Following Aristotle: Ballard High's storytellers

Nov 14, 2010

In a time when films like Jackass 3-D and the Saw horror sequels are tops at the box office, some young Seattle filmmakers are winning awards for bucking popular trends.  A Ballard High School program is turning out talented film students whose work is inspired by an ancient model.  

Instructor Matt Lawrence says if Aristotle was alive today, he’d be giving the ‘thumbs down’ to most modern American films. That’s because the ancient Greek philosopher’s seven golden rules of storytelling - the tenets of classic tragedy that start with strong plot and character development – are too often ignored.

“His point was that when the story’s weak, the art suffers. And he observed it becomes decadent.  You have gratuitous sex, gratuitous violence, and special effects crop up. All these things show they are desperate to hold the audience attention, because they are aware the story’s not working.”

Teaching the art of storytelling, in words and in pictures, is the heart of Ballard High’s Video Production Program.  Aristotle’s lesson is where Lawrence begins instruction with his hundred-plus students.

“If you’re a good storyteller, they’re going to make it. So we spend time on story structure, students brainstorm their ideas. If they know the structure when they have creative ideas they know how to support them. They know how to develop them so they’re going to work,” Lawrence said.

For Ballard’s young women and men, the discipline of good storytelling is working. They’re winning national and regional awards for young filmmakers.

One of them is senior Blair Scott, who along with fellow student Sheridan Koehler, created a short psychological drama, titled “Reflection."  It won top honors at the Young People’s Film and Video Festival in Portland last month.  Scott says it’s about, “How you make decisions,  how your conscience works, and why do certain things prevail as opposed to others.”

 

The Story of Reflection

In Reflection, a young man’s mirrored image, his dark side, prevails in a tale of moral dilemma. In five minutes, the gripping plot line, without dialog, delivers a kick in the stomach, punctuated by shattering glass.

Scott says the core of his story is the character arc. It’s an element instructor Lawrence has students analyze by critiquing popular films. Scott remembers a recent discussion of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards. “He’s like, 'Yeah, it’s an entertaining movie, but none of the main characters change at all,' which almost makes it pointless," the senior pointed out.

"And he really stresses there’s got to be some kind of change over the characters. In my case it’s not the best one, but there’s still a change from good to bad, nonetheless,” said Scott.

Scott and Koehler's film went through a typical round of peer review at Ballard. It’s a common practice for students to show their work to one another, and first ask for critique of their plot development.

 

Grads Return to Share Their Work

At a recent class, former students Madison Murphy and George Westberg paid a visit to show their new work, and field questions from the current crop of students.  Murphy is pursuing work in Los Angeles after obtaining a degree in Film and Media Studies from Occidental College.

Westberg has a shiny new degree from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He says he discovered Ballard’s reliance on Aristotle’s golden rules gave him a strong portfolio when he applied to NYU. 

“The quality really stood up. I was in good company with people who had the same passion, the same ideas, and they had come from all these different backgrounds. The work that I had done at Ballard was really solid, standing up with students from around the country and around the world,” Westberg said.

The program’s concentration on narrative skills mirrors the practice of professional film training programs, like The Film School in Seattle. It’s part of a growing emphasis on quality storytelling for young screenwriters and filmmakers.  

 

Awards Tell of Success

Proof of success is in the succession of awards Ballard students have taken at various contests over the years. They include Northwest Regional Student Emmys, the Northwest High School Film Festival, as well as being named as winning jury prizes at the National Film Festival for Talented Youth (NFFTY).  In fact, NFFTY, which screens hundreds of youth productions in Seattle every April, was founded by Ballard graduate Jesse Harris.

Emily Deering, a 2010 graduate, found that the program helped turn a picture-taking hobby into a passion for cinematography. Deering is now a freshman at Emerson College in Boston. Before graduating, she won a regional student Emmy for her production, The Crumb.

 

Media Literacy is "Mental Protection"

As Matt Lawrence has grown the program in Ballard, he’s added media literacy to the curriculum. He says it teaches students how to analyze and understand the techniques media makers use to sell products.

“It helps students be mentally protected, and they need that.  There’s so much that comes at them in this society. They are the targets for so much manipulation. They have to have ways of reasoning through that and protecting themselves,” Lawrence said.

These reasoning skills are grown through the way Ballard’s Video Production Program is structured. Students learn how to interact and collaborate with one another, hallmarks in the field of media production. Is it working? Lawrence says they are the kind of skills that don't necessarily show up on standardized tests. He says one measure of success can be found in the amount of scholarship money last year's seniors won in competitive scholarships: $150,000.

 Quoting Aristotle “Good habits formed at youth make all the difference.”