November 10, 2009

Student filmmakers race the clock

How do you define the heart of Chicago in 60 seconds? How would you convey the vibrancy, glamor, and grit of the city? What would you include: the lakefront, the crowds, or that iconic Millennium Bean? These are the questions facing University of Chicago student filmmakers as they try to encapsulate their vision of the city for the “Chicago IN:60 Seconds” video contest. The grand prize? A showing of the film at the Smart Museum, $500 in cash, and honor.

This is only the second year of the contest, which is hosted by the Chicago Media Initiatives Office and the Smart Museum. It emerged out of a desire to engage the campus and, in the words of organizer Renee Balsick of the Chicago Media Initiatives, to acquire a “great collection of authentic perspectives.” However, unlike many of the other University-sponsored creative contests, such as Snapshots, there are no future plans to incorporate the videos into any specific administrative project. “We’re still trying to see what we’re getting,” Balsick said.

Last year, the contest’s theme was the University of Chicago’s connection to the greater Chicago community. Out of the six to seven videos that were submitted, current fourth-year Justin Staple’s abstract interpretation won both the grand prize and the Rising Phoenix Award, given to the audience favorite. Staple sums up his video with the phrase “The city feeds the Life of the Mind.” He explained, “You absorb so many different things from being downtown and take that inspiration back to Hyde Park and dream your own dreams in this separate and unique setting.” Staple’s video expresses this idea with a dreamy stream of hand-drawn images (evocative of United Airlines commercials), inserts of panoramic video, and a blasé female voice-over.

This year’s contest is a bit more open to interpretation. Staple, who is assisting in the production of another video, hopes to show “how innovative the campus has become and how modern the lifestyle is here. Instead of an analog feel, this time we’re going to make something clean and crisp.” Another participant in this year’s contest says that it is an opportunity for her to gain much-needed video experience. She drew her inspiration from two very disparate sources: the “awakening lion” montage sequence in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and the Heartland exhibit at the Smart Museum. “I’m trying to get across the struggle this school is,” she said. “Tons of almost unbearable work for a hopefully bright future.”

A panel of seven judges will decide on the top three prize winners (first place: $500, second place: $200, third place: $100) for this year. The panel includes: organizer Renee Balsick; Judy Hoffman, a documentary filmmaker and lecturer in the University’s Cinema and Media Studies department; Chad Kainz, the director of academic technologies for NSIT; Tony Hirschel, the director of the Smart Museum; Julie Peterson, vice president of communications, whose office is funding the contest; David Hays, assistant director of the University Community Service Center; and Justin Staple. The judges are given three criteria for judging the entries: “The video’s ability to convey the contest’s theme, creativity, and production values.”

However, each judge must also bring his or her own ideas to the table. For Balsick, who also judged the videos last year, she is looking for a video that tells its story from an interesting perspective and has great production quality. As the only student on the panel, Staple said he’ll look for something that’s not what you would immediately think when seeing the “Heart of Chicago” tag line. He wants “something that really tries to interpret the theme, and also has shown some time [with] the production quality.”