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Working the cameras: Pitchess program

Outreach program aims to impact Pitchess prisoners through film training

Posted: August 29, 2009 10:09 p.m.
Updated: August 30, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Hollywood Impact Studio volunteer camera operator Rusty Howes, left, works with a MERIT Program inmate as he sets up camera angles for an interview video called Above the Line, which was produced at Pitchess Detention Center on Saturday.

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Classroom 42 of Pitchess Detention Center transformed into a film production set Saturday morning, complete with a director, director's assistant, lighting and camera crews.

But the men behind the camera and responsible for the light positioning were not industry professionals. They were nine inmates from the Detention Center's Maximizing Education Reaching Individual Transformation, or MERIT, program.

With the help and instruction of more than a half-dozen volunteers provided through an outreach program titled Hollywood Impact Studios, the group of MERIT inmates underwent 12 weeks of film instruction and hands-on training.

"This is something I never expected to come to jail and do," said one inmate who operated one of three cameras on set. "It's been a very educational experience."

Inmates stood in their blue jumpsuits poised behind cameras as their individual trainers instructed them through the process.

"I just learned that the way you manipulate the camera, it gives the feel she's interviewing someone even though you can't see that person," said the inmate as he kept his camera focused on the host who interviewed Frank Cardea, co-executive producer and writer of the CBS television series NCIS.

The inmate's volunteer assistant was impressed by all the inmates' desire to learn.

"They're just so psyched about this program," said Brandon Chandler, of Canyon Country, whose background is in sports photography.

"This definitely gives them a great opportunity. Even people outside the prison don't always get this kind of opportunity," he said.

Hollywood Impact Studios was founded by Gary and Cyndi Hall in December 2007 as a way for Hollywood professionals to impact lives through mentoring.

Gary Hall is a senior vice president of post production for 20th Century Fox Television as well as a reserve officer for the Los Angeles Police Department.

"I kept seeing people in the projects, thinking maybe if they knew of other options, they'd choose another lifestyle," said Gary Hall.

After an outreach visit to Pitchess last year with Grace Baptist Church, the Halls decided their first Hollywood Impact project would reach out to Pitchess convicts.

"The first part, I teach an overview of the business and the different careers in the business," Hall said. "Then we start doing the hands-on portion."

Twelve weeks of instruction and hands-on training culminated in Saturday's final project.

The Halls brought in Cardea, of television series NCIS, for the first production of "Above the Line," interviews with top film industry professionals.

"I think those of us who are fortunate to be in the business need to give back and help others get into the business," said Cardea, of his immediate willingness to be interviewed for the project. "This gives (the inmates) an idea of what's out there for them."

Chris Fallin, who directed the inmates and production on Saturday was pleased with the work of the inmates.

"We really threw them in," said Fallin, an independent director of cinematography from Santa Clarita. "They did a great job and seemed to really respond and catch on."

"The inspiration and hope I saw in them has really turned back to us," Fallin added.

The inmates participating were from the Veterans and Domestic Violence programs, two of three MERIT programs.

MERIT, a partnership of Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and Hacienda La Puente USD Adult Education, focuses on rehabilitation and life skills.

"Gary and his team have been there in giving their expertise to teach these inmates a new skill and value in themselves," said Lt. Randy Olson of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. "This teaches the inmates a new beginning, a new way of life and a new way of thinking about themselves."

For one inmate, participating in the 12-week long film training gave him a platform to bond with his college-age sons.

"I'm a plumber by trade, but I took this course because my kids are studying this in school," he said.

"My boys are like, ‘Wait a minute, you're doing this is in jail? No way.'"

The inmates also completed a music video within the 12-week span.

"Many of these guys have never even touched a computer," Hall said. "These guys have done an incredible job with being able to put together an incredible story from 8 hours of stock footage and 13 songs."

One inmate was particularly excited for his friends and family to one day see the editing work he'd done on the music video.

"I can't believe I found something like this in jail," he said. "I came out here knowing nothing about computers, I was intimidated."

The inmate, who worked on the lighting, said he's considering pursuing the film industry once his time at Pitchess is up.

"I'm really excited about the things God's doing in my life," he said.

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