Tampa Filmmaker Sarah Wilson Reels In Your Heart

Sarah Wilson says that Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow's acceptance speech for best director was "spot on."

Bigelow made history at the Academy Awards by becoming the first female to be named best director. But instead of focusing on that milestone, the director of "The Hurt Locker" acknowledged the people who collaborated with her to make the film. She also dedicated her award to the military men and women stationed in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places in the world.

Wilson, who has ambitions to make compelling films herself, says she's glad Bigelow didn't get caught up in the fact that a woman finally won the award.

The focus always should be on the story-telling, not on who made the film, Wilson says.

The University of South Florida telecommunications major knows a bit about how it feels to be singled out for excellence in filmmaking.

The five-minute film, "Rhapsody," produced by Wilson and the team she assembled won best picture last year at the International Campus MovieFest in Hollywood, Calif. The competition is billed as the world's largest student film festival. The MovieFest drew entries from 75,000 participants.

Winning was a huge honor, and particularly gratifying because USF doesn't have a film school, Wilson says. She was delighted by the recognition not only for herself, but also for USF and for all of the people involved with the film.

Although it is her biggest film award to date, it is just one in a string of accolades that Wilson has won. The list also includes a first place finish two years in a row in Bridgestone America's Safety Scholars national video contest and a slew of local and regional awards for "Rhapsody" and for "Focus," another short film she wrote, directed and produced.

Her most recent short film, "Fireflies," was named best drama at the 2010 Campus MovieFest Grand Finale at USF. The film also received best special effects and best actress honors.  

Framing The Shot

Wilson's work has been selected for inclusion in numerous film festivals including the Gasparilla Film Festival;  the Central Florida Film Festival; and the Independents Film Festival

Her work also has created opportunities for travel, including trips to the Chicago Auto Show, the Cannes Film Festival and to Hollywood.

Winning recognition is encouraging, Wilson says, but she doesn't dwell on her success. Instead, she's interested in doing whatever she can to become a better filmmaker.

"I feel like every time you have the camera in your hand, and you shoot something and you turn around and you edit it, you are learning."

It doesn't matter to her whether she's working on a commercial, a public service announcement or a promotional video.

"I frame up the shot. I do everything as if I were shooting a short film."

She estimates she's made about 70 videos, in various formats, since picking up a camera in high school.

Her part-time work experiences have included a co-teaching role in USF's first Narrative Filmmaking class and a teaching assistant's post in the university's Advanced Public Relations class. She has worked since her freshmen year as a lab assistant for the School of Mass Communications, where she manages video equipment and helps upper-level students with video editing.

She also has been a video production assistant at the David A. Straz, Jr. Center For The Performing Arts in Tampa.

Most of Wilson's experience relates to work that she's done while at USF, but someday her opportunities may broaden locally. There's a push on by the Florida Governor's Office of Film and Entertainment and by Tampa Bay & Co. to boost Florida's economy by enticing the film industry to do more filming here.

"The Film and Entertainment Industry is important to the Florida economy as a major driver of employment and personal income, attracting revenue from other states and countries to be spent locally on wages and film production services,'' concludes an analysis of the industry for the Florida Governor's Office by the Haas Center for Business Research and Economic Development at the University of West Florida in Pensacola.

"For example, when a major studio show shoots a big budget film on location, it can inject, according to the Motion Picture Association of America, as much as $225,000 per day into that location's economy.''

Finding Inspiration Everywhere

Wilson, who has already used local backdrops in her films, said her fascination with filmmaking dates back to the day when she saw "Spiderman." She was 14.

"It was amazing and magical and awesome,'' she says. "I left the movie theater and I couldn't stop thinking about it for months afterward."

She began learning about shooting video while in her teens in Armwood High School's TV production program.

"I knew in high school what I wanted to do," she says. "I knew that because I could spend hours doing it and not even notice that the time was passing."

Wilson finds sources of inspiration everywhere. She sees a room, or a building, and she imagines a scene playing out in it. She hears music and envisions a music video. She watches a commercial and dissects the way it uses style and emotion to tell a story.

The biggest challenge she's encountered so far? Learning to adapt to changing conditions.

"Whenever you are shooting something, there are going to be a million curveballs that are thrown at you," Wilson says.

While shooting "Fireflies,'' for instance, a main character was missing part of his costume. The film crew shot around it. When poor weather forced shooting delays, the crews and actors regrouped.

And, with every project there's always the issue of lining up locations and equipment, as well as getting enough people to do everything that's needed at precisely the right time.

But Wilson seems to have a knack for inspiring people to work as a team, says USF student Scott Howard, who handled many logistics for "Fireflies.''

"She manages to get a community around her that works very well together,'' Howard says.

Wilson's professional demeanor motivates people like him to be willing to do whatever it takes, such as getting up at 3 a.m., to work on one of her films.

Beyond that, Howard says,  "It's fun to work with Sarah.''

Sean Brown, another USF student, has worked with Wilson on several projects.
"When people see her stuff, they know that she's behind it," Brown says. "She's mystical. Kind of magical."

Developing Storytelling Voice

Younger sister, Emily Wilson, has played leading roles in Sarah Wilson's films.

She says her older sister has a talent for bringing characters and stories to life, and has a commitment to excellence.  "She's very careful about getting everything just right."

The older Wilson also wins loyalty because "she doesn't take all of the credit for herself. It's always a team effort."

Sarah Wilson, who expects to graduate in May, has applied to graduate school, and is putting out feelers for jobs in the film industry.

She admires director Tim Burton and points to movies such as "Spiderman," "Edward Scissorhands," "Big Fish," "Moulin Rouge," and "Catch Me If You Can," as the kinds of movies she would like to make.

"You can pinpoint the kind of style you're most interested in, but I think it's really about developing your own storytelling voice. It's about your life and where you are when you make the things you make," Wilson says.

B.C. Manion is a freelance writer working out of her 1932 bungalow in the South Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

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