for months to develop a script, storyboards and technical effects for their film, titled “gr@vity.”

“A lot of people focused more on the cinematography,” said Sheil, who shot the film. “But we focused more on story.”

Their 8-minute film tells the story of a teen named Zoe who has a few drinks at a party, then falls into a sexual encounter with her best friend’s brother. The film details what happens when the boy spreads the news — and presumably, an intimate photo taken during the encounter — via texting.

“Part of making it a real story was to show how mean people can be,” Sheil said. The text messages that special effects supervisor Ruff created for the film were all taken from real messages cataloged on an anti-bullying website.

Screenwriter and director Sagen calls the story, which ends tragically, “unsettling.”

As part of the film’s ending, a list of real youths who took their own lives as a result of cyberbullying scrolls across a black screen.

When the festival audience watched “gr@vity” there was “dead silence” as the film ended, said producer Kuhlmann.

The competition, part of the All American High School Film Festival, was sponsored by AT&T, Fullscreen and the Tyler Clementi Foundation.

The foundation honors Clementi, a student at Rutgers University who took his own life in 2010 after his college roommate used a computer webcam to secretly film him kissing a man.

The Steilacoom students did their homework, researching the subject of cyberbullying online and by talking to their peers. They asked friends to read the dialog and altered it to make it sound more authentic.

“That story has happened before, and it will probably happen again,” said Sheil. “We wanted to open people’s eyes to the real issue.”

As the top finishers in the film competition, the Steilacoom students earned a cash prize of $5,000 that the film club plans to use to purchase more equipment.

For the trip to New York, they packed two desktop computers for editing, along with cameras and sound equipment.

Flight crews tried to get them to check everything with their baggage, but the students didn’t want to let the precious tools out of their sight.

They managed to persuade the airline employees to allow their extra equipment as carry-on luggage.

During the flight, they continued refining their storyboards and script. When they got to New York, they had to scout locations and shoot the film.

They had a micro-budget of only $600, so the New York actors, recruited from a casting website, worked for film credits only. They negotiated a discount with the owner of a penthouse apartment, used as one of the shooting locations.

Ruff worked hard making the text messages blend seamlessly into the live action shots. At one point during pre-production, he scrapped all of the text effects, deciding they were too cheerful looking, and started over.

After spending long days shooting, students said they developed friendships with the cast, including lead actress Kimberly Dolcin.

The film contains graphic language and several realistic scenes, including one suggesting a naked Dolcin.

It was shot from behind her and from the waist up. During filming, she wore a full length apron and shorts that don’t show on camera.

The students put in long hours, racing through three New York boroughs to shoot, and editing long into the night. Their days began at 6 a.m. and continued until 2 a.m. the next morning.

But it’s an experience none of them would trade.

“We got a lot closer on this trip,” said Sheil.

“It was hard work, stressful,” added Kuhlmann. “But we were surrounded by our film family.”

What’s next for the Steilacoom moviemakers?

Sagen wants to study communications and film after she graduates from Steilacoom High. Her “dream school” is the University of Southern California, but she’s also applying to other schools in Los Angeles and New York.

Kuhlmann wants to study film production, possibly at New York University.

Sheil is interested in photojournalism, but also in “so many other things.” She says the University of Washington is definitely on her college list.

Ruff is the only one of the crew who doesn’t plan to pursue a career in film.

He wants to be an architect and plans to apply to Syracuse University.

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635, @DebbieCafazzo

People’s Choice voting

Steilacoom High’s film club won the Cyberbullying Film Invitational.

They earned $5,000 for their club, the competition’s top prize. But you can help them earn more by voting for them in the competition’s People’s Choice Awards.

Voters have until Oct. 28 to vote online for their favorite competition film at

The People’s Choice award is worth an additional $5,000.