Charlotte Johnson already had the outline for her first film back when she was in high school. Wanting to personalize the topic of post-traumatic stress disorder, she came up with a fictional story about a female soldier's confusions after a stint in Iraq.
But for a novice filmmaker with no funding, no equipment, and no crew, the process of nursing a story from script to screen can seem next to impossible.
"There's a lot of people who would like to be making films, but they feel it would be a financial burden, or feel it would be too daunting," says Johnson, now a senior at Johns Hopkins University.
For Johnson, the answer to those challenges was Studio North, JHU's student-run film production company. This week she and her team will debut her short film Scars at Studio North's red-carpet premiere event at the Charles Theatre.
After Studio North gave her script a green light—and a grant—last spring, Johnson hired three actors along with a sound engineer. Volunteer production assistants from Studio North helped her shoot scenes around Baltimore this winter, and she hired an editor for post-production.
The short film is one of four that have received Studio North support on the way to the big screen. Last year's premieres—Bernard Died, by Andrea Massaro and Tony Lee; and Motorcycle Memories by Max Bowens—are now cycling beyond Hopkins through the film festival circuit as the directors pursue graduate studies in film.
Nudging undergraduate filmmakers to that next level is exactly the purpose of Studio North, says JHU Film and Media lecturer Meredith Ward, who acts as faculty adviser for the production company.
"The more people who are turned out of Studio North, the better equipped the whole group is to enter the film industry and become major players," Ward says.
Inspired by her grad-school experiences at Northwestern with the student-run Studio 22 company, Ward saw potential for a similar set-up at Hopkins. With a $20,000 funding pot earmarked for extracurricular film activities, she brainstormed with students to steer the creation of Studio North in 2014.
The idea is to provide a realistic taste of professional filmmaking, helping students prepare to succeed in Los Angeles, New York, or other competitive film communities. In the spring, students with script ideas compete for two $1,500 grants through Studio North—the current application cycle is now open—with the winners assembling a crew and pulling their projects together over the next year.
It's not just directors who gain experience, though—students also fill most roles in the production process, from lighting and photography to set design and sound editing.
"Pretty much everyone works for free," says Sam Brayman, Studio North's executive chair. The teams are also able to rent equipment, for free, through JHU's Digital Media Center.
The process culminates with the spring premiere, giving the films a screening in front of hundreds of audience members. "We literally have the red carpet," Ward says.
For Johnson, debuting Scars is "valuable," she says, "to be able to show people that I created this film and have this experience." After Hopkins she hopes to enter the film into festivals and explore a career in television.
"I'm really happy that Bernard Died is getting out there, being seen, and making a name for Johns Hopkins in film," says Massaro, who's now studying at UCLA.
Ward notes that "if you look at the careers and lives of successful filmmakers and trace back where they started, their first big film comes right around this age. Our goal is to provide that break, which we hope is the first of many things."
Studio North's grand premiere takes place this Thursday, April 28, with doors opening 6:30 p.m. at the Charles Theatre at 1711 North Charles St. in Baltimore.