Digital Video
Motion Centre Features
Letters From Homeroom
The drama and hysterics of high school are alive - and online - at an innovative multimedia story site.

By Andrea Dudrow

Scene No. 5
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When most of us get nostalgic about high school, it's usually not with fond memories of chemistry or the fun we had in Trigonometry class. Rather, it's the friends we had, the crushes we swooned over, and the little dramas (which seemed so big then) that played themselves out against the backdrop of a locker-lined hallway.

For New York-based filmmaker Maya Churi, those memories are very much alive and online at Letters From Homeroom (U.S), a multimedia story site built around a series of short films chronicling the daily lives (and dramas) of two fictional high school students.

The inspiration for the films came two years ago when Churi was cleaning out her parents' attic. "I found a huge bag full of notes that I had written, and that friends had written me, in class. So I sat down and read all of them," she says. "I knew I had to make some sort of film about this."

Churi, an editor at Indiewire (U.S) who graduated from New York University's film school, quickly recruited a group of friends to help her with the project. She then went back to her Philadelphia high school and auditioned 130 kids for the five roles in the film. Churi originally shot the 24-minute film as a linear series of notes between her two main characters, Alix and Claire. However, she soon realised that the Internet would be an ideal way to distribute the film, and so she set about breaking it up into 17 short segments.

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"The subject matter really lends itself to the Internet," she explains. "Not only can you sit and watch the scenes, but you can read the actual letters and you can find out more about the characters."

Each letter, or scene, includes a link to a message board, and each character has a "locker" with additional information about them, such as their most embarrassing moment and their relationships to other characters. There is also a "library" for links; a "bathroom" where visitors can write messages on the wall; and an "auditorium" where Churi plans to host a high school role-playing game.

So far the site has been a huge success among teenagers, gathering some 15,000 hits a day in its first three weeks, as well as a barage of fan e-mail for the main characters. Churi attributes part of this success to her chosen medium. "Teenagers don't really go to film festivals," she says. "If I really want my audience to see this, I have to put it on the Internet." In addition, the site has been popular among 18 to 30 year olds, whose high school experiences took place about the time of Churi's.

Though video is still emerging as a part of the Internet, Churi feels that the Web has the potential to profoundly affect the video and film industries. "What's really good about the Internet is everything that surrounds a video frame: the back story, the additional content, creating these fictional virtual worlds that are also interactive. And that's the direction I see creators going eventually."

That said, Churi has no plans to show "Letters From Homeroom" at more traditional venues. "I'm only going that route if the Web site is on exhibit as well," she says.

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Churi and her team built the site in Adobe GoLive, while the video and audio for were completed using Adobe Premiere. The site is hosted by Nora Barry of Druidmedia, whose streaming media site The Bit Screen (U.S) debuted many of the segments prior to the launch.

Churi also used a grant from the Creative Capital Foundation (U.S), which is housed within the Andy Warhol Foundation, to complete the project. Although Churi was able to take advantage of low-cost digital video tools, she notes that even projects like this can get expensive very quickly due to the insurance costs of filming in a public high school. "Any money a project brings in, the Creative Capital Foundation takes a small percentage of that and then funnels it back to other artists," she explains. "I really support that."

Churi is now hard at work on her next project, a Web site that focuses on the last meals of death row prisoners. However, she doesn't plan to stop working on "Letters From Homeroom" anytime soon. "I'll do it until no one comes to the site anymore," she says.

Freelance writer Andrea Dudrow graduated from high school in 1989 - the same year as Maya Churi.

Maya Churi, now and back in high school, etc.
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