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Camp Reel Stories

A film camp for young women brings Hollywood to the East Bay.


Camp Reel Stories

Last summer, when I heard about a film camp for young women operating out of Oakland School for the Arts, I knew my high school–aged moviemaking daughter would love it. What I didn’t know is that Camp Reel Stories isn’t just any camp but the brainchild of former Pixar Production Manager Esther Pearl, whose credits include Wall-E, Monsters, Inc., and The Incredibles.

Pearl founded Camp Reel Stories to teach young women the technical elements of filmmaking and to encourage women to work behind the camera. Much like at movie studios in the real world, campers must pitch their concept to adult producers and convince them it is a viable project.

Once the idea is green-lit, campers script, storyboard, cast, and scout locations. Then, campers learn how the director, cinematographer, actors, lighting director, sound engineer, and editors collaborate to create a movie. The weeklong camp ends with a film festival showcasing the students’ work on the big screen at the California Theatre in Berkeley.

We talked to Pearl about why she started Camp Reel Stories and how she hopes it transforms lives—and eventually, the film industry.


by Susan Davis

Q: Why did you decide to start a film camp for young women?

A: I started this camp thinking about my 10- year-old daughter. I want her to know that her ideas are important. Women are 51 percent of the population but make up about 16 percent of the leaders in the film industry nationally [among the 250 top-grossing domestic films]. When women and girls are better represented behind the scenes, their reality is better represented on the screen. If girls see their lives in film, they will see that they matter.


Q: How does the camp teach that?

A: The girls develop the confidence to express their opinions about the filmmaking process while working together in teams. They learn to collaborate and problem solve. This camp teaches girls how to make compromises. It is not a free-form arts-and-crafts camp, but an intense learning experience, like the real world of film.


Q: Do the campers meet with female film industry professionals?

A: Lunchtime is always career talk time, when someone from Pixar or Hollywood talks about what they actually do in the film world and how they got there. This gives the girls what they need to imagine a career in film. If they can’t see it, it’s really hard to be it.


by Louise Williams

Q: Recently, Camp Reel got a little love from Inside Out star Amy Poehler. How did that feel?

A: Exciting. Amy shared an article about us on social media. We have so many great women behind us.


Q: It’s now your fourth year running camps. What have you seen the campers take away from their experiences?

A: When we started Camp Reel, our thinking was to give young women filmmakers the opportunity to create, without worrying about the polished product.

For girls, there is so much pressure these days to not make mistakes and to be perfect. This camp was created as a place to let their imaginations soar, to create something that by definition is a work in progress. No one can make a perfect movie in one week. But what was amazing after the first year of camps was that the films were actually so good. That is the magic of filmmaking.


Q: Do you see recurring themes in the campers’ films?

A: If we have 100 girls at camp, we have 100 different ideas. We have films about popular culture like rap. We have social justice pieces and political films that might address race or gender, or the concept of feminine beauty. We have documentary films that tell the story of a person or a place. We also have narrative film with lots of imagined tragedies, horrors, and other fantasies.


Q: What’s the biggest surprise for the campers?

A: Everyone always says, “We can’t do it! We cannot make this film in just one week. We’ll never have enough time.” And what’s amazing is that at the end of the week, all the films are done. They are edited and the sound is synched, and they are ready to be shown at the Saturday film festival.


Q: How do you get the films shown in film festivals across the country?

A: We know where to submit them. We work with about 10 festivals that accept short films. Most of the Camp Reel films are less than eight minutes, and we submit them all. It is so thrilling for a girl to get that e-mail inviting her film to be shown in New York or New Mexico.


by Louise Williams

Q: What’s planned for camp this summer?

A: We are so lucky to have support from some groundbreaking women in Hollywood. We’ll have Brenda Chapman again this year. She is the first woman to direct an animated feature from a major studio­—The Prince of Egypt from DreamWorks—and she was the first woman to win the Oscar in the animated picture category, which she won for Brave, a Disney-Pixar film. I’ve also been talking to several Oscar winners lately, and we’ll see who can fit camp into their schedule. My husband, Nathan Stanton, is still with Pixar, so who knows who will walk in the door when camp is under way. I can’t wait for us to get rolling.

Camp Reel Stories holds beginner camps from June 20–24 and July 11–15 ($550), and advanced camp July 5–15 ($1,100). Camp Reel Stories will host a film festival of student work on June 25 and July 16 at the California Theatre, 2113 Kittredge St., Berkeley, campreelstories.com.

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