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Student films rock on at fest

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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