Student film scores berth at Newport Film Fest | ParkRecord.com

Student film scores berth at Newport Film Fest

Greg Marshall, Of the Record staff

A group of current and former Park City High School students are using social networking websites, borrowed equipment and more than a little shoe leather to make their way to the red carpet.

Jake Topkis and a crew of about 20 friends from Park City High School banded together in the summer of 2007 to make "Escapism," a short about a boy who departs from the doldrums of everyday life in a dream-like sequence that melds live action and animation. They shot the film while still in high school on a handheld Panasonic camera without stage lights or much sound equipment. (The film has no dialogue.)

The six-minute film, shot over six days on upper Main Street near the Egyptian Theatre and on Swede Alley, took six months to edit. Sixes spelled success for "Escapism," Topkis said. The film is an official selection at the Newport Beach Film Festival, held in Southern California. It runs from April 23-30.

Additionally, "Escapism" won best student film at the Bare Bones Film and Music Festival in Oklahoma and is an official selection of the South East New England Film, Music and Arts Festival in Rhode Island.

Movie buffs and critics consider Newport one of the most prestigious venues of its kind. "Escapism" will premiere with shorts that appeared at the Sundance Film Festival and other festivals.

When Topkis first received the news in late March, he said he was surprised. He initially thought "Escapism" had been slotted in the student competition, and in a smaller festival. "We couldn’t believe that these kids who had made the film for fun could be in this huge festival," Topkis said.

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They were.

Topkis, now a freshman film major at Emerson College, co-wrote and directed "Escapism" when he was 17, before his senior year in high school. The film, which has no dialogue, stars Jonathan Draxton, also a 2008 PCHS graduate studying theater. Justin Altman produced the film and Corey Topkis, Jake’s brother, animated and edited it.

Topkis founded Heart Beat Productions while he was a student at Treasure Mountain International School, under the tutelage of English teacher Iris Durfee. The team produced a short film about lightning safety for the National Weather Service in 2008 and is perhaps best know for "Channeled," a film dedicated to classmate Chris Yeates, who died on a class field trip to Austria in June of 2008.

The group raised $7,000 for a scholarship fund named after Yeates and attracted about 300 people to a screening of the film at the Eccles Center in November. Yeates, a friend, had participated in the several projects with the group.

The tragedy brought members of Heart Beat Productions closer together, Altman said. It is a bond that time and distance have only strengthened. "We want to make movies that send a message and entertain," Altman said.

Altman, who is studying economics at the University of Utah, said he hopes to build on early success. "Getting into [Newport] is huge for us, to bust into the business not in the student category, but the adult category."

Altman and Topkis have big plans for the future. They are slated to shoot two short films in Park City this summer. They already have titles, scripts and, unlike in previous productions, budgets. Acting as executive producer, Topkis’ dad, Bill, will help fund the projects, which may cost a combined $7,000. They plan to rent dollies, cranes, lighting kits, and a high-definition camera. "He really sees it as an investment," Altman said, adding that the gang’s endgame is to make feature films. They plan to submit their summer shorts, "Twice Over" and "She Is" to Sundance. "It would have been easy to dismiss this [film] as just something we did in high school," Topkis said. Instead, he said he and his friends have followed through on their goals.

Students credit PCHS teacher Chris Maddux and the Park City School District for offering classes in broadcasting, film, production and writing scripts. In Maddux’s classes, self-motivation is a must. "In my media/film program it is very common for the kids to be motivated," Maddux wrote in an email. "They have to be and I constantly remind them of this. There are many kids out there who can edit and shoot, but not all kids can edit, shoot, and maintain 3.0-plus [grade-point averages]."