In the Director's Chair

A film center that lets kids showcase their stories.

Quaint downtown Pleasantville is spotted with storefronts just like other villages of its kind. But farther down Manville Road, a pale concrete building changes the landscape. The Jacob Burns Film Center's Media Arts Lab is a nonprofit film and education organization with advanced technological attributes that can teach any kid to become a master 21st-century storyteller. The lab opened last year after executive director Stephen Apkon recognized that the JBFC Theater across the street could no longer accommodate the incredible demand for the educational programs it had been offering since 2001. The new 27,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art lab now gives children access to exciting filmmaking tools and technologies.

Open the door to the Media Arts Lab and you are transported. With its modern design and airy feel, this is clearly a place where children go on amazing adventures. The building is furnished with 16 editing stations, a sound stage with a green screen, recording studios with isolation rooms, three animation stations and a 60-seat screening room. Students have access to it all. As advanced as the technology is, even the youngest kids take ownership of the skills needed in a reltively short time. This leaves the real focus on storytelling.

"Some kids just want to grab a camera and go," says Aaron Mace, a member of the education faculty. "But this isn't about creating something and moving on, like with YouTube. We take time to reflect. We'll watch something and talk about it as a group to find ways to make it better, instead of passively absorbing it."

The collaborative environment makes the Media Arts Lab a terrific choice for parents in search of a unique summer program. Kids between ages 8 and 13 can sign up for Lab Camp, a full day of workshops that expose campers to various techniques of filmmaking from set design to screenwriting to directing. True to the lab's philosophy, it's a hands-on program where something new is created every day. Lab Camp runs in two three-week sessions, and each camper receives a DVD of his or her work at the end of camp. For younger children, the week-long Seeing Stories program tells tales from around the world and explores the process behind and in front of the camera. Vacation camps are also offered during school breaks.

During the calendar year, the lab is at its busiest with full class schedules for the fall and spring semesters. Choices include First Take, where the kids serve as a production team and are introduced to every aspect of filmmaking, and KidToons, where young participants experiment with stop-motion animation, acting, sound effects and more. With small class sizes and working filmmakers leading the way, the lab aims to allow children to have fun while focusing on the project at hand.

Lisa Pelton is a Mount Kisco resident whose 8-year-old daughter Mimi took the popular Lights, Camera, Action class last year. "These skills were new to everybody, but it was remarkable," says Pelton in reference to her child's learning in class. "The kids didn't get treated like little ducks in a row. They were given responsibilities and they took them."

Mimi adds, "It was really hard work, but then a big accomplishment. It was really awesome."

The Media Lab building is an ecological teaching instrument, as well. It was constructed with the greenest environmental practices in mind. Elegant small wall plaques explain which materials were used and why, like the cork floors in the dual-story bright orange lobby, giving students a mini-lesson in sustainability. Anyone who would like to take a free guided tour is welcome to on the third Thursday of each month.

Schools and other local groups from all over Westchester County continuously visit and participate in the lab's classes. However, what the lab offers extends beyond its walls. The outreach program brings its education curriculum into area schools, including more than 50 percent that reach districts in need.

The Jacob Burns Media Arts Lab is clearly a resource unlike any other in our community.