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Student films rock on at fest

Nate Peterson

Coke ads. Cell phone ads. Tampon ads. Ads encouraging you to buy popcorn and candy (that you’re already eating).The original short film, once a proud tradition at movie theaters, has been swallowed whole by another American tradition – shameless commercialism.”I don’t quite get it,” said director Todd Albright, 29, who will be in Vail this weekend to screen his award-winning student short “Automation.” “Trailers? I can’t knock them. But advertising? People seem to want their information on a big screen in hour-and-a-half chunks. … The only place where the short film is alive and well is on MTV – or a variable form of MTV. People are able to stomach five minute non-narrative or narrative short films as long as Jay-Z is looking at you.”Short films, especially student short films (not starring Jay-Z), are still alive and well on the big screen at film festivals. This year’s Vail Film Festival is screening 13 student shorts – each an original vision brought to life by an aspiring, resourceful filmmaker.Albright financed and shot “Automation” for $41,000 while enrolled in the masters program at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles.

The film tells the story of a lonely parking garage attendant who comes undone emotionally during a random power outage. The breakdown stems from a familiar situation for most – the inability to reach an actual human being while sifting through voice recognition menus, touch-tone operating systems and recorded messages.”I thought about a guy who is in that situation eternally, but also make it a thing that he really wants – to talk to somebody, not just to solve the immediate problem,” Albright said. “He’s kind of a loner. The thing’s about 26 minutes long and he never talks to a human being in the whole movie. … It gets really depressing at the end. It has a really funny scene in the middle, but it turns really dark. Student film, you gotta make it artistic I guess.”The film has resonated with festival audiences. It won the jury prize for best short at the Hollywood Film Festival and won the audience choice award at a festival in Tacoma, Wash. More importantly, it’s helped Albright get noticed – which, the director said, is the main objective of student cinema.”Shorts are a money losing venture,” the director said. “You’re not going to make money for yourself. All it can do is create opportunity for yourself.”

A lonely drifter…Ramsey Mellette, 32, is another filmmaker whose career has gotten a kickstart from a student-produced short film. “Rock On,” which Mellette made last year as his master’s thesis at the University of Southern California’s film school, is a 12-minute film that deals with another familiar subject – the inability to get a song out of one’s head.In this case, the song is the epic 1987 Whitesnake monster ballad, “Here I go Again.” “I was actually working on another film with a friend of mine,” said Mellette, who grew up in Denver. “We were story-boarding his movie, and I actually got the song stuck in my head. I kept singing it, and it kept bugging him, and he was like, ‘Shut up!’ I wrote the movie literally as a joke, just because I was laughing to myself about it.”Mellette said he realized the film had potential when he was pitching ideas to friends for his thesis.



He ran into a slight problem, however, once he decided to bring “Rock On” to life.He was initially rebuffed for rights to use the song – something that could have killed the film entirely.”It was really scary because at USC you have to have all the rights to a song. USC requires it. I didn’t want to give up there. I was like, ‘I have to have this song,'” he said.Mellette kept pressing. He eventually got in touch with a supervisor in the music industry who knew Whitesnake singer David Coverdale personally. The contact passed on the script to the British singer, which eventually led to a call to Mellette from Coverdale himself.”He called back and said, ‘I love it.'” Mellette said. “He’s totally British, you know. He’s like (assuming a British accent), ‘It was great. I love the story. It’s so funny.’ He said he’d give us the rights to the song on the condition that I gave him a copy of the film once it was finished.”Mellette’s reply, of course, was befitting of a child of the glamour-rock 80s.

“I was like, ‘(expletive) yeah!'” Mellette said. “Of course.”Since the film’s release, Mellette has gotten interest for a feature-length comedy from a production company, and is actually staying in L.A. this weekend to finish a re-write instead of making the trek out to Vail.He, like Albright, said the importance of student shorts should never be overlooked. All the interest I’ve gotten – it’s all been because of the short film,” Mellette said.Added Albright, “The thing about shorts is that they are the best place to try stuff out. That’s how a lot of successful directors established their visual style and convinced people. … The average movie-going Joe doesn’t usually see your work, which is why things like the Vail film festival are so necessary.”Nate Peterson can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 608, or via e-mail at npeterson@vaildaily.com.


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