UMSL opens its doors to Film Camp USA

by | Jul 25, 2022

Forty-five students have participated in the eight-week camp and helped develop the short film “Watchers,” which will debut on Saturday at the Touhill.
Young students are gathered around a computer with an instructor.

Film Camp USA students receive instruction on how to edit video as founder Monica R. Butler looks on in the UMSL Accelerate office at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Mekhi Combs, a 13-year-old horror movie fan, had already been using his phone to edit short films and TikTok clips.

Wanting to hone his skills, he signed up to learn professional editing skills in Film Camp USA, a summer program that teaches youth ages 8-18 about all aspects of film production including acting, editing, lighting, special effects and wardrobe.

Combs was among 45 students who have spent much of the past eight weeks working on a short film, “Watchers,” that will have its red-carpet debut on Saturday at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center.

Television and play production veteran Monica R. Butler created the summer program, and this summer UMSL Accelerate welcomed it into its office on the University of Missouri–St. Louis campus, providing the space the camp needed to effectively conduct its sessions.

Dan Lauer and Michael Butler graciously led the charge to ensure access for the camp,” said UMSL alumnus Brian Owens, the E. Desmond Lee Community Artist in Residence who is providing the music for the student film and made the initial connection with the university. “Also, Jason Stahr with the Touhill has been extremely supportive of this initiative.

“Following the chancellor’s lead, partnerships of this nature facilitate our desire to engage our community in ways that are tangible and can be repeated. This is a necessary step in our move towards building a sustainable, creative pathway that leads young creatives and entrepreneurs from education to industrialization right where they live.”

Monica R. Butler had a similar desire to connect with young creatives when she founded Film Camp USA four years ago. She had moved back to St. Louis from Louisiana six years ago to attend to family matters and wound-up relocating. She realized there wasn’t a big creative industry here, particularly in film, so she decided to do something about it and prepare the next generation of filmmakers.

Through her friendship with Lin. Woods and eventual partnership with her nonprofit, Inspired Lives Foundation, Butler developed Film Camp USA

“Coming back to St. Louis was a little difficult because there was nothing here that involved what I like to do,” Butler said. “This is my life, you know? The roots of me.”

Butler reached out to Woods, who had also moved back to St. Louis, and discussed creating their own artistic platform, similar to the one they partnered on in Baton Rouge. Before, they utilized their industry connections and resources to host workshops for aspiring creatives, and they decided to do it again for kids and made Film Camp USA a reality.

Butler began her background in media starting out as the public relations director for a gospel radio station while in college in Louisiana. She didn’t know anything about the job so she called the office of the famous evangelist Jimmy Swaggart and requested to shadow their PR professional. She later parlayed that experience into other opportunities in TV production with channels like BET working on “Bobby Jones Gospel” and also working as the stage manager for multiple Tyler Perry plays.

The beginning of Brown’s fascination with entertainment behind-the-scenes started when she was a little girl observing her mother’s involvement with her gospel choir.

“She used to take me along as a child when they were singing and doing concerts and going to recording studios. One day they decided to do a documentary film here in St. Louis called, “Say Amen, Somebody.” And when they did that film I was just a kid sitting in the front row. And I think that’s when I got the film bug.”

From that moment Butler’s interest in production was sparked. She hopes to ignite the same enthusiasm for her film camp students who are new to production and further the interest of those who are already creating art.

Mekhi Combs, Nina Irani, Reesahn Ghlmore and Michael Combs have enjoyed the opportunity to learn about film production. (Photo by Wendy Todd)

Nina Irani, an aspiring director who will begin eighth grade in the fall, joined the film camp to learn more about the craft.

“I wanted to know simple things with camera positions and more about lighting,” she said. “I wanted to work with cinematographers. When I came here, I didn’t know anything, and now I know so much.”

In addition to aspiring directors, the camp also attracts young actors like Reesahn Ghlmore, who has been acting for several years in school plays and workshops and has even appeared in a film with established actor Clifton Powell, who’s appeared in iconic films such as “Menace II Society” and “Dead Presidents.” The middle-schooler signed up for the camp to sharpen his skills and versatility.

“It’s teaching me how to act a little better,” he said. “It’s better experience. It feels more like the real thing.”

Combs got the deep dive into filmmaking he hoped for.

“I’ve learned about the different types of films and camera angles – the history of filmmaking and how cameras perform,” he said. “I want to thank everybody who has helped me throughout the process because I wouldn’t be here without them. I was given a choice to come here and better myself.”

Film Camp USA has been able to offer this level of apprenticeship partly due to having the space it needs for different classes and equipment. Michael Combs, Mekhi’s cousin, who is also interested in acting, is in his second year of the program.

“I liked it,” Michael Combs said. “I really got to feel the emotions of the person that I was trying to display. I feel I understand their feelings. I understand why they’re going to become that character.”

Combs has also noticed the impact adequate space has had on his learning experience.

 “I feel I got to learn a lot of new things this year, especially with the bigger facility,” he said. “I learned more things and got more opportunities this year. It’s like you get to choose your own path.”


Wendy Todd

Wendy Todd

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