Fresh Films: Mentoring The Next Generation of Filmmaking

I was a theater kid in high school, it was my creative outlet for the worlds I envisioned myself in, but I wasn’t able to be fully immersed in my love of filmmaking until I went to UT Film School. Thankfully times are changing, and more programs are available for teens who are interesting in exploring film before they get to college. 

One of these groups, Fresh Films (who recently released its second feature Alternate Universe) consisted of a crew of teenagers fulfilling the jobs behind the camera on a professional film set. It’s a fascinating concept, not only are they getting an opportunity to hone their craft, but they are creating a well-rounded elevated story for the screen. I was excited that this non-profit was available to future filmmakers, I had to learn more.

Fresh Films program began in 2002 as a part of the After School Matters group that worked with the Chicago Public School high schools. Estlin Feigley was one of the innovators of the Fresh Films program, teaching these kids about all aspects of filmmaking. “These were inner city kids without any experience – but we saw them light up at the opportunity to create film,” Feigley says. 

It may have started small in Chicago, but it wasn’t long until it expanded in 2004. The program grew to include cities like New York, LA, and Atlanta, still offering the same insight and mentorship that those in Chicago originally received. “Then in 2013, we brought all the teenagers together to collaborate on our first feature film (The Stream), and in 2015 we created Alternate Universe –- our second feature with teens,” Feigley adds.

There are other programs around that serve a similar purpose, but the main difference is that Fresh Films is taking the responsibility of production and placing it on the teens. It allows them to be the ones in the crew roles, not just watching someone else do it in front of them. The stakes are high, and because of that the kids are pushed to realize just what they are capable of.

Images provided by Gravitas Ventures

Images provided by Gravitas Ventures

“We (Fresh Films) are not a student film program, but a film production that involves students in all aspects of productions. In this way, we can keep the content quality high, get celebrities involved as stars in the film,” Feigley explains. “We garner real distribution via partners like Gravitas who get the film onto iTunes, Target online, or at Redbox. The teens learn more because they are apprenticing alongside the pros.”

The ingenious thing about this way of working is that these participants are learning as they go, which is crucial in the film industry. While they may hold the main titled job, there is a professional, usually a veteran of the program itself, shadowing them from the moment they begin.

For their second feature, Alternate Universe, these teens were broken off into 12 groups, worked for 6 days (2 days training, 3 on set, and 1 day in editing), for about 36 days. The experience was even grander considering that each of the teams would rotate throughout a variety of jobs while they were on set, creating a film immersion education program.

“They work as 1st AC, 1st AD, they shadow and work alongside the director, they run camera, boom, mixer, slate, continuity, costume, etc; they learn by doing,” Feigley adds. “It takes us a bit longer to film scenes because we have 15-18 teens on-set at all times, but it’s a blast. Teens don’t know which scenes they are doing until they arrive, but they have the full script in advance so they have the context of the scenes.”

That’s a lot to put on those just learning, but it ultimately is a great teaching tool. Instead of being thrown to the wolves on their first outing, they are guided and instructed in such a way that is unique to Fresh Films. There is the potential for a great deal of growth to transpire, not only through the trade but through the teens themselves. It’s not just about getting these kids ready for their future in the film industry, but in their future as human beings.

Images provided by Gravitas Ventures

Images provided by Gravitas Ventures

“It’s all about jumping in and trying, learning and realizing that you are capable for many more things than you know. One of our favorite quotes from a teen ‘If I can make a movie in 7 days – I can do anything,’ is really the core of this,” Feigley says. “Learn skills, get exposed to so many different types of people and careers that can help you navigate your own future.”

It’s an invigorating concept, for both the young filmmakers and the seasoned professionals that are set with them. Feigley mentions that the cast of professionals they have in some of the roles feed off of the enthusiasm these kids possess. When anything is possible, the attitude shifts to new beginnings. Nothing is too scary to try, and the time spent exploring those ideas is a powerful creative device. The team at Fresh Films have become mentors to these kids, creating a safe environment for play.

“It wasn’t planning to become a mentor, but what we found was that they had the same energy, enthusiasm, and grit that we had when we were their age. That’s what keeps the drive year after year, seeing what young people are capable of when given a chance to do something big,” Feigley says. “They swing for the fences just like we all want to do. We want to surprise people with that aspect of youth -– these are go getters and collaborators.”

That’s what’s so wonderful about this program, the people beyond Fresh Films are working towards not only building the next generation of filmmakers, but allowing for their talents to grow in other areas as well. These kids may be working on a professional set, but they are working as apprentices, sharpening their experiences for their future.

If you are interested to find out more information, head over to the Fresh Films website. If you’d like to become involved in their film program, please submit a passionate statement about your desire to participate. They aren’t looking for the next award winning director, but for students with a unique background and interests who are wanting to expand their knowledge with hands on work.


Written by Lisa Mejia
Images provided by Gravitas Ventures