“Writer’s Block” and “The Puppy Trials” Delight at Pens to Lens 2017

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Most of us have a movie that we dream of making someday. It’s what we fantasize about in the midst of our daily routine, imagining what an audience’s response might be to the images we place on-screen. The first stories I wrote as a kid consisted purely of images that I’d arrange on each page like a movie storyboard. The narratives were fueled not by dialogue but by movement, perspective and facial expressions. If I had grown up in the tight-knit creative community of Champaign, Illinois, I might’ve seen one of these “movie dreams” become a reality, projected on the larger-than-life screen of the Virginia Theatre. I can only imagine how mind-blowing this experience has been for students who have had their submitted scripts chosen by Champaign Movie Makers in the annual Pens to Lens competition. This year marked the fifth installment of the contest, organized by the Champaign Urbana Film Society, and sixteen student-penned scripts were filmed and screened in a two-part gala this past Saturday. I had so much fun covering last year’s gala for RogerEbert.com that I returned this year and was inspired all over again by the imagination, sophistication and spirit of camaraderie shared by these young artists.

Michael Phillips, the wonderful Chicago Tribune film critic, and I were asked to present awards to students who made their own films for the event. When I went onstage, I recounted my memories of the “Harry Potter” movie that my sister and I had made as kids. She wrote the script and operated the camera, while I played all the roles. Literally all of them. Since we had no digital editing software, I had to keep changing costumes between every take. Thus, in the finished footage, I resemble nothing more than the world’s biggest Harry Potter fan having a nervous breakdown. Needless to say, the project was so ambitious that Emily and I didn’t get past Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, but we still savor that experience as one of our greatest childhood memories. Phillips paid the filmmakers a major compliment by claiming that the best of what he saw at the gala was more interesting than half of the movies he reviewed this summer, and I couldn’t agree more with him. Several of the shorts I saw could easily be expanded into fantastic features, while others could deservedly win awards at festivals around the world.

For my RogerEbert.com coverage, I chatted with as many people as I could find during the gala, but there were two more screenwriters that I ended up contacting afterward. I loved their films so much that I’ve embedded them below, along with a few words from the scribes themselves…

17-year-old Katarina Blakeslee was struggling with finding an ideal topic for her Pens to Lens script when she decided to simply sit down and write. What she came up with was “Writer’s Block,” an ode to the power of storytelling that should be shown in every creative writing class. It provides a sublime showcase for Barbara Evans, a Champaign theatre vet who reminded me here of the subdued Gena Rowlands from Woody Allen’s “Another Woman.” She plays a renowned author who we see interacting with fans at a reading of her latest, long-awaited book. As her memories become entangled with the present moment, we start to realize that there is much more to what we’re seeing than initially meets the eye. Anchoring every moment is the nuance Evans brings to Blakeslee’s remarkable dialogue, as her character reveals the boundless possibilities offered by one’s imagination.

“I feel that it’s so important for young kids to express themselves through the written word because it’s extremely empowering,” Blakeslee told me. “I’ve loved writing since I was young. When I was really little, I would write poetry books and bind them together and give them to people. I thought that was super-cool, but as I got older, I started looking into essays and writing more critically. That has helped me a lot in bettering myself as a person by seeing things from different people’s points of view. As a writer, it’s my job to tell the stories of people who can’t really tell those stories themselves.”

Co-directors Thomas Nicol and Andrew Gleason had Blakeslee serve as the script supervisor during production, and she savored the opportunity to watch Evans cast a spell on everyone—both on and off the screen.

“I am always in awe of her whenever she is working,” said Blakeslee. “When we were on the set, there were some takes where we all just had to sit back and revel in how amazing she was.”

There’s a key turning point in the picture that caught me off guard and has ultimately made the film more impressive with each subsequent viewing. We find that Evans’ character may not be as famous as she had seemed, yet that doesn’t diminish the power and importance of her life’s work, not to mention the impact it can have on others. Blakeslee, who will be heading to college this year to study musical theatre and digital media production, considers her film a social critique.

“So many people gauge how successful they are in life by how many other people care about what they did,” said Blakeslee. “If you’re a writer and you don’t have huge publicity, then you might not think of yourself as successful when compared to other people. But that’s not necessarily the case. It doesn’t matter how many people you touch. Even if you touch just one person with your writing, then it is all worth it.”

If you’d like to see how a movie can elicit tears in just four minutes, look no further than “The Puppy Trials,” one of the best animated short films I’ve seen. Its protagonist is Big Jim (voiced by Greg Williams), a German Shepherd with graying fur and a limp in his gait. He’s taken on the duty of training puppies at his animal shelter, instructing them on how to impress potential owners with their good behavior. There’s something incredibly poignant about his determination to help the pups achieve what he could not, and I doubt many dog lovers will be able to watch the film’s final moments without getting a lump in their throat. The film demonstrates a deep understanding of how humans and canines both yearn for companionship, and it’s no surprise to learn that its writer, Claire Hartman, is fond of dogs. I was surprised, however, to learn that she just started fourth grade.

“I hope all dogs get great homes,” Hartman told me. “We have two adopted dogs: an older dog, Tatum, and a puppy, Wrigley. Both dogs are rescued dogs. I am in 4-H and I plan to train my dog for one of my projects next year. Also, for some of my birthdays, instead of getting presents, I asked my friends to bring things for dogs and cats, and we donated them to a shelter.”

Each dog in the film was brought to life via exceptionally assured stop-motion animation. Co-director Becky Nicol handled the needle-felting process for each dog’s outward appearance, while her husband/co-director Thomas (who also helmed “Writer’s Block”) built the wire armatures, which were covered with foam soaked in liquid latex. This meticulous process paid off immeasurably onscreen, lending an audible “awww” factor to several close-ups.

“I really liked the dogs and how Big Jim moved his eyebrows to show his emotions,” said Hartman. “The little puppies were really cute. And we learned that kids made the sounds of the puppies! It was even better than I expected. I’ve watched it about five times since we saw it at the theater!”

It turns out Hartman is a fan of many films I also loved as a kid, including the “Star Wars” and “Harry Potter” sagas. She also liked Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” because it centered on “a superhero that was a girl.” This past weekend will likely be a major highlight in Hartman’s childhood memories, yet there was an additional reason why the screening was so special for her.

“It was my little sister’s first movie in a theater, so it was pretty cool that her first movie in a theater was mine,” said Hartman.

You can find Part I and Part II of my Pens to Lens 2017 coverage at RogerEbert.com. For more info on Pens to Lens, visit the gala’s official site as well as its YouTube and Facebook pages.

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