To get to San Antonio's Northeast School of the Arts Cinema Lab, you first walk into the imposingly-sized Lee High School (which feels like it’s tripled its size since NESA opened in 1997), then head underground and down a long hallway. A nondescript door opens onto a semi-darkened room where a dozen or so students are studying the latest “Alien” movie trailer on one wall of the classroom. Others are hunched over computers, editing their latest short cinematic gems, made with little to no budget, but a lot of hard work and cooperation.
Students from NESA are no stranger to Austin’s annual South By Southwest Film Festival, and this year, Pierson Hawkins, a senior, has a film in the festival. "Limbo" is a wordless exploration of the theme of “insanity through isolation,” he says, about a man stuck in a purgatory-like state that happens to look just like the office building he once worked in.
For a “student production,” I remarked to Hawkins, it has astonishingly high production values. It’s well-lit, and there’s a smoothness and sheen about the film that’s a long way from your dad’s VHS.
“With no budget for films, it’s important to utilize what you have,” Hawkins told me. “My dad worked in the office building, so I knew there would be no one there on the weekends. I had my own camera, a Sony A6300, and an electronic gimbal that stabilizes the camera perfectly. You can use it as a tripod too, but it’s good for getting good tracking and dolly-type shots.”
At NESA, the students are encouraged to collaborate to save “cinema dollars,” which are representative of real-world costs, according to Konnise Millender, Head of the Department of Cinema. That means “everything from writing, filming, casting, and figuring out business models… [and] they still have to learn how to market, pulling in friends on Facebook or Instagram pages.”
With seven majors at NESA, there are plenty of artistic resources to draw from, according to Millender. “I showed a film earlier in class today… a student screening that involves some dancers. The student was able to cast some of the NESA dancers. We’ve got some instrumental musicians here who always want to know when we’re doing something because they want to write music for us. The visual artists are just down the hall, so they’re constantly story boarding and sketching things for us too. It’s neat to see everyone working together… and then when we show it at the 800 Pound Film Festival [NESA’s showcase] at the end of the year, all those people that contributed get to come into the theater and see a piece of their work in that film. That’s really rewarding.”
Hawkins told me his crew was drawn from some of the same student colleagues he pitched his “insanity through isolation” idea to. The haunting music in the film was written and performed by his classmate, Victora Acuña.
“Limbo” is Hawkins’ first film to be accepted into South By Southwest. An earlier short (coincidentally wordless as well) made it into the Austin Film Festival. He’s been SXSW before, although mostly to hang out and go to free shows on South Congress, he said with a laugh. But now his short film will be in front of a wider audience than ever before.
In the future? Film school at either the University of Texas, or the University of Southern California, where he’s currently going through the application process. And those bare-minimum style filmmaking skills may just help him. This year’s Oscar-winning Best Picture, “Moonlight,” was the lowest-budgeted film to win the top prize at the Academy Awards. Hawkins concluded our talk on a hopeful note. “It’s exciting there’s a resurgence in low-budget movies, and people are going to see those a lot more.”