Jules Beesley is a professional film editor and director, and all of us at The LAMP (especially our students!) are thrilled to have him as a volunteer. He worked with us this spring in our news workshop at P.S. 107 in Brooklyn, and will join us again for our LAMPcamp summer program in July. We sat down this month to learn more from him about independent filmmaking, working with George Lucas and why making media is such an important part of media literacy.
One of your earliest and most-recognized projects is Radio Free Steve, an independent sci-fi comedy which you wrote, directed and co-produced in 2000 about the FCC taking over the United States after World War III. How did you come to be involved in the movie, and what drew you to working on it?
The star of the film and hometown friend, Ryan Junell, and I were excited by the possibility of shooting a low-budget guerrilla feature on the road from Austin to LA (via Marfa and Burning Man) with the freedom afforded by the inexpensive digital video tools just becoming available. We conceived of Radio Free Steve on the eve of the new millennium amidst the exuberance of the dotcom boom and the apocalyptic fears of Y2K. We synthesized these into the comedic story of a mullet-haired 1980s radio pirate rebel who drives his customized van across a post-apocalyptic wasteland on his way to audition to become a Music Video Veejay in “New Los Angeles.” Pursuing him is the FCC: the sworn enemy of anti-commercial radio and unregulated free-speech. The story gets rather tricky, but basically it’s Smokey and the Bandit meets The Road Warrior.
On the one hand, we were interested in connecting the democratic and disruptive potential of the internet to grassroots pirate radio activism and pre-cellphone CB culture of the 70s and 80s. We were in a sense mapping the migration from Old Media to New Media. On the other
hand, we wanted to make light of our childhood fears growing up in the shadow of nuclear annihilation by relegating the anticipation of that horror to the past, along with Trans Ams and hair-sprayed glam bands.
Though we shot the movie in only a few weeks it took almost a year post-production to finish. That led directly my to my career as an editor. In the end, making Radio Free Steve taught me to value the creative collaborative process itself without worrying too much about the outcome.
You were also an editor on Cartoon Network’s Star Wars: The Clone Wars series. What was that experience like?
Working at Lucasfilm Animation at Skywalker Ranch was a joy. I was a huge Star Wars fan and so thrilled by the opportunity. Never had I worked with such talent. The quality of the animation, especially for a television show, was impressive. The overall artistry, from concept art, to modeling, to lighting, really inspired me. I have come to love and respect the art of animation. What’s more, I learned quite a lot working for George Lucas, who is certainly a master of classical
Editing with computer animated footage was a challenge at first, but ultimately I found it liberating. If you needed a shot for a particular scene, you just asked one of the layout artists to generate it and a few hours later it would arrive. The editor also has the freedom to recompose and re-time shots, a creative luxury you simply do not have working with live action footage. I was also privileged to work with the entire Star Wars sound effects library from Skywalker Sound, everything from Jawas and Wookies, to epic space battles and lightsaber duels.
Perhaps what I appreciate most about my experience working on The Clone Wars was how it has connected me to a younger generation of Star Wars fans. I love talking about episodes with my little cousins, giving them the inside scoop of how the show was made. I hope such encounters inspire youth to tell their own stories, and so I encourage them to do just that.
You recently moved from San Francisco and are now living and working here in New York City. What are you working on now?
I am freelance editing on commercial works, the demands of which are admittedly new to me. It has been gratifying, however, to see how all I have learned in narrative editing still applies. I continue to tell stories, only without dialogue and condensed into a few minutes or seconds.
I am also using my free time to flesh out a book I have been working on set in a parallel universe and within a kilometer-wide domed school revolving around the cultivation and celebration of the individual human imagination. It serves as a story-filled sandbox where I can explore unrealized possibilities within education.
How and why were you drawn to media literacy, and working with The LAMP in particular?
My interest in media literacy began as a Radio/TV/Film major at Northwestern University. I wrote a paper exploring the reasons why media literacy curricula encountered resistance in schools. I learned that it often came down to the fact that parents did not want their kids watching TV at school when they already watched too much of it at home. That research led to my writing a proposal for a children’s show produced by children themselves, to be aired on a local station in my hometown in Texas. I understood from my own experience making movies that best way to understand how media are formed by sets of choices was to empower students to make similar choices themselves, in this case by creating a TV show of their own. What better way to overcome media’s passive consumption than through its active creation?
When I discovered the LAMP shortly after moving to New York, I was excited to learn that one way it teaches students how media is made is to encourage youth to make media themselves. Learning how to tell a news story or make a documentary video leads students to ask questions and make decisions in the same manner as media professionals. They might then connect their own experiences making media to those seen on television or online. What had been a media artifact taken as given, might now be questioned and interpreted. In a time when all our information arrives heavily mediated, edited, packaged, and targeted – often from dubious or anonymous sources – the ability to parse, analyze, criticize, and comprehend media and its messaging is critical.
What were some of the most gratifying moments exploring news and media literacy with students at P.S. 107 in Brooklyn?
I had a blast working with the fourth graders at PS 107. We often think of children at that age as sponges, soaking up great gobs of information at incredible speeds, but what surprised me was how much imagination and ingenuity they employed to accomplish their tasks. Most had never shot video on a camcorder before or spliced together clips in iMovie. Yet, they dove into their projects with energy, enthusiasm, and an abundance of humor, surmounting technical hurdles quickly while grasping entirely new concepts.
Some struggled at times to stay on task. Yet once students understood they were in charge of making their projects happen, they felt empowered and became engaged. They were the ones making all the decisions, choosing the topic of their stories, coming up with questions, figuring out who would hold the camera and who would question the interviewees. They had fun playing the role of “real reporters,” often mimicking things they had gleaned from TV and movie reporters, and really enjoyed interviewing friends, teachers, and passers-by on the street to help tell their neighborhood story. When it came time to edit their footage on the computer, they seemed to know exactly what they wanted, and all I had to do was help them figure out how to do it. At the end each group had a cool news story they could show off and proudly call their own.
It is my hope that the students will build upon these experiences in the future, engaging media with a better insight into its construction, whether it is a news article or blog post, a TV news story or viral video, a Twitter feed or Facebook post.
What are you most looking forward to doing this summer?
I am really looking forward to volunteering at the LAMP camp in July!