March 3, 2024

Is the Next Spielberg at Interlochen?

Film students to showcase their efforts at Filmmakers Premiere later this month
By Ross Boissoneau | Jan. 7, 2023

The upcoming Filmmakers’ Premiere at Interlochen Center for the Arts will feature a number of original films, from shorts to documentaries to animation—and, as they say, plenty of popcorn.

Michael Mittelstaedt, director of film and new media at Interlochen, says the showcase will include completed films and material in an unfinished form, as the students are at different stages of their experience. “It’s an opportunity for students to show the work they’ve made: trailers, shorts, rough cuts, etc. It’s a chance to have a live audience reaction,” he says.

Among the film students there are junior Lindsey Levine and senior Grace O’Connor. “I got into filmmaking in middle school,” says Levine, who was attending school in the metro Detroit area before a teacher introduced her to Interlochen. She enrolled as a freshman and was almost immediately met by the pandemic, which scuttled most plans for collaboration and actual filmmaking. “It was theory-based rather than production,” she says of the first year of her experience.

On the flip side, O’Connor hails from Traverse City, and she says if not for COVID lockdowns, she wouldn’t be studying film or even attending Interlochen. She used the enforced downtime to tap back into her creative side, including filmmaking. “I got back into my hobbies. If the pandemic hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be here.”

Both Levine and O’Connor say the diversity of roles within filmmaking makes the field of study appealing. “The best thing is the versatility. You experience cinematography, writing, directing, and working with actors with experience,” says Levine.

“What I like most has changed,” admits O’Connor, citing writing, then shooting, and now learning more about working in television.

Telling a Story

The film program is wide-reaching, appealing to students like Levine and O’Connor who want to explore the many roles—screenwriting, directing, producing, and more—of the industry.

Mittelstaedt has been helming the program since its inception in 2005. He came to Interlochen from Chicago, where he’d been working as a producer and director. “The resources were here. We just had to figure it out,” he says.

He says the first and most important objective is telling a story. “We’re all struggling with trying to tell a story well: A character wants something. Do they get it? Does the audience feel good, bad, or is it complicated?

“What they gain here is the idea—what does it mean to tell a story?” he continues. And those stories can be anything, or about anything, big or small. “Small stories are important. They’re just as important as those with a huge budget.”

Of course, a film is more than just a story. It’s camera angles, it’s lighting, it’s a musical score. It’s the characters who bring the story to life and those who direct them. The fact that Interlochen is home to numerous other fields of artistic study makes collaboration easy, as there are actors, composers, musicians, and writers readily available. “It’s a campus of creative work,” Mittelstaedt says. “There’s lots of collaboration.”

That includes not only the students involved in other artistic disciplines, but the film students themselves, who help their classmates in a variety of roles, like cinematography, sound, and boom operation.

“It’s a community effort. They learn how to lead, how to ask, how to serve,” Mittelstaedt says.

One thing that has changed dramatically over the years Mittelstaedt has been teaching has been the advances in technology. “That was a hurdle for me as a kid. You needed giant pieces of machinery.”

Now the question of what kind of camera to use is easy to answer. “What’s the best camera? The one in your pocket. We’ve become more oriented to thinking of having a camera in your hand,” says Mittelstaedt. “It’s second nature.”

Mittelstaedt says a majority of the students who have gone through the program go on to film school. (See the sidebar for some folks who continued beyond that!) Others work in virtual reality, theme parks and design, or other related fields. “I teach [students] with the respect of someone we’d like to collaborate with in the future,” he says.

Getting Animated

One new aspect of the Filmmakers Premiere this year is the inclusion of the animation program students. That’s because the animation program itself is brand new—instructor Briana Yarhouse is in her first year leading the program.

“I’m new. It’s all new,” she says with a laugh. “I’m excited to build a new program and impact the next generation of visual artists.”

Like Mittelstaedt when he started, Yarhouse has the opportunity to build the program from the ground up. She’s starting with six students majoring in animation, who, like her, started the program sight unseen. (In 2023, there are eight students signed up for the fall semester.) Students take courses in animation history, then learn the fundamentals. “They build stepping stones, just like a musician,” Yarhouse says.

She came to the discipline as a self-taught animator—“I made flip books as a child, she says”—before earning a BA in illustration. She then worked for children’s clothing company HH Cutler in Grand Rapids before turning to freelance work. Yarhouse also taught at Grand Valley State University and Kendall College of Art and Design, where she was on staff for several years, before taking the job at Interlochen.

Like Mittelstaedt, Yarhouse lauds the collaborative spirit among the students as they learn storyboarding, character development, and animation all together. “It’s a team atmosphere,” she says.

The Filmmakers Premiere will take place Friday, Jan. 27, at 7:30pm at DeRoy Center for Film Studies on the campus of Interlochen Center for the Arts. There is no charge.

In the Credits

Among the alumni of the film program are several who have gone on to careers in film or related industries.

They include:
- Ali Scattergood (documentary filmmaker, former assistant producer to Ken Burns)
- Will Eisenberg (Hulu feature films)
- Shireen Hinckley (Beyonce’s Black is King)
- Anna Dobos (documentary)
- Dylanger Bates (writer and props master)
- Chad Engel (producer, Oscar promos)
- Anna Thorup (Netflix, staff writer for Taika Waititi)
- Shane Bagwell (director of photography for music videos)
- Christina Xing (music video)
- Shaine Korman (gameplay engineer)

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