The screen is black, as a male voice reads a passage from Dante's Inferno, while another voice reads the translation in Italian.
Camera focuses on the eyes of Daniel, the main character, and broadens out to show a view of the handgun pointing at Daniel's head.
I make my own house be my gallows.
A shot rings out and the screen goes black.
This is a scene from "The Inferno," a 35-minute movie that was written, shot and edited by Lodi High School seniors Michael Niktaris, Kenny Yates and Tim Transon. When the trio was assigned to do a class project interpreting their reading of Dante's Inferno, they created a gritty, modern take on the classic story of a man, who must cross nine circles of hell to get to heaven.
They may just be the next Steven Spielberg and they're not alone. A growing number of Lodi teens are getting behind the digital video camera, mastering editing software and working to make the next great American film.
"It's great to have an entertaining medium to present a legitimate, important message," said Transon, who has been making films since he was 5, including gangster movies and romances.
The group, who've dubbed themselves Cellar Door Productions, had made other films together before, including "The Hands That Built America," an immigrant's story set during the Great Depression for American history class. But "The Inferno" was their most ambitious project to date. They spent about four to five hours every day for a month, shooting and editing over 60 hours of footage.
"Our motto is if it's perfect, shoot it again," said Niktaris, who uses Adobe Premiere software for editing.
They spent about $200 to make the film.
High school filmmakers turned superstarsSome of Hollywood's greatest filmmakers started in high school. Here are just a few examples …
George Lucas ("American Graffiti," "Star Wars," "Raiders of the Lost Ark")
Steven Spielberg ("Jaws," "Schindler's List," "Munich")
M. Night Shyamalan ("The Sixth Sense," "Signs," "The Village")
Steven Soderbergh ("Ocean's Eleven," "Traffic," "Erin Brockovich")
When "The Inferno" was screened in their English class, the response from fellow students was overwhelming.
"We had a lot of marriage proposals," said Yates, who has ambitions to become a screenwriter. "There weren't many dry eyes in the house."
Their English teacher Tim Goudie hadn't seen anything quite like it. "The quality of what they did was excellent," Goudie said.
As digital video technology has become easier to use and less expensive, more kids are getting into filmmaking, according to Tokay High School English teacher Roger Woo. Woo receives a lot of student-made films for class projects and said it makes for interesting viewing.
"The kids are unafraid to try new things," Woo said. "They'll try unusual angles and what not."
Editing programs like iMovie, Final Cut Pro and Windows Movie Maker also make it possible to create slicker, better looking films than in years past.
Joseph Hasekamp, a junior at Tokay High School uses Sony's Vegas 4.0 editing program. It cost him about $600, but gives him the ability to create moving titles, split screens and mix the audio.
"Five or ten years back, you were just splicing film together," Hasekamp said.
With his equipment, he's been able to do some filming for his church and video editing for the Stockton Chamber of Commerce.
He's currently saving up for a high-definition camera, which runs in the ballpark of about $5,000.
"That would just give me a crisper, quality picture, more pixels per square inch and more capabilities," Hasekamp said.
In Jerry Pike's classroom at Lodi High School, his video production students have their pick of high quality Sony digital video cameras, Apple computers with Final Cut Express editing software and even a green screen. The course is part of the communication technology small learning community, which is currently in its second year. Students can apply to take part in the two-year-long course and Pike currently has about 18 students.
The class frequently splits into small groups to make dramas, documentaries, soap operas and even news show spoofs. Some members of the group help shoot and edit footage for the yearbook CD.
"We do a lot of team building and cooperative learning," said Pike. "They also get an appreciation of what goes into making a film. They will be working for weeks to produce a four-minute film."
But filmmaking isn't only for serious pursuits. It's a favorite hobby for Tokay High seniors Devin Mariana, Jim Sanchez, John Joshua Fernandez, Michael Miselis and Travis Hull.
Together, using the name Haxidental Studios, they have created about five different movies using iMovie software.
"Due to our low budget, we often rely on slapstick comedy and random gags," said Mariana, whose film budget typically consists of the cost of a few liters of soda.
"Zomboot," a comedy/horror film about a zombie boot and its sequel, "Zomboot 2," are just a couple of their creations, which originated from a drawing of a boot that Sanchez sketched.
"But usually we make up the title and then make a movie about it," Miselis said.
Most of their dialogue is improvised and the cast typically consists of the five of them.
Their next project will be shooting videogame parodies including "Mike's Pain," "Devin May Cry" and "Gran Travismo."
But the group has no real plans to take their schtick to Hollywood.
"Once you get too serious, you lose the fun factor," contends Fernandez. "Essentially we're recording our idiocy for years to come."