The Backyard Backlot

The Jacob Burns Film Center opens its new Media Arts Lab



Directors who hail from Westchester: Ang Lee, Lasse Hallström, Ron Howard. And, now, you.

You may not think you have enough skill, training, or access to expensive equipment to be a director, but you’ll be on your way when the Jacob Burns Film Center’s Media Arts Lab opens this month with a full slate of hands-on film classes. The Center has held classes since its opening, but never with such fancy filmmaking resources. “We started with a dual mission in film and education,” says Stephen Apkon, the Center’s executive director. “This new building, this new studio/laboratory/education center/creative space, is the manifestation of the work we’ve been doing over the last seven years, and the more than fifty thousand students we’ve worked with.”

The building itself, situated on the corner of Manville Road and Grant Street, just down the street from the Jacob Burns Film Center, is special enough to warrant its own making-of documentary. The whole thing is LEED-certified, meaning it’s held to the greenest of standards (LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). The offices are made of recycled materials, work off of natural light, are heated and cooled by geothermal energy, and have solar panels up on the roof—as well as a roof-deck perfectly suited for a swank film premiere party (films can be projected up there).

The inside isn’t too shabby, either: the Center is a conglomeration of meeting spaces to work on scripts, a backlot for shooting films, editing suites outfitted with the same software the pros use, sound stages, an isolation room, a foley room, animation workshops, and a 60-seat screening room in which to show the film when it’s all done.

What’s being shown? Well, that’s up to you. Recently, Briarcliff Manor High School student Kelly Simpson made a documentary about Ted Sorenson—that’s JFK’s speechwriter—for the “Unscripted” class. “The whole process was great,” she says. Simpson currently volunteers, helping out in the “Animation Minds and Motion” class for younger students, and says she’s eager to start working in the new Lab. “I can’t wait.”

Classes start for students as young as three, e.g., “Seeing Stories,” in which kids aged three to seven are encouraged to use all of their senses to tell and understand movies. “The kids really do pick up a lot,” says Sherry Beckman, who currently volunteers with the “See•Hear•Feel•Film” class for third-graders. Older kids and teenagers can choose from classes such as “Reel Change,” in which students shoot a short point-of-view movie; “Computer Animation,” in which they learn motion graphics programs; and “Making a Music Video,” in which students use ProTools just like the real directors.

But that doesn’t mean that adults are left out of the fun. “The Power of Story” teaches college-age and adult students how to tell a story. “The Art of the Documentary Film” traces the evolution of documentaries from the days of Leni Riefenstahl. And it’d be hard not to be interested by “The Story Circle,” in which a roster of yet-to-be-revealed, well-known directors, editors, writers, cinematographers, and other pros pop in to teach about their craft.

“The courses are all oriented around the idea of story, and acquiring the skills necessary to tell a story, regardless of genre or type of film,” says Apkon. He adds one important caveat: “This is not a school. This is meant to be creative, industrial, open, expansive. It’s going to be very experiential, hands-on, with lots of room for play, and lots of fun. One of the most exciting things about this space is that we have no idea what’s going to come out of it.”

Prices range from $25 (for one-day events) to $950 (for six- and eight-week courses). Register by phone (914-773-7663 Ex. 8), fax (914-773-0762), or mail (405 Manville Rd, Pleasantville, NY 10570). More information can be found at burns filmcenter.org.