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Originally published January 2, 2014 at 7:41 PM | Page modified January 2, 2014 at 9:55 PM

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‘Ballard touch’ is getting high-school filmmakers noticed

Ballard High School’s video-production program is getting a reputation at festivals and top-tier film schools for its focus on basic storytelling skills.

Seattle Times education reporter

Screenings of student work

Student work from Ballard High’s video-production program, including “Song for Anna” and “Stop Pretending,” will be shown at public screenings in the high-school auditorium at 7 p.m. on Feb. 8 and Feb. 13.

Tickets will be sold at the door for the fundraiser, which benefits the program: $5 for students and $10 for adults.

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Ballard High School’s award-winning video production routinely sends graduates to some of the most competitive schools in the country for film and television.

Some of those graduates, home for the holidays, spoke to current Ballard High students last week about how the program had prepared them.

“You’re going to be heads and shoulders ahead of everyone else because you can tell a story with shots,” said Louis Weissman, who graduated from Ballard High in 2012 and is now at Emerson College in Boston. “Your movies are going to be so much better than other people’s when you show them the Ballard touch.”

What is the “Ballard touch?”

In a word, it’s storytelling — using the latest technology to make short films, documentaries, music videos and other productions driven by a compelling visual narrative that doesn’t depend on dialogue to convey what’s going on.

“You’re never going to see a Ballard movie without story structure,” said Isaiah Hoban Halvorsen, a freshman at New York University who received a $186,000 four-year scholarship based in part on the portfolio of work he produced at Ballard.

“It’s going to have a satisfying ending and everything is going to be set up right. So when I got to NYU and the class on story structure, it felt pretty natural.”

When teacher Matt Lawrence was hired at Ballard High School in 2001, he wanted to create something more comprehensive than the typical courses that focused on television news.

“A lot of the school-media programs at the time taught news to the exclusion of almost everything else in media production,” Lawrence said. “Broadcast journalism is important, but there’s a lot of other pieces.”

Documentaries, for example. Or music videos. Or commercials. Or short films.

Lawrence earned his master of science degree in educational television from the University of Wisconsin. He worked on educational films mostly in small production shops where he had to do all the jobs at one time or another, unlike in bigger studios where specialization is more common.

“As a teacher, that gave me a really good background,” Lawrence said. “I understand script development, I understand lighting, I understand audio. I scored productions. I did animation.”

His eclectic work experience includes a stint on the original writing staff of the satirical newspaper The Onion in the late 1980s.

“I was there at the time that they were kind of inventing the satire format that they would use,” Lawrence said. “It was like this crazy sideline thing that I am doing and at the time I was doing it, I never dreamed that I would be putting it on my résumé.”

He developed a four-year program at Ballard and typically has about 140 students enrolled each year.

Some dip their toes in the water for a semester introduction class, others dive in all the way. He recommends at least three years for students who are serious about filmmaking so they can put together the kinds of portfolios they’ll need to enter the industry or a top-tier film school.

About a dozen graduates each year pursue a career in film and television, though the basic communications skills students learn using digital technologies will be useful in many professions, Lawrence said.

Alex James, for example, graduated last spring from Ballard and he’s attending Central Washington University in Ellensburg for its aviation program and a general four-year degree.

“I’m a seaplane pilot,” he said.

But he still loves filmmaking and he’s looking for ways to combine his aviation and video skills.

“I’m in a film club and I’m doing a lot of my own productions,” James said.

Lawrence said that although the film and television industry still has good storytelling, it’s become a rare and highly prized commodity.

“For this generation, it’s especially important that we’re teaching that because they’re coming of age at a time when storytelling has been a weakness in the industry,” Lawrence said. “Many of my students don’t know how to recognize a story, and they need to learn what a story is before they can become proficient storytellers.”

Current Ballard students also are making names for themselves with the Ballard touch.

Senior Lorenzo Rossi was recently honored for his music video, “Stop Pretending,” at the Fresh Film Northwest, a competitive regional festival coordinated by the Northwest Film Center in Portland.

The video, based on a song of the same name Rossi wrote for his band, Yellow Peril, depicts a relationship held together by social expectations. It won the Creative Self-Expression Award for “outstanding achievement in cinematic storytelling.”

“It was really exciting to see how professional we could make things,” Rossi said.

The National YoungArts Foundation recently awarded senior Lucy Harstrick a Merit Award in Cinematic Arts in recognition of the “exceptional artistic achievement” evident in her work. Her work was selected for honors from more than 11,000 submissions nationwide.

She submitted a music video called “Song for Anna” that either shows a couple trying to reunite or on their way to a breakup. The story is told without dialogue and shows two travelers apparently headed in different directions.

“Some people think they’re trying to connect and it didn’t work, other people thought, she’s leaving him,” Lawrence said. “You can watch it either way.”

John Higgins: 206-464-3145 or On Twitter @jhigginsST

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