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The Triumph and Tremendousness of the TACOMA 2020 90-Second Newbery Film Festival!

March 17, 2020

Did you enjoy the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival? Do you want us to keep doing it? Then please help us out with a tax-deductible donation. Our fiscal sponsor is Fractured Atlas, a nonprofit arts service organization.

As we’re all hunkered down in quarantine, let’s take a look back—way back—to those ancient days of about two weeks ago, February 29, 2020, in which it wasn’t weird to gather about 200 people in one place, when we did a screening of the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival at the Rialto Theater in beautiful Tacoma, Washington!

In that same trip I also did a screening at the Children’s Film Festival Seattle and a school screening at Eisenhower Elementary in Vancouver, WA. Those screenings were great, but the Tacoma screening is always the biggie. Tacoma always does a red-carpet paparazzi session in the lobby, with the young filmmakers sashaying glamorously and posing for their adoring fans. It was glorious!

For years Tacoma Public Library has been making the film festival amazing, and it’s all due to the astonishing, resourceful efforts of their teen librarian Sara Sunshine Holloway. Thanks also to Mariesa Bus, John Hargis, and everyone at the Rialto who pulled together to make this happen. Thanks to Bret Stein for doing photography. And thanks to Doug Mackey, who once again co-hosted with me, and was on fire that day. Hilarious stage presence, great singing, wonderful guy. Here’s our opening skit, recorded by Bryan Johnson of the Grant Center for Expressive Arts (thanks, Bryan!):

The first few years of doing the 90-Second Newbery in Tacoma, we did the screening in a meeting room at the library. Then for a couple of years we screened it at Tacoma’s Blue Mouse theater. Now we’ve moved into Tacoma’s biggest venue, the Rialto!

And of course, thanks most of all to the amazing kid filmmakers who made movies for the film festival! At the end of the show, we gave special awards to each one of them, including First Place Champion to Angela P. of Kent, WA (there she is, above!). She won it for her wonderful animation of Gary Paulsen’s 1988 Honor Book Hatchet:

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery blog (full review here), “This is a beautifully animated, technically accomplished movie that tells the complete story of the book swiftly and with style! The loose, casual drawings are perfect for the rapid-fire barrage of images, in which we must digest many scenes very quickly . . . I was impressed at how the pictures and the spoken narration worked together to set up the story quickly and keep it on track as it barrels along!”

Last year, the Kelley Family of Tacoma submitted two great 90-Second Newbery movies. They came back this year with two more winners! This next movie is Fletcher and Otto’s adaptation of the “Dragons and Giants” vignette from Arnold Lobel’s 1973 Newbery Honor Book Frog and Toad Together, a sequel to their movie last year of “Cookies.” You’ll quickly understand why this one walked away with the Best Stunt Work award:

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery blog (full review here), “The performances are wonderful to watch, with charisma and charm to spare . . . it was entertaining to watch Frog and Toad running and sledding through the beautiful snowy countryside, encountering a snake, a steep mountain (with an avalanche of snow!), and a hawk (flapping its terrifying wings). The movie told the story quickly, accurately, and with style!”

The other movie by the Kelley Family is based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 1941 Newbery Honor Book The Long Winter, adapted by Nigel and Simone, who perform this survival story in the style of the song “Stayin’ Alive.” It was a shoo-in for Best Song:

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery blog (full review here), “The disco lights and costumes were creative touches, and the dancing and singing made this a delight! The movie made resourceful use of the snowy weather, and the wintertime activities of sledding, standing in an icy river, and snowball-throwing were all good ideas . . . and I liked how the masked dancer devours the whipped cream that falls off the sled.”

We featured one movie of Hatchet above, but actually we got quite a few versions of Hatchet from the Tacoma area this year. This version is by Bryce M., Aidan M., Ethan M., Colton R., and Layia D. of Summit Trail Middle School (Ms. Hohn’s class), but with a twist: the kid stranded in the woods is a ridiculous YouTube gamer who has absolutely zero survival skills. This one definitely deserved the award for Funniest:

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery blog (full review here), “Deranged, hilarious . . . This fool tries to take Minecraft and apply it to reality . . . Our gamer narrator does a great job of speaking in the language of these YouTube stars (‘All right gamers! Smash the subscribe button! See more epic content!’) . . . Of course the best part is when two normal people walk by our narrator and ask him what he’s doing, he says he’s making a surviving-in-the-woods video, and they point out the school is within sight and he’s in no danger at all.”

That’s not the only movie we got from Summit Trail Middle School! Here’s one with a similar premise . . . also based on a survival story (although this time it’s of Jean Craighead George’s 1960 Newbery Honor Book My Side of the Mountain), and it’s adapted by Tayte E., Weston C., Matthew M., and Kaden P. of Ms. Hohn’s class. And once again, the main character is a YouTuber, but less ridiculous. I do like how he keeps his hair precisely styled, even after living in the woods for months. This one earned the award for Best Modernization of the Premise:

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery blog (full review here), “The graphic overlay worked well to make it look like a vlog . . . The movie sprints through the events of the story quickly but accurately, culminating in Sam’s family coming to join him to live with him, to his disappointment (‘Mom says you have to live under a roof until you’re 18.’ ‘Noooooo!’). Technically accomplished, solid craftsmanship, well done!”

The last movie from Summit Trail Middle School that we featured at the screening was of Jason Reynolds’s 2018 Newbery Honor Book Long Way Down, adapted by Torrie C., Kaylee B., Addy H., and Shirin J. of Ms. Hohn’s class. You will understand immediately why it won for Best Art:

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery blog (full review here), “This movie effectively uses elaborately-drawn illustrations and laconic, deadpan narration to quickly sum up the story. The stark black-and-red pictures were impressively detailed and worked together well with the spoken narration to push the story forward.”

Summit Trail Middle School isn’t the only school that submitted lots of movies! As usual, Mr. Johnson’s Fifth Grade class from the Grant School for the Expressive Arts submitted many brilliant, technically accomplished, highly entertaining movies. Each of them was excellent in its own way, such as their adaptation of Gary Paulsen’s 1986 Newbery Honor Book Dogsong, which was awarded Best Costumes:

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery blog (full review here), “Great cinematography and green screen work in this swift retelling of the story! I was particularly impressed by the resourcefulness of the scenes with the sled, especially in the scene where the dogs are pulling it along. The climactic fight with the polar bear was satisfying to watch, and I was amused at how Russel is clearly falling asleep during the elder’s story of the old times.”

The next movie from Mr. Johnson’s class is of Meg Medina’s 2019 Newbery Medal Winner Merci Suárez Changes Gears, and it won for Best Cinematography:

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery blog (full review here), “I loved the emotional reactions of the characters, such as the way Merci’s friends grab each other and gasp in horror as Merci cuts off her rival’s eyebrows (and I thought it was clever how you digitally erased the eyebrows!) The green screen was effectively deployed, as well as the fast forward during the egyptian project part.”

The next movie from Mr. Johnson’s class at the Grant Center is based on Bill Brittain’s 1984 Newbery Honor Book The Wish Giver: Three Tales of Coven Tree, and it won for Best Editing:

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery blog (full review here), “Here’s a fun twist to The Wish Giver: instead of the narrator Stewart Meade encountering the magical Thaddeus Blinn as a weird old man in a carnival tent, the two of them are Logan Paul-esque YouTubers (I love how these segments always end with them approaching the camera and obscuring it with their hands, a true YouTuber power move). The performances were confident and expressive, the music was well chosen throughout, and the combination of green screen environments and real-life locations worked well.”

The next movie from the Grant Center is of Rita Williams-Garcia’s 2011 Newbery Honor Book One Crazy Summer, which won for Most Accelerated Story. Don’t believe me? Check out how the girls both meet their mother, and their mother is arrested, all in the same scene:

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery blog (full review here), “An amusingly accelerated, pretty much accurate summary of the story! The green screen was resourcefully deployed to make the settings come alive, and I liked how this movie made the plane ‘land’ in San Francisco . . . The climactic poetry-reading was handled well, and I liked Cecile’s rapid change of heart . . . Good work!”

The last movie we received from the Grant Center was of Janet Taylor Lisle’s 1990 Newbery Honor Book Afternoon of the Elves, which won for Best Special Effects with its green-screen shrinking of the actors into elf size:

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery blog (full review here), “Great homemade elf village, green screen locations, and well-chosen music to make the story look and sound good . . . My favorite part was that, when Hillary sneaks into Sara-Kate’s house, she doesn’t see Sara-Kate taking care of her sick mother as she doesn in the book, but rather dancing disco with some tiny elves! . . . Bizarre and entertaining!”

The next movie is of Patricia Reilly Giff’s 2003 Newbery Honor Book Pictures of Hollis Woods, adapted by Zac, Thomas, Amelia, Amanda, Aniyah, Olivia, and Evelyne of Rainier Elementary School on Joint Base Lewis-McChord. It did a great job getting almost every important detail of the book right, and so it very much earned the Truest To The Book honor:

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery blog (full review here), “All the characters, especially Hollis, are acted in a grounded way that makes them believable. Resourceful use of props to indicate the various locations, like the art on the wall and canned goods to indicate Josie’s house, or the resourceful cat mask to indicate the cat, the red wagon to indicate the truck, or the woodland mural backdrop to indicate the outdoors. I like how Hollis occasional turns directly to the camera to address the viewer to bring us up to speed on her thoughts and emotions . . . Good narrative craftsmanship, solid cinematography, engaging acting, and brisk editing all make this movie work!”

I love to see real-life actors, but puppetry can be just as interesting to watch too, and sometimes even more so! That’s the case with this next movie, based on Scott O’Dell’s 1961 Newbery Medal Winner Island of the Blue Dolphins, adapted by Evelyn & Joanna. It handily won Best Puppetry:

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery blog (full review here), “It was fun to watch this well-drawn, inventive puppet show. The voiceover narration was expressive and told the abbreviated story of the book very well as the paper cut-out puppets represented the action, especially during the battle scene, the scene with the burning of the village, and the capture of Rontu.”

Every year we also get a ton of great movies from Seabury School in Tacoma. I wish I could feature them all, but check out this next movie based on Cece Bell’s 2015 Newbery Honor Book El Deafo, adapted by Mallorie K. She nailed this performance, and that’s why this movie won Best Acting:

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery blog (full review here), “A refreshingly clear, simple and stylish retelling of the story. The voiceover tells the story with straightforward narration, efficiently guiding the viewer through the major events of the story while we see those events played out with silent-movie acting. The cinematography and editing were very good . . . The cape was a great touch, and I liked the ambitious scenes like when the whole class is throwing a party while the teacher is gone.”

Let’s watch yet another movie from Seabury School, this one by Elena H. and friends! It’s another adaptation of Hatchet, but different: instead of crash-landing in the Canadian wilderness, Brian crash-lands on another planet! That’s why this movie earned the honor of Craziest Change Of Premise:

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery blog (full review here), “Ambitious and creative twist to give Hatchet a science-fiction alteration . . . I loved the elaborate tinfoil costume for the robotic pilot and the deadpan way the robot is played. There were many fun resourceful details throughout, like the use of the sound effect of a 90s modem connecting, or the red paper used to make a backdrop for the red planet . . . Good job!”

There’s one more movie from Tacoma I’d like to feature that’s last, but definitely not least! It’s Joseph Ferrier’s adaptation of Esther Forbes’s 1944 Newbery Medal Winner Johnny Tremain, in which he quotes the rousing speech at the end, and it deserved the honor of Best Dramatic Monologue:

As the judges said on the 90-Second Newbery blog (full review here), “An entertaining and thoughtful one-man show that explores the themes of the book! I was impressed by the voiceover performance, and I appreciated the resourcefulness of how this movie was made: the green screen background (especially during the Tea Party scene), the period costume and gun, the sound effects, and even the detail of the bloody hand from when Johnny Tremain injures himself. The script was tight and well-written and I like how the images synch up with what is being said. Capable cinematography, too!”

. . . And that’s it for the local entries for the 2020 Tacoma 90-Second Newbery Film Festival! Thanks again to Sara Holloway and everyone at the Tacoma Public Library and Rialto Theater for helping me to put this on. And the biggest thanks of all to the young filmmakers, and the adults who helped them make these movies. I can’t wait to see what you make next year.

A lot of us are home from school for now because of the coronavirus situation, and maybe at loose ends for what to do, so why not use this spare time (if you’re lucky enough to that time, I know a lot of us are scrambling) to start making your movies now? You can find help at the 90-Second Newbery website, including screenwriting, cinematography, and editing help at our Video Resources page.

By the way, a quick request. If you like the 90-Second Newbery, and want to see it continue into next year, please donate to the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival. It’s tax-deductible. Our fiscal sponsor is Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization.

See you next year!