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Claremont teen earns first-place for short film

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

Cinema fans might do well to remember the name of incoming Claremont High School junior Ryley Swift.

The 16-year-old’s short film, The Walk, recently won first place in the “Out of the Box” category in UCLA’s Green Shorts Virtual Film Festival.

The fourth annual festival included 61 submissions from high schoolers in California and Louisiana, all focused on environmental issues. The winners were announced June 11 during a virtual ceremony on YouTube.

Recent CHS grade Cooper Holt’s short, How Does it Taste? also scored at the festival, winning the runner-up prize in the “You Are What You Eat” category. 

Ryley has been taking video production classes at CHS for two years now, and the budding filmmaker is looking to make a career as a director and/or  cinematographer.

He already has one aspect of being an artist down pat: never being satisfied.

“I was really surprised [with the win] because I wasn’t really happy with the video to be honest,” Ryley said. “But I was really surprised and was happy...but mainly surprised.”

That dissatisfaction—a common theme among artists of all stripes when confronted with their finished product—was borne out of his belief that the short could have been better. 

“Yeah, 100 percent,” he said. “I feel like once I put it into a competition I was overanalyzing everything I could have done differently with it. But in the long run it didn’t really matter because I won.”

The idea for The Walk came about after his video production teacher at CHS, Sara Hills, learned about the contest and assigned it as a voluntary project for her students during the COVID-19 lockdown.

“I was thinking about what I wanted to do, and recently the environment has become such a focal point the news, so I wanted to show there’s definitely been a build up to it,” Ryley said. “It’s not just a now thing. And also we need to think about the future as well. So I wanted to do a big picture sort of thing.”

He entered The Walk in the contest in late March.

The two minute, 31 second short is a family affair of sorts. It follows its star, Ryley’s older sister Kaelin, as she exits a nondescript house (actually the Swift family home on Scripps Drive), in 1920.

Shot in apropos black and white, Kaelin, in period correct clothing, is accompanied by upbeat music reminiscent of the golden age of jazz.

The camera follows her stroll down the sidewalk through the decades, from the 1920s to the ‘50s, the 1970s, the present day, and then finally, to a somewhat dystopian 2050, with the tagline, “We are walking towards extinction.”

The instrumental music reminiscent of the various eras adds authenticity, as does a ubiquitous vintage green Volkswagen Beetle owned by Ryley’s dad that works particularly well in the 1970s section.

The film documents waste and the dangers of fluorocarbons, plastic straws and other things harmful to the environment. Ryley’s use of a variety of color saturation palettes was singled out by judges as particularly innovative.

“I really love cinematography,” Ryley said. “That’s my favorite part of filmmaking. I’m sort of obsessed with the work of [celebrated British cinematographer] Roger Deakins. He’s done a lot of stuff, and I’ve avidly watched his movies and interviews. I think he’s amazing. He has such an interesting outlook on cinematography. It’s really inspiring to me.”

Ryley got his start in film as a freshman in CHS video production class. He’s now entering his third year in the class.

“I’m actually planning on going to film school at the moment. I’m still young, so who knows what can change,”?he said. “It’s sort of a scary industry to get into, so I don’t really have a solid footing on what I want to do yet.”

Which college he’s set on is still up in the air.

“I have no clue. I’ve been thinking about NYU, but that’s a hard school to get into. UCLA has a good film program, but you know, you have to think about money and all that stuff. I have three [older] sisters, so we definitely have to take that into account.”

Some more festival wins under his belt and he may have some scholarship offers.

“That’s the dream, right?” he said.

Like most artists, Ryley’s been educated and encouraged by a host of mentors, including his CHS video production instructor Ms. Hills.

“I’ve had her for two years now,” Ryley said of Ms. Hills. “I think she’s a great teacher and she knows a lot.”

Ms. Hills was pleasantly surprised by Ryley’s win.

“Ryley’s always being serious,” the six-year CHS instructor said. “When he wrote the screenplay for the idea, I was very impressed. It was so ‘out of the box.’ And to do this under COVID-19 and stay at home orders was very impressive. It was really great to see and hear Ryley’s voice. He’s quiet. I did see him kind of come alive.”

Another mentor has been friend and USC film school student Carolyn Knapp. “She’s been really helpful to me and she’s talked to me about film school and even offered to take me onto sets later on,” he said. “So, that’s really cool.”

The now award-winning filmmaker is currently working on his next film, which is in the treatment phase.

“I’m working on some ideas for a summer project, just for myself,” Ryley said. “I’ve actually started to work on a script. But I still don’t have much of an idea, but I know I want to do something else this summer.”

Ms. Hills, for one, will be keeping an eye on what’s to come. “I’m looking forward to seeing him grow as a filmmaker and really come into his own,” she said. “I think this film is the first window into how he really enjoys it.”

Now that the 16-year-old has officially been pegged as a filmmaker to watch, what would he say to a younger kid, perhaps a middle-schooler, who was thinking about making films?

“This is pretty generic advice, but just do it,” he said. “I’ve made so many bad things that I thought were going to be great. You just gotta do it. Even if it seems like it’s going to turn out really bad, just do it and finish it, because even if it’s terrible you’re going to learn from that, and it’s only going to make you a better artist.”

Ryley recommends to any young people interested in film, especially to those going into high school, to enroll in the film studies program.

“Ms. Hills is a great teacher, and they have all the equipment there for you. You don’t need to spend any money,” he said. “It’s just a great place to learn. I just think that through film you can channel all of the things that you’re felling in real life and put it into a work of art. And I think that is wonderful, and can be very therapeutic actually.”

Go to https://vimeo.com/430166236 to see Ryley’s film.

Cooper Holt’s film, How Does it Taste?, can be viewed at https://vimeo.com/430162741.

For the festival winner announcements, and all the winning films, search “2020 GreenShorts Film Festival Ceremony” on YouTube.

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