Mamatoga Interview: Jon Dorflinger from The Saratoga Film Academy

SFA-Logo6If you're looking for a new and dynamic way to spark your child's creativity and have tried the rest, you need to check out The Saratoga Film Academy. Classes are enrolling right now, and you can find out more here. Today I have a special interview with Jon Dorflinger, who founded The Saratoga Film Academy, and we talk about what inspired him to start the academy and his passion for filmmaking.

Mamatoga: Tell me a little bit about how you became involved in film, was it something that you were interested in as a child?

Jon Dorflinger: I had always loved storytelling whether it was movies or books or TV. I grew up in a time when computers were really expensive paper weights unless you had a lot of computer games.  There was no internet, no cell phones, no digital anything, no HD Flatscreen TVs, no DVD players.  The big technological advancements of the late 80’s and 90’s were the DiscMan and the consumer VHS video camera.

The moment my father brought home a VHS video camera, my brother and I would make silly videos just to see ourselves on tv and make our family laugh.  The first project where I scripted out a scenario to present to an audience outside of my family, was a toothpaste commercial, for a class project in 5th grade.

After getting exposure to cameras and making parodies of Saturday Night Live sketches and other ridiculous skits, my interest for the medium grew.  When I was a sophomore at Saratoga Springs High School, a couple juniors I became friendly with showed me some equipment they bought where you could add a music track, transitions, and titles to your VHS videos through your VCR.  This brought my videos to a whole other level.

At time when YouTube didn’t exist, the only ones who watched anything I ever made were my family and friends.  When my 10th grade Spanish teacher assigned us to present an advertisement in Spanish in front of the class, I raised my hand and asked if I could make a video.  I made a commercial for the TV show COPS, and added a horrible Spanish narration and the famous “Bad boys” song.  The reaction I received from my teachers and classmates was unbelievable.  I found out my teacher showed the video to all of her classes and even began showing it to the other language teachers. Then the students in the French classes were watching my video as well.  For a couple weeks everyone was talking about my video, and that was that moment when I realized I wanted to be a filmmaker.

I studied journalism and communication at St. Michael’s College near Burlington, Vermont, and I always had the itch to transfer into film school in California.  With the limitations of the technology, filmmaking on a greater scale was really isolated to Los Angeles, CA and New York City, and very few people compared to today could actually make a living doing it.  A career as a filmmaker was a bit of a pipe-dream, and my parents convinced me to finish my degree.

While at St. Michael’s I had interned at a CBS news station, was a freelance reporter for a tv show produced by a church in Burlington, and made my first horrible 20 minute short-film. After graduating, I knew that I didn’t want to be a journalist or a reporter.  I wanted to tell stories and make films, but I was back home in Saratoga Springs, without much direction in life, so I decided to seek inspiration by traveling the world.  My travels brought me to Chang Mai, Thailand where I thought I would only be for 2 weeks.  I ended living in Thailand for 9 months, where I produced several videos projects for various American mission groups and the local college there, Payap University.

After my life changing experience in southeast Asia, I returned to the states determined to go to the best film school in the country, USC.  I spent a summer in Los Angeles, where I enrolled in USC’s summer filmmaking program to gain the experience of shooting actual film and build up my portfolio in preparation to apply to their MFA program.  I made four short-films that summer and felt confident returning to Los Angeles to pursue my career in Hollywood.

I returned to Saratoga to begin the application process for USC, and save money for a new life in California.  By the end of September I read an article in the Saratogian about the movie “Seabiscuit" coming to town and they were looking to hire locals to help out on the film.  Having USC on my resume made me standout and I immediately received three calls from different Department heads.  I ended up working in the location department and began working on my first major Hollywood movie with stars like Jeff Bridges, Toby Maguire,  Elizabeth Banks, Chris Cooper, and William H. Macy.

My job required many menial tasks, but I saw it as an opportunity, and even though I didn’t have any expectations after the two weeks the film company was in Saratoga, I treated my job like a tryout for an exclusive sports team.  As a result, people recognized the attitude I brought to work and my boss got the ok from one of the producers to bring me to Kentucky with the company.  I was no longer a local hire, but I was a legitimate member of the crew being put up in hotels, earning per-diem, and receiving more responsibility.  After filming for two weeks in Kentucky my boss told me if I could find my way out to Los Angeles there would be a job for me.  I returned home for Thanksgiving, told my family I was moving to L.A., packed up my car, and drove out to California by myself.

I ended up working in Hollywood for 6 years on some of the biggest movies in the early 2000’s.  I had opportunity to work with some of the top professionals in the business like, Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Bradley Cooper, Dax Shepard, and the South Park guys Trey Parker and Matt Stone, to name a few.  After working on 5 feature films, I landed a job at Warner Bros. Studios working for a production executive which lead to working for writer/director Tom Brady.

I left the business in 2007 to focus on screenwriting.  I enrolled into the UCLA Professional Program for Screenwriting, and began writing scripts.  I wrote three movies, which I am currently continuing to develop today along with other projects.  In that time, I was married and had children, and screenwriting was not helping pay the bills yet, so I went back to USC to get my Masters degree in teaching.  I became a high school English teacher to have the opportunity to use literature and movies to inspire students to learn and love storytelling as much as me, and I wanted my summers off to continue writing my scripts.  I taught for two years on the inner city of Compton and Watts in south central Los Angeles, after my first daughter was born, we made the decision to return to Saratoga to raise our family.

Returning to Saratoga and the Capital District area, turned out to be a more challenging experience for me to land a teaching job.  When Felice Karlitz, Director of the Saratoga Independent School, reached out to me to teach an after school enrichment program, I proposed that I teach a filmmaking class.  By the second day, the students were asking if they could keep taking the class after the 6 weeks.  At that moment, I knew I had something special, and as it turned out there isn’t a film school for kids/teens within 125 miles of Saratoga.  I did find an emerging independent film industry between Glens Falls and Albany and there are many filmmakers who live and work locally.  I saw an opportunity to capitalize on this energy and provide an amazing experience for young  students that has never existed in Saratoga before.

ZwMSSz64uz1KiNalrvEJU0zuPt8Ex6p04nGJ87WJ2M4 1445mZQFaBdjQqLOCzknFt15oK6kGZ1X0Fec76rMaFAM: Tell me more about the program, how hands on is it for kids? What can kids expect to accomplish in the program?

JD: My philosophy behind my teachings is to allow students to learn how to make movies, by actually making the movies themselves.  I learned and fell in love with filmmaking as a kid by going through the process of making videos and figuring out how to express myself through the medium. From day one students will be using cameras and exploring how to tell a story visually.  Every student receives access to online digital editing software which they can access from their home computers as well as at school.  I encourage students to express their own creative voices by helping them develop their original story ideas into short-films.  Students are involved in every aspect of making a film; writing, producing, shooting, directing, acting, and editing.

The students who choose to enroll in the 6-week option, will be working on a core-project that will be developed into a short film over the course of the 24-Week program.  Additionally the students will be working on smaller video and film projects that enhances and encourages them to learn and develop specific skill sets.  Each 6-week class focuses on a different phase of production and skill set. For example, students who enroll in Phase 1 - Screenwriting, will write a short-script for one of our core-projects, and will produce short-film projects that help them understand visual storytelling.

For the students who choose to enroll in the 24-week program, they will have the same experience as the 6-week students, but they have the unique opportunity to fully develop their core-projects into short-films base on their original ideas.  This allows students to maintain full creative control and execute their vision.  The hope is to help these students produce films worthy to compete in national and international film festivals.

c8vwzaUl1tS6dS6vddTqnQKNVMczTt4Pr3-29fVT5vE 92nuE2fVpmZ08a3p3ZkQfnnVomorEp3v5A5PMLTFx8sM: What are some of the creative areas that get tapped into with filmmaking?

JD: Filmmaking is an all encompassing art-form where almost every kind of artist can play a key-role in the production.  In addition to creative writing, acting, photography and directing, making movies can also require illustrators, choreographers, musicians, designers, architects, computer animators, and many other types of artists.

M: What are some unexpected benefits of a filmmaking class for kids?

JD: I think the misconception about making movies is the idea that movies are solely made by artists. The reality is that you can find people building careers in Hollywood in almost any kind of profession imaginable from blue collar to white collar.

Kids who learn filmmaking will have the benefit of developing many higher level cognitive skills that they can apply to almost any profession.  Making a movie is a collaborative process from start to finish, so students will learn communication and leadership skills which will enable them to be better collaborators.  Making any movie or video project, big or small, comes with array of challenges creatively and logistically, so students will learn to think on their toes, make last minute decisions, and become excellent problem solvers.  Making movies requires a lot of planning and thought to produce it economically in a timely fashion, therefore students will develop strategic planning skills.  Finally, there is few, if any more challenging ways to express one’s creativity than making a movie.  There are infinite possibilities for someone to express ideas, emotions, and characters in a movie, which in my opinion is the ultimate form of artistic expression, and I honestly believe encourages students to become better innovators and stronger creative thinkers.

Additionally, I am not teaching students to be solely artists.  Students, especially students with Hollywood ambitions, need to learn how to be entrepreneurs.  The media industry is changing rapidly and it now easier than ever for artists to distribute their work, reach a large number of people, and begin building an audience.  I want students to fall in love with making movies, but to also understand they can make a lot of money doing what they love and there is many more opportunities for them to be successful.