Filmmaking has never been Emma Knutson's forte.
When Knutson, an 18-year-old senior at Moravia High School, was assigned a film project last year in her graphic design class at Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES, she was immediately put off by the idea of having to make a video. But with her hard work and creativity, as well as a little encouragement from her teacher, the finished product that Knutson came up with — a short film called "Postmodern Grunge" — turned out better than she ever expected.
Now she has received awards at both the local and national levels and, at the end of the month, will be traveling to New York City to accept one of the highest honors from the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, a silver medal that ranks her work as one of the best out of more than 250,000 nationwide submissions.
"I was dreading this project even before it was assigned because I knew it was coming," Knutson said. "It was my first film project for the class and I had no idea what I was going to do."
Her interest in graphic design centers on working with page layouts, designing magazines and yearbooks, but the film was a required part of her BOCES class during her junior year that she knew she had to complete in order to pass.
The project, assigned by graphic design teacher Terry Cuddy, required the students to create a film that followed an art movement or a certain decade in history. Knutson said that when she started working on the project, she was confused about the theme she wanted to examine, but knew that she wanted to depict the 1990s in her film because of her love for the music from that era.
After seeing a video shown to her by her teacher, the rest of her ideas fell into place. Cuddy introduced Knutson to a video from 1994 called "Roswell," made by filmmaker Bill Brown, that depicts a man's personal interpretation of a supposed alien appearance in New Mexico. Knutson said that the unique style and techniques used in the film spoke to her and helped her see that she wanted to make a video similar to Brown's.
"I wanted to try and make my video the way he did and imitate the effects he used," she said. "It looks like it's just random shots put together, but it really makes sense."
Knutson started filming her project and said she ended up doing the work backwards, by chance, writing the narrative first and developing the storyboard afterward. Because she chose to include no music, the voice-over narrative that she reads throughout the five-minute film ended up being of great importance. As she wrote, she tied her narrative into some major characteristics of the 1990s by using common film techniques from the era and by developing a theme that was based on a memory she recalled sharing with her father.
"I remember my dad telling me a story once about how he would put on his Journey records and sit and listen to them on the porch in the rain and it was like he didn't have a worry in the world," Knutson said. "When I think about that, I think, 'I want to have that same feeling,' so I referenced it in the video."
After having only a few days to shoot and edit all her footage into her final product, Knutson ended up with a video that, with her narration, depicts a longing to find a place in the world, which she feels the 1990s grunge era was really about.
When Cuddy saw the video for the first time after it was turned in to him, he said he knew right away there was something special about it and wanted to submit it to the Scholastic awards. Although Knutson made the video in 2012, it wasn't submitted until this year because of the paperwork needed to complete the process.
"I had always wanted to enter something into the Scholastic awards and I just never did," Cuddy said, "but seeing her video made me want to jump through hoops to do it."
Cuddy submitted the film to the pool for central New York awards in January of this year, and Knutson learned toward the end of February that she had been chosen as a winner of a Gold Key award at the regional level, automatically submitting her work to the national competition.
In early April, Knutson's parents, who had not yet seen her award-winning video, received notice that she had earned a silver medal in the national competition and would be recognized at a ceremony in New York City at the end of May.
"I was totally surprised," Knutson said. "I didn't think I would win. I didn't think my video would be considered good enough to even be talked about."
Cuddy said he believes that the reason Knutson's video stood out among so many other submissions is because of the narrative she wrote and used as a voice-over. He said that the connection she made to her father and his memories of his childhood was something that really spoke to generations and made the connection between the 1990s and today, which inspired the title "Postmodern Grunge."
"I fully understand that this project may not have reflected her biggest strength, but she discovered there's talent there that she may not have known she had," Cuddy said.
Knutson and her family will travel May 31 to New York City, where she will receive her national award at a ceremony at Carnegie Hall. As a senior, she will have the chance to walk across the stage and be recognized by people from all over the country when she receives the award. Cuddy is also working on setting up a live webcast at BOCES so he and Knutson's classmates can share the moment with her and be there in spirit.
"It's a big deal and I'm really excited for her," Cuddy said. "My job is to teach students to be successful at a trade, and every once in a while something special emerges that tells you they will be. This was one of those things."
Overall, Knutson said she's proud of the work she did to create the video and said she is grateful that her teacher believed in her enough to enter it into a competition. In her own eyes, Knutson said, her video ended up having one major theme that strongly reflects the process she went through to produce it and the lesson that she learned.
"Even if you're confused about something," she said, "There is always a way to figure it out."