Lights, Camera, Capturing Dreams
Documentary filmmakers hope to become invisible in order to make their subjects more visible, to illuminate their lives and dreams. For first-time producer/director Brenda Yelvington, there’s a story – and many dreams – on both sides of the lens.
Her subject is the Northside High School band – one entity, but also about 300 individuals, including students and their families, directors and administrators. The filmmaker would like them, only, to be seen when the film is completed next year, but Brenda had to put herself forward to be authorized by the school district and accepted by the band. And onlookers can’t help but notice the red-haired mom with the big camera, often right in the middle of flying drumsticks and pumping trombone slides.
Along with their permission, she needs their trust, she explained, because her dream is to share their dreams – not just their hopes to present a good halftime show or win a seat at All-State, but for the lives they’re about to begin as graduation approaches.
“I want to lift them up and create something so people can see inside,” she said. “I don’t have a thesis and that’s very scary – I don’t know the story it will tell. I’d love to script it and just find those shots. This movie is going to be life, whatever happens in the students’ lives and the directors’ lives. The story is unknown. But I think these kids are special.”
Fortunately, she already has become friendly with most of the band. Her daughter, Kameron, is a senior and one of three drum majors and Brenda got to know many 11th- and 12th-graders from volunteering as a band parent. She helped the jazz band present two special concerts at Second Street Live the last two years.
And she’s very comfortable nurturing young people in the performing arts. Brenda volunteered with the Young Actors Guild for many years, as a vocal coach and vocal director for musicals from “Annie” to its national award-winning production of “Les Misérables.” She continues to mentor actors and singers through their college and professional auditions. She’s also a former owner of a recording studio, experienced with professional audio standards. In “real life,” she laughs, “I was a CPA and professor.”
In her latest role as a filmmaker, reality is her goal. She has an intense perception and empathy for the ways that young people project their private fears, hopes and self-esteem into the challenge of performance.
With her heart full for the human story in the documentary, Brenda also has her head into how to shoot it. She is a self-described “gear geek.” The crew she has built includes several professional videographers and logistical wizards: Chris and Kim Middleton, owners of Branchout Studios, who brought on Ben Bandimere. Jess Gorham records sound. Emmy-winning composer Kevin Croxton will produce the film’s score.
“We’re having a lot of fun,” she admitted. As the least-experienced shooter on the crew, she’s taken a training seminar at Chris Middleton’s suggestion and practices constantly.
The whole crew shares gear, problem-solves and has survived some adventures already, as when a camera rigged on the outside of band director Gordon Manley’s truck suddenly broke loose as they were driving and filming. Manley himself caught it.
The crew extensively documented sweaty, summer band practice and in-class rehearsals to capture preparation for marching season. The opening Northside home game in early September was showtime for both the band and the crew.
Cameras were present for what the directors call “camp meeting,” the pre-game talk they give just before the band emerges into Mayo-Thompson Stadium. It’s as intense as what’s happening between the coaches and the football team next-door in the activity center.
Manley drilled in reminders about the halftime show, but also gave a stirring sermon to a pin-drop quiet bandroom about how the band represents not only its members, but the whole school and all of Fort Smith. He told them how proud all the directors were of their hard work and shared his confidence that they would play and march well. The crew also shot final uniform inspection – band T-shirts tucked in, black socks, black Bando marching shoes.
It was a beautiful, clear night as the film crew went to work ticking off the more than a dozen sequences planned on Brenda’s shot list.
The shooters scrambled from the top to the bottom of the band bleachers for most of the first two quarters, then met up to change gear for the halftime show. They rushed to the activity center to rig a snare drum player (as he continued drumming) with a Go-Pro digital camera – a small, rugged, high-def camera that can be mounted almost anywhere.
In this case, the Go-Pro had a drumstick-level, embedded view of the halftime show, operated remotely by one of the crew. The footage was “fabulous,” Brenda declared. But what they heard on the audio brought tears to her eyes. It will definitely make the final edit.
The latest in video equipment is digital SLR camera bodies (Canon) fitted with an arsenal of lenses, mics, viewfinders and monitors. One cameraman can now carry aboard their body what two (or more) people once did for conventional movie-making. There was even a tripod-mounted dolly in use for tracking shots.
Brenda, who had permission to stand on the football field during the marching, learned something critical for the next halftime show – her camera, even with a rifle-stock style mount to brace it, grew heavier as the show went on.
“My arms started shaking. Next time, use the monopod mount!” she gasped.
Shooting continued last month with one-on-one interviews of several seniors, one junior and the band directors at Moka Joe’s coffeehouse, which Brenda calls their production office.
It is these ongoing interviews, made with the same subjects through the year, that Brenda values most. As her relationship with the students has deepened, she has felt her role as a storyteller become increasingly weighted – and yet very delicate.
“These kids are allowing me to be there when they audition for All-Region and All-State band,” she said appreciatively. “They’re going to have a camera on their face when they find out if they made it. I’m going to be there when they get that envelope from college. We’re going to graduation.”
She said she has grown to love her subjects and dreads the possibility of capturing life’s sorrows as honestly as its joys, but is determined to show both.
“The responsibility of it overwhelms me, the trust they’re putting in me,” she said, “to tell the true story, what I see as the true story, which I believe will be overwhelmingly uplifting and positive.”
Keep up with the Northside Band and the documentary on FB under "Northside Grizzly Band." Follow the film on Twitter at @STfilmsPro.