Santa Monica High School and Santa Monica College students get hands-on training writing, shooting and producing content at City Hall's Studio 16, a professional filming studio on 19th Street. (Photo by Ashley Archibald)
Santa Monica High School and Santa Monica College students get hands-on training writing, shooting and producing content at City Hall’s Studio 16, a professional filming studio on 19th Street. (Photo by Ashley Archibald)

19TH STREET — “Are the cameras hot?”

The answer seems to be “lukewarm,” but members of the crew start that process as others prep the teleprompter and replace heavy couches with chairs for the upcoming interview spot that will be filmed there not an hour in the future.

The eye, rather than their demeanor, belies the operators’ youth — each of the students running madly around the set, testing cameras and setting up lights is from Santa Monica High School’s Regional Occupation Program, or ROP.

The team is filming the second of two special episodes of their show, “SamoHighlights,” focusing on clubs that co-producer Ruhi Bhalla say dominate the high school experience.

Whereas most schools make do with equipment found on campus, the Samohi team has a special opportunity.

They will film and produce their shows in a professional environment called Studio 16, a creation of Santa Monica City Hall that’s used to create award-winning local content broadcast to thousands of homes on cable channel 16, the same that carries city shows, public meetings and other content.

It’s an unusual chance, and one that both excites and weighs heavily upon Colin Kornfield, a senior at Samohi and director of this episode.

After all, he’s partially in charge of half a million dollars of equipment.

“It’s intimidating,” Kornfield admitted, but very exciting.


The history


CityTV staff, some of whom are on hand for the Samohi taping, are new to the facility as well.

CityTV only gained its own studio a season ago after it finished major renovations on the building on 19th Street, which once housed an auto repair shop.

For fiscal hawks out there, don’t worry — the cash used to transform Studio 16 from a fully-operable auto garage into a professional filming studio came from a settlement with a local cable company and a $250,000 fee connected to a 1984 law that allows a charge to cable companies for public, educational and governmental use.

The space may be new, but staff has already made it look like home — upon opening the door, a visitor is greeted by a slew of Emmy Award statues, slightly more imposing for the slightly haphazard angle at which they stand. To the right an office, held by station manager Robin Gee, cluttered with bright yellow chicken suits.

“They’re for the Boards and Commissions Dinner,” Gee said.


As for the Emmys, the channel holds 12 of them now, and will go for 13 — or more — in 2013, turning a traditionally inauspicious number on its head.

They work their magic on a budget, something they achieve by using props picked up in local thrift shops and other discount shopping opportunities, reused from show to show in slightly different configurations to mask their true identities.

One of the most unique pieces — a cook top with storage underneath for mixing bowls — rolls out for cooking shows.

It only helps the bottom line that the studio operates on volunteer labor from Gail Fetzer’s Santa Monica College students, who hone their craft by crewing the 80 to 90 episodes produced for CityTV over the course of the 10-week shooting schedule.

Those programs range from discussions on senior issues and environmentally-friendly topics to a program put together by young women at the YWCA where show participants give “snaps” and advice to their peers in an attempt to empower viewers against youth issues, like bullying.

An adult even helps on the show, answering questions about crushes, and other topics better handled by those with more experience.

Each show has a two-hour time slot to film. An ambitious host tries to shoot two episodes in the time allotted, although Gee often only recommends attempting one.

Gee hopes that the diversity of programming strikes a chord with viewers, and that the ability to produce professional-quality and topical shows cements the channel’s reputation as a go-to for those interested in Santa Monica issues.

“All of our shows have to have some kind of community benefit. We’re looking for what resonates with viewers,” Gee said.


Community connections


That community benefit extends from content and into the classroom.

The studio provides a learning opportunity for students at both Samohi and SMC, skills that translate into real-world employment in a way that few other classes can boast.

Fetzer teaches production at SMC, a job she got after transitioning from a professional station where she mentored students from the college.

That mentor-mentee relationship is the way of the film world, and the city studio is a valuable asset in forging those bonds because students need to see how the class they’re taking and the internship they’re working will translate into their future, Fetzer said.

“The staff have been terrific in sharing their knowledge,” Fetzer said. “We all started as interns and needed to be taught by someone else.”

Over the course of 10 weeks filming actively in the studio, Fetzer’s 32 students evolve from nervous wrecks around the expensive studio equipment to professionals who move through the space with confidence and poise.

Tilt, zoom, truck — students leave with the same skills necessary to film an episode of the “Tonight Show,” or any other famous broadcast, Fetzer said.

“I love to see the excitement. It’s great to teach kids things they want to learn,” Fetzer said.


Back on set


Meanwhile, the Samohi students are still setting up for their club episode.

On the docket for this show — Livestrong Club, which raises money to fight cancer, Team Marine, which fights environmental battles across the county, Circle of Friends, which pairs students with disabilities with able students to forge fast friendships and Junior Steering, a group that raises money to bring down the hefty price of prom tickets and otherwise improves the experience of juniors at the school.

The high school students have already planned out the guests, written the scripts, chosen the sets and thought out the shots to be edited together for each club’s video introduction.

They too are a far cry from where they started — a bunch of high schoolers frightened of the equipment and late for their first attempt at filming.

That was the vision for Studio 16 — a place to not only create content that the community can rely on, but to open doors for those same community members in a whole new way.

“To have our own studio after all of these years is just a dream come true,” Gee said.

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