District 95 Film Festival

Local film festival inspires filmmakers to start young

Park City, Utah isn’t the only town hosting a winter celebration of film these days.

Lake Zurich is home to a cadre of young filmmakers inspired to express themselves through short films, made for the annual District 95 Film Festival.

“I was never good at sports. I tried playing instruments, but that wasn’t for me. I loved being in plays, but I’m just not a great singer,” said Michael Gallagher II, 19, a 2015 graduate of Lake Zurich High School. “I had trouble fitting in. But I really loved presenting and being in front of people, so I was thrilled to discover the Film Fest,” he said. Gallagher won Best in Show for his animated short titled Surf’s Up last year.

“Film is complex—there are so many layers for a director to think about. The best movies have a story and then there’s a second story. As a director, you work to keep that theme a secret to be uncovered,” he said. Gallagher should know, since he’s now studying Digital Media Production at Kent State University in Kent, OH. He credits his participation in the Festival with helping him decide on his major and intended career path.

For Andrew Orals, 14, filmmaking is a creative experiment. “It’s a way of doing something I love, writing and performing music, and combining that with something I didn’t know as much about,” he said. Orals’ entry for the 2016 Festival, The Cloud is Snowing, is inspired by the silent films of decades past, and mashed up with observations about the digital cloud. Orals composed all of the music for this film, incorporating his own piano and violin recordings. He also used a Christmas gift—powerful new editing software.

Pam Orals says filmmaking is a great learning experience for her son. “Making a film is complicated. You need a plan. And sometimes you have to experiment,” she said. “There was one night when Andrew and two other kids spent hours shredding paper and trying to create a snow effect. In the end, he didn’t like how it looked, so it didn’t make it into the film,” she said. “And that’s OK—he learned something.”

Playing around with special effects apps and making trailers was fun, but when Drew Morton, 10, saw the Film Festival call for entries, he decided it was time to try making a real short film. His first entry, Fourth Grade Chronicles: Readers Beware, is about the dramatic, dangerous reason fourth graders aren’t reading anymore.

“He had the vision in his mind of how he wanted the story to unfold. I could see him incorporating all of the things he loves in books and stories into his film,” said Drew’s mom, Jessica Morton. “He learned a lot about how to prepare for filming, and how to get all of the shots he needed,” she said.

“I’ve never been to a Festival—this is my first one. I’m excited to see what other people have done. Maybe it will give me ideas for my next film,” the fourth grade Morton said.


Good cameras have become more affordable. Most computers and tablets come loaded with video editing software. Even Hollywood directors are experimenting with making films with iPhones. These realities were not lost on Lake Zurich educators when they started the Film Festival in 2013.

“We set out to empower our students of all ages to express their ideas and demonstrate their creativity via the complex medium of film,” said Lisa Warren, who serves as a member of the CUSD 95 Board of Education and also as treasurer of the D95 Educational Foundation. “It’s been so gratifying to see students step up to the challenge and make some very entertaining and interesting films over the years.”

Each year, a call for entries invites students from kindergarteners through high school seniors to submit films up to 5 minutes long in a variety of categories, including documentary, comedy/drama, animation and public service announcement. About a dozen of the entries are selected and screened, with winners chosen from three age categories (elementary, middle and high school) based on technical quality, storytelling, artistic merit, overall effect and other criteria.

The Festival rounds out an excellent set of arts programs in the district, according to Angela Fortune, teacher and fine arts/business department chair at Lake Zurich High School and coordinator of the Festival.

“Our music, theatre and visual art students are outstanding, and they get great exposure,” Fortune said. “But we saw a missing opportunity for students who are not involved in formal arts activities,” she said. “The Festival gives those students a way of expressing their creative ideas, and it’s grown every year since we started.”

“So many things in the workplace are media-based now,” said Nancy Coleman, Executive Director of the D95 Educational Foundation. “These students are learning how to get their message across—how to entertain and engage an audience. And those skills will serve them well,” she said.

Parent Laura Gallagher is thrilled that her son and many other students continue to find the Festival inspiring. “I think it’s absolutely wonderful that our district promotes and celebrates creativity in this way, and encourages children of all ages to express themselves,” she said. “These children could be the next Steven Spielberg, for all we know. They just have to start somewhere.”

Who knows, they could even end up at Sundance.