All posts by Sara McDermott

DFA Student Spotlight: Ayanda Chisholm


What’s the biggest way in which the Digital Film Academy has affected student Ayanda Chisholm’s life?

“Definitely the WebTV class,” she says. “I had never considered doing a web series before. Now I’ve completed two episodes and plan to finish an entire first season.”

The web series, titled The Young, Black, and Gifted, focuses on a group of youths who form a coalition to fight police brutality. Just recently uploaded, the series has already begun to attract hundreds of views.


Still image from Chisholm’s web series.


“Some of the best advice I’ve gotten at the DFA was from Patrick,” Chisholm says, referring to DFA President Patrick DiRenna. “When making a film, he says to focus on ‘Emotional complexity and clarity, with a simple production.’” This formula has served Chisholm well and inspired her to create work that lands an emotional punch but won’t break the bank production-wise.

The series was created with an all-DFA crew, with the exception of the make-up artist. “It came out almost exactly as I imagined,” Chisholm muses, a statement rarely heard in the film world where finished projects often fall short of their original concepts. “Actually, it came out better than my vision.”


Working on the set of The Young, Black, and Gifted
Working on the set of The Young, Black, and Gifted


You can view the first two episodes of her web series here:

This recent success aside, Chisholm was no stranger to script-writing and filmmaking prior to entering the DFA’s Advanced Digital Filmmaking program.

“I’ve always been an avid movie-watcher, movie-lover,” she says.


She began as a playwright, writing her first short play in middle school, where it was performed for her classmates. Once she got to high school, she began to transition into film. But, like most early filmmakers, she experienced her fair share of growing pains.

“I made one short that got into our school’s ‘New Works’ festival,” she remembers. “But while watching it, I realized that the girl who had done the editing hadn’t synced up the last minute of video and sound. It was really frustrating to see.”

It was around that time that Chisholm began to delve into the editing process herself. “I began editing in my sophomore year and have been obsessed with that ever since. Writing, directing, and editing.”


It was through this love of editing that Chisholm found herself joining Reel Grrls, an all-girls filmmaking group offering Adobe training. Taking the Adobe program made Chisholm eligible to apply for Adobe’s Youth Voices Scholarship, a worldwide contest granting scholarships to 25 winners to further their education.

As part of her application, Chisholm created and submitted a one-minute film entitled Black Beauty in the White Gaze. The piece dealt with society’s tendency to view beauty through the ideals of the white community, often showing disrespect to black women. The piece struck a chord with judges and Chisholm became a 2015 Adobe Creative Scholar.

adobe youth voices

At that point, Chisholm began to research different film schools in New York City, where she knew she wanted to live. When comparing schools, the DFA’s offer of free use of equipment, including a RED camera, registered as a huge perk other schools weren’t offering. Once visiting the school, Chisholm just felt it “seemed like (her) scene.” She moved from Seattle to live with her best friend and began studying at the DFA in August 2015.

Now fully immersed in her DFA courses, Chisholm talks about her professors – all industry professionals – and how their classes have resonated with her. “The cinematography instructor took our class to MoMA to study the different paintings. Once back at the school, we tried to re-create the lighting in those paintings using our equipment,” she recalls. “Also, the directing class is so much fun. Every week, we’re directing a different scene.

“(As film professionals), the instructors are able to offer great insights into the industry.”


painting to film
Girl With a Pearl Earring: a high profile example of capturing the light in a painting on film.


In addition to continuing with her web series, Chisholm hopes to be able to make a living doing what she loves. “I want challenges, to be able to work in different genres,” she confides. “I don’t want to get stuck in a ‘practical’ job.”

Most importantly, Chisholm has something many filmmakers just starting out don’t have: a clear mission.

“I want to explore narratives that aren’t usually told, amplify voices that are usually not heard,” she says. “Someday, if I reach that point, I want to be able to open doors and offer opportunities for others. Help film to diversify as much as possible.”

We have no doubt she will succeed.

Helpful links:

Ayanda Chisholm’s Website:

Reel Grrls:

Adobe Creative Scholars Announcement:


Blog post by Sara McDermott Jain


DFA Student Spotlight: Jose Martinez


Years ago, Jose Martinez took an intensive, one-month filmmaking course. He gained filmmaking experience, but quickly realized that in order to keep the ball rolling on his career, he needed to connect with like-minded people with whom he could collaborate on future film projects.

When he found the Digital Film Academy, he knew it was the right place for building that kind of community.

“I developed a really good network at the DFA,” he says. “We all help each other out with our different projects, help to move one another forward in our careers.”


Martinez and friends from the DFA, wrapping up a shoot.
Martinez and friends from the DFA, wrapping up a shoot.


Thanks to his prior filmmaking experience, Martinez was able to enter the Advanced Digital Filmmaking Program. In addition to connecting him with a group of filmmakers at his same level, the program offered another big perk: free access to a Red camera. Martinez has been able to make good use of this, checking out the Red for shoots.

Currently, Martinez is working as both a photographer and videographer, and bringing in enough income that he no longer needs a full-time, regular job. He’s done work at weddings, parties, for restaurants, and even capturing images for business cards.

He’s also working on the completion of his thesis film for the DFA, a short about a young man’s internal struggle about whether or not to seek revenge after his brother is shot by a local gang on their walk home from school. “I love stories, and getting to see them come together during the process of shooting and editing,” he says. “My favorite things are operating the camera and editing. Magic happens there.”


DFA students using the school's Red camera.
DFA students using the school’s Red camera.


Magic aside, the most challenging aspect of working on his thesis was shooting a scene at a gas station – not the easiest spot to set up a film crew in the bustling metropolis of New York City. Apart from the noise (a common on-set problem even in “quiet” locations), Martinez’s cast and crew had to be ready to go at 7a.m. on a Sunday, the only time the gas station would allow them to shoot.

Despite these occasional challenges, Martinez’s love of stories is beginning to take him places, both in his film career and literally. He recently got back from a 3-month trip throughout Central America, where he was both scouting locations for future shoots and shooting commercials for a telephone company in El Salvador.



“The company is called Claro,” Martinez says. “My cousin does administrative work there.” When his cousin heard about Claro’s need for a filmmaker, he was quick to suggest Martinez.

The gig is another valuable step towards Martinez’s future goal: developing his own home production company.

When asked what advice he would give to young filmmakers just starting out, Martinez simply says: “Keep shooting, keep uploading.”

We look forward to him doing more of the same!


To view his work, please visit


Blog post by Sara McDermott Jain

DFA Student Spotlight: Jimmy Zdolshek

When he was only in high school, Jimmy Zdolshek’s video production teacher encouraged him to participate in “SkillsUSA,” an organization that sponsors a competition to promote career and technical development. When the short Zdolshek completed within 6 hours as part of the contest went on to win 1st place, Zdolshek says it was one of the best moments of his entire life. The short then moved on to the National competition, where it placed 13th.


Zdolshek's first place medal.
Zdolshek’s first place medal.


“I knew then that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” he says.

Settled on his future career, Zdolshek began to search for a school that would help take his filmmaking to the next level, without breaking the bank.

“I didn’t want to go hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt,” he laughs. “Also, I wanted real hands-on experience, freedom to work with the equipment.”


Zdolshek on set at the DFA.
Zdolshek (back left) on set with his fellow students at the DFA.


When he discovered the Digital Film Academy, it was the perfect match. The school’s low tuition, coupled with its policy of allowing students free access to all equipment needed for a shoot both during their schooling and after graduation, made it exactly what Zdolshek was looking for.

Additionally, given his background in film, Zdolshek was able to enter the DFA’s One Year Advanced Digital Filmmaking Program. This was another factor in his decision-making.


Zdolshek making use of the DFA's green screen.
Zdolshek making use of the DFA’s green screen.


Currently at the DFA, Zdolshek is developing two short film projects that he wrote. For the one, “Stay Your Course, Young Man,” he was thrilled to get the rights to the music of the same name by Sylvan Lacue and Jon Bellion. Getting rights to music to include in his films is a skill that he began developing even with his high school projects.

“It’s not as hard as most people think,” he says. “A lot of the bands I like are more underground. I get their emails and we work something out. Most bands are willing to compromise, especially if you’re working without a budget!”


National Geographic Explorer.


In other areas of his career, Zdolshek has gotten to see more significant budgets at work. He just completed an internship with Market Road Films, working on National Geographic’s Explorer, the longest-running documentary series in history. While there, he got to do development and post-production work. He also got to work on Blood Antiquities, a series about ISIS trading in the Western market.

“One of my favorite things was when I got to handpick the stills from Blood Antiquities to send to the network for the IMDB page,” he says. “I got to work closely with the director.”


A still image from Blood Antiquities.
A still image from Blood Antiquities.


Just this past month, he began another high-profile internship, this time with Backroads Entertainment, which creates shows that have been featured on channels like A&E, MTV, MTV2, E!, the Travel Channel, Lifetime, and more. Recently, he got to put together a playlist for famed rapper 50 Cent.

When asked what advice he would have for filmmakers just starting out, Zdolshek says: “Just get your ideas off the ground. Sit to write, go into production, and execute it the way you want… Work as hard as you can, watch and read as many films and scripts as you can, and make as many things as you can.”

“And, oh, remember,” he adds. “Film comes first in life. Film first. Food second.”


Zdolshek in a short he co-wrote, co-directed, and starred in with fellow student Eli Turk.
Zdolshek in a short he co-wrote, co-directed, and starred in with fellow student Eli Turk.


To view the trailer to Zdolshek’s short Sleepwalker, please click here.


Blog by Sara McDermott Jain




5 Keys to a High Concept


If you work in film, you’ve most likely heard the phrase “high concept.” This is Hollywood’s ultimate buzz phrase, the Holy Grail for producers. It’s so important, 99% of producers will make a deal with a writer who has a genuine high concept, even if their writing is terrible.

Why? Because it’s easy to sell a high concept, and unless a producer can sell a film, it’s useless. Writing can always be improved, fresh drafts written… but if a high concept isn’t there to begin with, the script probably isn’t marketable.

not marketable

So now that you know how important a high concept is, how do you get one?

Below are 5 keys for creating your own high concept:


  1. It has to be unique (without being weird).


There’s a fine line between unique and weird. A true high concept needs to be something never seen before. However, it can’t be a case of “We’ve never seen chimps roller skating in space, so that’s a high concept.” It has to be a unique idea that’s both interesting and conventional enough to achieve #2 on this list, which is:

big audience

  1. It has to appeal to a wide audience.


Again, a high concept has to be marketable. To be marketable, it needs a clear and wide audience. Could you have a unique concept about an 80-year-old woman in a rest home? Yes, but it probably wouldn’t appeal to many people. That’s not to say you couldn’t make a great niche film – but, by definition, it wouldn’t be a high concept.

When it comes to audience, clearly aim for ONE of the 4 quadrants: men over 25, men under 25, women over 25, women under 25.

get it

  1. You must be able to say the idea in one line and have the listener “get it.”


Again, it’s about marketability. To pitch a film, you need a logline: one sentence that sums up your story. If you have a true high concept, that one sentence gives the listener a very clear idea of the movie, from start to finish. If someone in the industry asks what your film is about, and you need a full minute to explain, it’s not a high concept. If you can say it in one sentence and see their eyes light up, it is.

high vs. low

  1. Use a genre other than drama.


High concepts are almost never dramas. That’s because dramas are more about execution than they are about concept. In essence, they are the epitome of a “low concept:” a story more concerned with subtlety and character development.

Try to think of a successful drama in the past ten years that was a hit. Most at least partially fall under another genre, like comedy. If you think of a recent hit that was pure drama, chances are, its logline doesn’t sound very unique, even though its execution was great. Dramas are generally serious and/or depressing. That doesn’t make for an exciting-sounding idea that has producers come running.


  1. You need a story – not just a hook!


If you come up with an amazing ‘hook’ – a cool idea that’s not yet a story – people will be interested. But a hook by itself isn’t enough to be a high concept. It’s only the beginning of one.

To really flesh it out into a high concept, it needs some kind of story. For instance, the movie Saw was a huge hit and a high concept. But the logline couldn’t say: “A serial killer makes victims torture themselves to survive.” Ok, it’s interesting, it’s a great hook… but it’s also vague. Where does it go from there?

Look what happens when it changes to: “After two men wake to find themselves chained in a filthy basement, they realize they’ve been kidnapped by a gruesome serial killer and will have to torture themselves if they want to live.” Now it’s a high concept! We can see the whole story: beginning (waking up), middle (figuring out they were kidnapped by a serial killer and what he wants them to do), and end (deciding whether or not they’ll torture themselves). The genre is a clear horror/thriller, and it’s also clear that this will work for a wide audience. A producer can sell this.


Now that you know how to create a real high concept, start brainstorming ideas! A concept that fits all of the above criteria isn’t easy to come by, but if you do – it’s money in the bank.

What movies did you think were genuine high concepts? Let us know in the comments!

Blog by: Sara McDermott Jain

Alumni Spotlight: Joe Rodman


When Joe Rodman first entered the Digital Film Academy, he planned to become a director. It was only through the hands-on experience he got filmmaking that he realized his true calling was editing. “I fell in love with editing. You get to really see the story take shape in the editing room,” he says.

It’s a realization that has served him well. Since graduating from the Advanced Digital Filmmaking program in June 2015, Rodman’s editing has opened up multiple career opportunities – including work on the 59-minute film Grave-Digger, a selection of the upcoming 2016 Madrid Film Festival and recent award-winner for Best Supporting Actor at France’s Nice Film Festival.


Rodman also received a standing ovation for his work at the film’s premiere in Tribeca.

The film was shot using four different cameras, including the DFA’s Red camera, courtesy of Rodman. (The school’s policy of allowing students free lifetime access to equipment after their graduation helps them land jobs and get more experience, and also benefits their employers.)

red 2

Rodman knew early on that he wanted to have a career in film. While in high school, he began shooting  1 to 2 minute films, his favorite of which remains Starbound, a Star Wars parody shot entirely with a green screen. He also became certified in Adobe Premiere CS6 and mastered After Effects. After graduating and having a brief summer job at the Sagamore on Lake George, he continued his film education at the DFA.

In Rodman’s words, “coming (to the DFA) opened my eyes to so much more.” In addition to gaining a deeper understanding of cinematography, he also learned about screenwriting, film budgeting, scheduling a shoot, and sound. Perhaps his most painful lesson came when, while shooting his thesis film, he didn’t bother to slate – AKA, click those sticks together at the beginning of each take. The end result was hours spent trying to sync his image and sound.


“It was painful, but the benefit is – I’ll never skip slating again!” he jokes.

At least he found a silver lining in the people he worked with on the film, particularly fellow students Lindsay Watson and A.J. Rodin. Watson was Rodman’s 1st A.C. and Rodin, his Director of Photography. “They were my left and right hand,” Rodman says.

It was also while shooting his thesis film that Rodman connected with Chris Cohen, the actor who would land the lead role in Rodman’s short and later write, direct, and star in Grave-Digger. The two developed a great working relationship, and Rodman lived with Cohen and his girlfriend for a month at the beach while editing the movie.

Grave digger image

“I didn’t care about going to the beach at all,” he laughs. “In fact, I didn’t go once. I was so engrossed in the editing process.”

The film was actually Rodman’s first time using Avid to edit.

Rodman always has a film job in the works. As a consultant at the New York Presbyterian Hospital, he shot two weeks’ worth of conferences. Until recently, he was completing an internship with Emmy Award-winning producer Linda Yellen, where he edited the trailer for The Last Film Festival, the final film of the late Dennis Hopper. He also worked on the feature film Broken Ones, which had a budget of $200,000.

dennishopper lff

Next up on his list? A trip to Madrid, to see Grave-Digger at the Madrid Film Festival… but knowing Rodman, this won’t be an excuse for a vacation.


Blog by: Sara McDermott Jain

5 Things to Consider When Making a Short Film


There’s never been a better time to make short films. Not only do most film festivals have short film categories, but platforms like YouTube have made it possible to actually monetize shorts.

Particularly if you’re just beginning your film career, there’s no better way to start than making a short film. This film can become your calling card, helping you get into festivals, make connections, and find meaningful work in the film industry.

So what do you need to keep in mind when making a short film?
There’s gotta be something in your parents’ creepy basement you can use.


1. What do you have?

First, take a look at what you have. It’s extremely hard to get funding (other than what you’re putting up) for a short. This is ten times as true if it’s your first. As a result, you’re going to want to look at what you already have at your disposal. Unless some kind of cool set is available for free, set your story someplace easily accessible. Unless you have a friend who’s a special effects or make-up whiz and willing to work cheap, don’t plan for a lot of special effects. Look at what you have and be creative with how you use it. After you make it big, then you can make a film that has everything you want!
‘Nuff said.


2. Tight script

What makes a short film shoot last for days and days while the budget goes through the roof? Tons of locations and tons of characters. More locations and characters mean more traveling, more set-ups, and more coverage that you need to get. If, instead, your script has one or two locations and one or two characters (and comes in under ten pages), you can get it shot in one or two days.
Six different shots in what will be about two seconds of film. Would you be able to figure that out on-the-spot?


3. Storyboards and shot lists

Don’t think you can arrive on set and just wing it. Filmmaking is a complicated medium, and one that requires a lot of collaboration. To that end, everything will go more smoothly if everyone has the same, clear set of guidelines to follow – and if all the shots have been thought through in advance. Create storyboards to go along with the script so that everyone can visualize what you need, and top it off with a shot list listing the shots you need to get. You can check them off as you get each one and be sure not to leave the set minus what you came for.
Advice in filmmaking… and life.


4. Get the coverage!

It’s every filmmaker’s nightmare. You’ve spent time and money to shoot your film only to realize in the editing room that you didn’t get enough coverage. Coverage refers to getting enough shots to be able to edit the film together in a way that appears seamless. If you haven’t gotten enough coverage, you might find there’s no good way to edit together two shots without it jarring the audience. Shoot wide shots, medium shots, close-ups, and inserts of various objects – along with whatever other clever shots you come up with! That way, you’ll have lots to choose from.


bad editing


5. Put it all together

Editing can be a brutal process, so make sure your footage is clearly organized so you can find what you’re looking for. This will save you from wasting lots of time.  Each minute of finished film will take hours to edit, so be mentally prepared for that fact. And if you do make it to this point only to realize you didn’t get what you needed to put together a decent short film, chalk it up to a learning experience, get back out there, and shoot, shoot again!

Can’t wait to see what you come up with in your short films. If you have any other tips/suggestions, leave them in the comments!

Happy filming!


Blog by: Sara McDermott Jain

Student Spotlight: Joseph Perez



When Joseph Perez was honorably discharged from the Navy in 2011, following a five-year stint in Japan as a mechanical engineer, he wasn’t sure what would come next. It was pure luck that he had a friend working as a Production Manager at Chloe Productions who, when he heard of Perez’s return, offered him a two-week gig chauffeuring producers around town.

Quickly, due to Perez’s winning attitude and work ethic, that two-week gig blossomed into much more. He was soon given the responsibility of picking up celebrities, including Stevie Wonder, John Travolta, and the entire cast of Welcome Back, Kotter as part of their TVLand Awards appearance. The first time Perez got the chance to step onto a set and see all the equipment, he was hooked.


“With my background as a mechanical engineer, it was all the equipment that really got me excited,” Perez says. Determined to learn what he could about the technical aspects of filmmaking, his early education consisted of learning from apps like the Grip App.

His job driving celebrities and producers led to on-set opportunities, and Perez soon found himself working on such notable shows as Love & Hip Hop Atlanta and New York for VH1, the MTV Awards, and MTV’s World Stage with the Black Eyed Peas. He was racking up experience in reality television, but found himself yearning for something more cinematic.

When asked about working in reality TV, Perez laughs. “It’s not scripted, but it is staged. Most people don’t recognize the difference,” he explains. “Something may have happened earlier in the day, and then the stars will sit down and be told to re-enact it.”

Wanting to work in a film medium was part of what drove Perez to consider film school. Additionally, he wanted to learn the lingo of filmmaking and gain a better understanding of the art-form. “I didn’t know what blocking was until I came to the DFA,” he remarks. When he learned his GI Bill would pay for film school, he was sold.

When Perez found the Digital Film Academy, he was eager to take part in such a personal program, where students receive one-on-one guidance from teachers who are also industry professionals.  He initially signed on for the One Year Digital Filmmaking Conservatory, and has currently gone into One Year Advanced Digital Filmmaking.

In addition to completing a short film that will be released at the end of the month, Perez has spent the past year amassing countless hours of footage for his Cure of Violence documentary, a passion project that grew out of his interest in two of his friends’ work as “violence interrupters” in the Cure Violence Project.

“If they see young kids getting into trouble, they intervene,” Perez says, explaining how the “violence interrupting” concept works. This unique approach to addressing street violence and teaching kids better ways to resolve their issues has been credited with having saved thousands of lives and having restored faith in public health strategies.

When asked about his long-term goals, Perez notes that he wants to start his own production company and become a member of the Director’s Guild of America. He also wants to do more screenwriting. Perhaps harkening back to his days in the military, Perez has developed a clear strategy for reaching his goals.

From his time in the Navy, to working in reality television, to film school, Perez has come a long way and lived a fascinating life. We can’t wait to see what he does next!



Blog by: Sara McDermott Jain




Three Tips for Writing Great Characters



A great character makes or breaks a film. It’s also what will get a major star to agree to sign on to a project.

Having written a great character is money in the bank, so here are three helpful tips to help make yours the best they can be!
Too real can be too boring, mate.


  1. Don’t make them too much like real people.

People tend to think super-realistic writing equals good writing, but there’s a difference between a film that “feels” real because it hits you emotionally and a film that feels real because it could be a home movie of two people having a boring talk.

One thing about real people and real life: they use a lot of filler. What percentage of your life actually has something HAPPENING? Are your friends riveted if you tell them you: Got in your car, turned it on, went down the street, made a left, went to the grocery store, and got eggs? No? Ok… then why should a screenplay give this much detail?

Additionally, “real” people tend not to talk in a super-exciting way. They make a lot of chit-chat and often dance around their real point. In a cinematic world, you want people who are clear about their wants and put it out there. This drives the drama.

To that end:
Based just on his lines, what are Austin’s core traits?


  1. Limit their traits – and make every line stem from a trait.

In real life, people have tons and tons of traits. You could sit down and list your traits – and easily fill a page. The more traits someone has, the more complicated they are.

While you do want your characters to be complicated, too many traits will dilute them to the point that they come across as vague. Yes, this might make them more ‘realistic’ – but it will also make them boring or confusing… or both.

Good characters should have no more than four core traits, and every action they take and word that comes out of their mouths should reflect on one or more of these traits. This delivers characters who are clear and memorable. Four core traits – and one clear thing that they want. That’s it.
Think the most important thing to describe about her is that she’s blonde?


  1. Make your descriptions count.

When a character’s first introduced, the introduction should be short and to the point, so as not to slow down the reading. However, just because it’s short doesn’t mean it shouldn’t pack a punch. Make those descriptive words count!

Also – avoid describing anything physical that doesn’t give a trait. A huge complaint in the industry is that female characters tend to just be described as “beautiful,” or described in an overly specific way, like “LENA, 20s, short black hair and big green eyes.” This tells nothing about the character and limits the number of actresses who fit the description. Also, unless it’s important that the character be ugly for some reason, don’t worry – a beautiful woman will likely be cast anyway!

Instead, use physical traits that DO tell you something about the person. For example: “PENELOPE, 18, hair out of place and too much in her backpack, stumbles down the hall.” What do you know right away about Penelope? She’s awkward, a bookworm, doesn’t care too much about her looks… You get a lot more than you would from “PENELOPE, 18, brown hair and blue eyes. Beautiful.”

Those are the top three tips for writing great characters. Let us know if you have any others in the comments!


Blog by: Sara McDermott Jain


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