Every year, the Savannah Film Festival rolls out the red carpet for scads (pun intended) of big-name movie stars, acclaimed filmmakers and up-and-coming silver screen celebrities.
Many arrive with their latest and often as-yet-unreleased films in tow, while some engage in a Q&A with the audience after a retrospective screening of an earlier work.
This year is no exception, with directors like Alexander Payne ("The Descendants," "About Schmidt," "Sideways") gracing the stage on the festival's opening night with an advance screening of his forthcoming adventure drama "Nebraska" - along with its star, the venerable character actor Bruce Dern - and controversial actor and political pundit Alec Baldwin ("30 Rock," "Blue Jasmine," "Ghosts of Mississippi") and director James Toback ("Tyson," "Fingers") giving audiences a sneak peek of their new documentary "Seduced and Abandoned."
That's the glitzy side of the festival. However, there is another aspect of this event that is perhaps more important in the grand scheme of things, but which is often obscured by all the high-wattage star power in town.
You see, when it comes to the Student Film Competition, the exposure this small number of lucky, nascent filmmakers can receive by having their short subjects selected for screening (and possible official recognition) is often the first step toward a successful career in film and television.
We spoke to a few SCAD students - both current and former - whose films are included in this year's lineup to find out what it took to get these ultra-independent pieces made in the first place, and their feelings about making the cut for this year's prestigious group of noteworthy shorts from around the world.
Ty Coyle: "Baxter"
Originally from Huntingtown, Md., Ty Coyle attended SCAD for four years and earned a BFA in computer animation.
A month before he graduated, he was hired by The Moving Picture Company in New York City as a junior CG artist, meaning he is primarily responsible for doing character animation for TV commercials, among other animation-related duties.
His computer-animated festival entry "Baxter" follows a curious raccoon that makes its way into a sweets shop, only to become obsessed with candy and seal his own fate.
Now, for those of you who may assume computer-generated animation is less time-consuming than standard, hand-drawn cel animation, you may be surprised to learn that although his film is less than three minutes in length, Coyle said it took him "approximately one year and two months to complete from start to finish."
Still, all those hours staring at screens and waiting for things to render properly don't get too old for Coyle.
"It's so much fun bringing character to something that has none," he said. "I really enjoy how limitless animation can be. Because there are so many different acting choices to choose from, you can create a world where your characters can do anything you want.
"Your characters can squash and stretch and move in all sorts of strange ways to tell the simplest of stories. It has been the best way for me to visually express myself as an artist."
Coyle said that while his creative background as a child was in live theater, he also had spent plenty of time making amateur films with his digital camera.
However, once he was introduced to computer animation in high school, he considered it as a career path.
"This medium complements my interests perfectly," he said.
"Baxter" was not a one-man-project by any means. Coyle said more than 40 people contributed to the completion of his film, including specialized artists and technicians such as voice actors, music composers, lighters, animators, texture artists, graphic designers, color script artists, character designers and more.
He also said, other than his friends and family, no one else has seen the finished product.
So, in essence, its screening here in Savannah will be its official public premiere, which is a sweet reward for the budding filmmaker.
"During the creation of 'Baxter,' it was one of my goals to get into this festival," he said.
"I was absolutely thrilled, and a bit speechless, when I learned it had been accepted. It truly is an honor to get into a festival that I have had the pleasure of attending these past few years.
"Experiencing the festival was always wonderful, and now I'll be experiencing it again, but from a whole new perspective."
For now, Coyle (who will be returning to Savannah specifically to attend the festival and be on hand for his own screening) said he is busy with work, but in his spare time, he is beginning to develop his next short story.
"Working on a new personal project keeps me energized as an artist," he said.
And for those who wind up missing the big-screen debut of "Baxter," Coyle encourages folks to view a clip of the film online (where the entire short will eventually be available).
So what is the first thing Coyle will do if he learns his film has won any awards at this year's Savannah Film Festival?
"I would probably squeal in excitement," he said with a smile.
Cody Joel: "Justice Denied"
Born and raised in Louisville, Ky., (which he describes as "home of the world's fastest horses, finest bourbon and prettiest women"), Cody Joel graduated from SCAD in June with a BFA in film and television.
He, too, has relocated to New York City, where he has already worked on such TV series as "The Carrie Diaries" and MTV's "Million Dollar Shoppers." He's currently helping to cast one of the "Real Housewives" shows.
"I've been really fortunate the big town has been so good to me," he said.
His short documentary "Justice Denied" runs a little more than 15 minutes and took nearly a year and a half to complete. It incorporates actual documentary footage with staged reenactments, something Joel said the subject matter required.
"I'm really more into scripted stuff," he said. "But when you come across a story like this, it needs to be told. It's almost as though you don't have any other option. That's why you see this sort of non-traditional blend of narrative and non-fiction elements in the movie."
According to Joel, the film focuses on "crimes committed by our Department of Justice - specifically focusing on the case of Howell Woltz and his wife, who were wrongfully imprisoned in 2006 for a crime that didn't exist."
When Joel was in high school, his father was prosecuted by the federal government, and he wanted to tell that story through film.
Yet Joel was "afraid that because I was still so enraged by it, it would come out as a rant." So, rather than tell his own family's tale, he "chose to tell the story of (his father's) fellow inmate," Mr. Woltz.
"Many people are scared to share their own experiences because they have seen how the federal government can devastate a family without batting an eyelash," Joel said. "There's a saying that a D.A. could indict a ham sandwich these days. But for people like this, they've already lost so much that they might as well tell the world."
"Justice Denied" was shot with a small crew on location in North Carolina, with additional footage (reenactments) shot in both Kentucky and the Florida Keys. Joel said one of the main reasons he is so proud of how the film turned out is the tight group of people who worked on it.
"At any given time, our crew was never larger than six, including myself," he said. "Sometimes it would even just be my best friend, Grant, and I at 2 a.m. in the morning thinking of cool inserts to throw in that we would go shoot that night. I knew if I put a lot of trust in a few very talented people that were equally as passionate, something amazing would come from it."
The entire budget for the film was only $5,000, which Joel said was a fraction of what some of the other thesis films in his class wound up costing. Because the majority of the film was shot over spring break, the college's impressive array of gear was not available for use. For later segments, they did use the school's equipment, and Joel calls that opportunity "a lifesaver" which spared him untold amounts of money.
Earlier this year, "Justice Denied" was awarded the school's SCADemy Award for Best Documentary, and it was recently screened at the Louisville International Festival of Film. It is now being considered for admission into more than a dozen other high-profile festivals. However, the fact that it was accepted into this event holds a special sway for Joel.
"At SCAD, every film student goes to the festival every year wondering what it would be like to have their movie shown there. And now that it's actually happened, it's totally surreal," he said. "I submitted it almost on a whim and when I got the phone call, I was shocked and also honored. I will definitely be there!"
Justin Andrews and Jae Matthews: "DIRT"
Marlboro, Mass., native Justin Andrews has lived in Savannah since the summer of 2010.
He graduated from SCAD in the spring with an MFA in film and television, with a focus on directing (he said he'd like to think he minored unofficially in acting, as well), and the 15-minute film "DIRT" is the result of a successful and ongoing partnership with writer/producer Jae Matthews, a Utica, N.Y., native who is a graduate student at SCAD earning a dual degree in both film production and cinema.
Andrews said pre-production on their film began in January 2012, and he admits they are not technically finished with "DIRT."
"After seeing the film play at the SCAD showcase last spring, we decided to completely recut the film," he said.
"At that point, Jae challenged us to make some new discoveries that would condense it, and our editor, Anna Swenson, had some new ideas on how to make the structure better.
"Once they started in, I got inspired to make choices and sacrifices that I never would have been able to. Now we are all very proud of the results," he said. "Our next goal is to finesse the sound mix. Our sound team is totally great, but we absolutely did not give them enough time to generate a complete mix!"
Making the film required more than 100 people, including 50 extras and a massive pre-production crew (helping with marketing, social media, online fundraising, etc.)
Justin said the actual production team consisted of about 30 people during each night of shooting, and at least 10 more participants in post-production, such as sound engineers, editors and colorists.
"We are lucky to have a village of people to volunteer their time and constantly be breathing new inspiration and ideas into the material," he said.
The film itself is a drama that grew out of improvisational scenes between Abby Huffstetler (who wound up playing the character "Dirt") and other actors from an earlier short film Andrews and Matthews collaborated on.
"Jae and I were both interested in a risky type of filmmaking that involved improvisation, handheld camerawork and natural sets," Andrews said.
"We both loved actors and found that we were interested in an alternative, organic style of filmmaking. On 'DIRT,' we had planned to co-write and co-direct the project. And after trying, it it became clear that it wouldn't work out," he said.
"The creative chemistry we had started to go out the window.
"Finally, Jae made the leap of faith and said, 'I'll write and produce it, you direct it.' I was lucky, because Jae could have told me to go fry ice and gone her own way."
The story itself deals with depressed, blue-collar characters of the type that both Matthews and Andrews grew up with, and the main character of "Dirt" was based on a specific girl Matthews knew in New York.
"(Jae and I) both share a fascination and romanticism about the people that we were maybe too afraid to get to close to when we were younger," Andrews said.
As of now, "DIRT" has not been submitted to any other film festivals, as the production team is still honing it before giving it the big push it would seem to deserve.
"We want it to be at its most complete when we start shopping it around. With the same token, it is not available online yet, as we don't want to risk our future film festival submissions," Andrews said.