Middletown, Old Bridge filmmakers impress at PROJECT FX student film festival

Staff Writer

RED BANK — The Count Basie Theatre’s PROJECT FX statewide student film festival has awarded an Old Bridge High School student and a group from Middletown as some of the Garden State’s brightest and best student filmmakers.

“Regression,” a five-minute film from Old Bridge High School’s Nicholas Zolfo, took top prize in the high school category, according to a statement prepared by the theater.

The film was created, edited and written by Nicholas and Danny Brennan and starred Kayla Hoheb as the girlfriend and Anthony Padilla as the boyfriend. Lighting was handled by Robindeep Singh. Music credentials go to “the xx.”

It was filmed in a backward sequence of events, showing what led to a disastrous situation between an argumentative boyfriend and girlfriend.

“We found out about the festival the day before the extended deadline. Our original idea did not fall through, so at 6 p.m. we thought of a new idea that turned into our film. It took us about six and a half hours to film it straight through. Then we edited the following day and were very happy with our turnout. We ended up submitting just in time and are extremely happy with where we are today,” Nicholas said.

Nicholas will now enjoy an internship with Sony Pictures Classics in Manhattan and have his film screened at this summer’s Indie Street Film Festival, set for July 6-10 at the Count Basie Theatre and other venues throughout Red Bank.

“Winning the PROJECT FX film festival was absolutely amazing. The feeling of them announcing our name is indescribable,” Nicholas said. “The reason why I do this is that I love getting an emotional reaction from people. We did this in six hours, and we were able to make a story people responded to.”

Runners up in the high school category included the four-minute partially animated “Painted Cranes” by Middletown High School South students Sage Levine, Andrew Bergstrand, Maria Dragone, Charlotte Larish and Lisa Merola.

“For me, at least, the inspiration for the film came partially from my love of origami cranes, which I fold constantly, and my experience with art block. It can be incredibly frustrating to be asked to complete an art assignment with no ideas, and sometimes I wish for divine intervention,” Lisa said.

“After many wild ideas of attacks of paper cranes, an anti-bullying crane group and an evil red crane mastermind, we agreed on the idea of friendly cranes helping a struggling student out with her art project. We all thought the idea of paper cranes dispersing into beautiful colors and becoming the painting was just so cool, so we decided to take on the difficult task,” Sage said.

“Painted Cranes” was filmed in two classrooms — the “reality” shots took place in the art room, while the film room was used for the cranes. During a month and a half of production, the five classmates folded more than 50 paper origami cranes and took about 340 photos.

“The film was a mixture of live action and stop-motion animation, the stop motion being the most essential part,” Sage said. “Our group spent every day either during class or during our study hall and lunch periods moving the cranes about half a centimeter per shot across a desk in the brightly lit corner of our film studio, which became mentally draining after a while. Every day, we had to set up the art supplies, the cranes and the sleeping student played by group member Maria Dragone in the same exact position as we had left them the previous day, as the desk we were working on was often needed for other projects. Overall, it required a great deal of effort and mental stability, but we never once thought of giving up.”

Maria continued, “The character of the artist — played by me — and the art aspect of the film came from my struggle with art block at the time; art block is when an artist either has motivation to draw but doesn’t know what to draw, or vice versa.”

Maria said the hardest part of the film was keeping her head down because her character was asleep for the majority of the clips.

“I like to help out and play a part in every aspect of making the film so having to sit with my head down for 10 minutes at a time while my group members worked on the stop motion was tough. Besides that, I didn’t mind filming scenes over and over again because I knew we were filming so much in order to get the best shot possible,” she said.

Later, in post-production, Sage explained that the group originally thought they had to individually trim every shot of the moving cranes down to a tenth of a second, and there were hundreds upon hundreds of shots.

“We began wearily doing this until our film teacher Mr. [Christopher] Corey informed us that there was a way to trim all of the shots at once. This just shows that although we didn’t have much of a clue of what we were doing, we were willing to face whatever obstacle the film threw at us. Ultimately, by the time that we had achieved a final product, we had seen the film so many times that we hadn’t the slightest idea of how anyone would react to it,” Sage said.

“None of us expected to receive this much attention for a simple film that we made in the back corner of our TV production studio in our high school,” she continued. “‘Painted Cranes’ is the second film we made together, and although we may have been inexperienced in the art of filmmaking during the entire process, our ambitious mindsets propelled us to go further, to try to challenge ourselves. … We all worked equally hard during the production.”

Maria was especially affected by seeing the final product.

“Seeing myself on camera — and especially on the big screen at Count Basie — is really weird because I don’t normally act or do anything like this, but overall I think it’s funny to see myself on camera, especially my extreme close-up,” she said.

For their efforts, the group won a high-end digital video camera courtesy of Sony Home Entertainment.

“I can tell you as their teacher that they were a very hardworking group who were detail-oriented and passionate about their project. It was a joy to see them work, and now we are seeing the fruits of their labor. I’m very proud of them,” Corey said.

“The feeling of being a finalist is mind-numbing. To know that people actually enjoy the work my group and I have made is astonishing. I’ve been smiling nonstop since I heard,” Lisa said. “Hopefully, we can make another film that can live up to the success of ‘Painted Cranes.'”

In addition to a public vote on Facebook and votes tallied at the festival itself, films were reviewed by a panel of esteemed adjudicators, including Sony Pictures’ Tom Bernard, Oscar-winner Timothy Hutton, Oscar-nominated screenwriter James Schamus, legendary broadcast journalist Dan Rather, “Clerks” and “Mallrats” star Brian O’Halloran, United Talent Agency Independent Film Group head Rena Ronson, “Breaking Bad” cinematographer Peter Reniers, “True Detective” producer Carol Cuddy and others.

“This year’s lineup at PROJECT FX was incredibly strong, and these six aspiring filmmakers have great futures ahead of them,” said Bernard, co-president and co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics, who resides in Middletown.

“Seeing the number of submissions grow substantially in year two, matched with the outstanding quality of films, signifies the importance of this festival,” said Adam Philipson, president and CEO of Count Basie Theatre. “We appreciate our sponsor, entrants and judges and look forward to next year’s PROJECT FX.”

For links to each film, visit www.facebook.com/projectFXbasie.

Contact Jennifer Amato at jamato@gmnews.com.