The era of film photography and single-use flash bulbs is long past, and what lies ahead is limited only by today’s youthful imagination as encouraged by local teachers.

The Santa Ynez Valley Union High School Regional Occupational Program (ROP) program provides students with a hands-on opportunity to try out their creative skills on all that technology they have grown up with.

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From not-so-simple photography, to image manipulation, to nearly every aspect of film production, to digitally creating 3-D images then setting them into motion, the school has become a haven for those needing to learn tomorrow’s skills today.

The ROP program is primarily paid for by the County Department of Education, says Joe Graack, and hasn’t been hit quite as hard as other aspects of the educational system, which is a good thing. What is today’s elective will, in many instances, provide the core skills necessary for tomorrow’s worker. Both Graack and Cheryl Lee are more than appreciative of the county’s support.

Lee teaches film appreciation and Advanced Video production/filmmaking – advanced because that is the level of skills to which students will be introduced. “Advanced Video Production and Filmmaking incorporates narrative and documentary filmmaking and broadcast journalism. It is a comprehensive production course that teaches technical and creative skills intrinsic to the field of film and video communication,” says Lee.

Sara Ferrer is taking the course for the third time. She had no experience going into the class her freshman year, and was uncertain about it. She heard you had to be in front of the camera from time to time and being shy, she says, that requirement made the class sound a bit scary.

Now, the shy senior is aiming toward a career directing. The best thing about the course, Sara says, is how well-rounded it is. Pre-production, production and post-production aspects of filmmaking are all covered, so whether a student likes writing, acting, directing, filming, editing or any of the other facet of film production, the school has the resources to focus on them.

“Students learn the art of filmmaking,” says Lee. There is more to it than simple mechanics. Students must get a feel for “visual composition, blocking for actors, multiple camera set-ups, directing and other industry positions, screenwriting and other forms of script writing, and video editing.”

“I learned there is a lot more to it than I thought,” says Sara. Many of the elements she started out believing were beyond her capabilities – things like editing films – she now finds she can manage just fine. She recently discovered to her delight that she is capable of editing a 30-minute film. By gaining an understanding of how each of the separate elements of the production process works, she is better able to offset the limitations of any one phase by the capacities of another.

For example, as a director, she needs to understand both the limitations of the camera as well as the full range of editing possibilities that might compensate for those confines. As Sara progresses by repeating the class at higher levels, she says that she is able to gain more and more of the knowledge she will need down the line. By the time she heads to college next fall, she expects to be far ahead of her peers.

Recent Santa Ynez graduate Joel Blacker came into the class with experience and already looking to film as a career choice. He made several films at home on his own before coming to the high school. “I was self-taught, so I had picked up a lot of bad habits. I didn’t know I was doing it wrong,” he says. Joel was taught a lot of tricks, shortcuts and has become a better filmmaker thanks to the class and access to good equipment and software, he says.

“Not many people understand what goes into making a film,” says Joel. “They think ‘I can’t act’ or ‘I can’t use a camera,’” he says, reciting excuses he has heard students make for not taking the class. “But there is so much more to it, so many different art mediums to explore.” He believes that most students can find in the wide opportunities filmmaking offers something they can both enjoy and excel in.

“While engaging in the course, students learn to use technology incorporating Macintosh-operating system, Final Cut Pro editing software and ancillary software, digital video cameras, green screen and lighting,” says Lee. “The technology learned is transferable to fields other than video and filmmaking because the systems are of a similar nature.”

The quality of the equipment students have to work with is great, says Sara – an opinion echoed by Joel and Lee as well. With the new control room equipment, students will have a chance to engage in broadcast journalism assignments and to make professional-looking videos. “This was not possible before the ROP purchase of this equipment,” says Lee expressing her thanks.

Early in the school year, students learn the basics through reading a text and engaging in short filming exercises. Later they are assigned video categories such as short drama, advertisement, vocabulary video, broadcast journalism, multi-scene drama and/or animation to work on.

Joel, who has already won awards for his films, thinks highly of the ROP program. But perhaps the best part of filmmaking, he says, is its collaborative nature. It is one of few art forms that truly requires the input of a myriad of artists to bring it to fruition. For students who like working with their peers, it’s ideal.

Videos of quality are uploaded to the video class’ YouTube channel, says Lee, who organized the recent CANs Film Festival wherein student films were shown for the price of a canned food item later donated to a local charity. Also participating in the evening were Graack’s photography students, whose ‘fall photos’ went on sale; the proceeds donated as well.

His three sections of photography always fill up, says Graack, who also teaches computer animation. Students learn the elements of composition, how to digitally edit and manipulate their photos, and even color management. Most recently, the students did a matting exercise, he said.

Students help take photos for the school’s yearbook and learn how to create web pages with them. “They will use the photo projects they make and use them to build web pages for the school’s website.” To see their work, visit The computer animation class was started under the direction of Dr. Fred Van Leuven. It begins with a review of all of the Microsoft Office programs – Excel, Word, PowerPoint and Publisher, Graack says. It’s “pretty mandatory” information in terms of 21st century learning skills. From there, students move on to Photoshop and graphic designing. Students will learn how to create professional quality posters, logos and 3-dimensional images.

Students have been working on redesigning the school’s logo and coming up with a female version of the school’s pirate. But they have also been delving into school lore. Having found a number of old yearbooks from the 1930s, 40s and 50s, says Graack, students are making them digital or putting them online for the community to enjoy.

The old yearbooks are more like scrapbooks, often with titles handwritten and newspaper articles pasted in. One such article is about a teacher’s husband who was about to be sent to war, and the last trip the pair took together.

Students will end their year designing their own video games and learning to write the code to make them work. “I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from former students,” says Graack. They especially find that the things they use in the visual technology class have helped them in college. As for photography, he has seen seven students in seven years go on to become professional photographers.

That is, after all, what a good education is all about.