Practical skill development is at the forefront of a state-of-the-art new media program in Okotoks.
Ben Stevens, new media/video production and game design teacher at Foothills Composite High School and the Alberta High School of Fine Arts, says the program has evolved significantly with time and continued funding since he arrived at the school in 2015.
“It was during that time of the modernization of the Comp and they were looking to update the communications technology program,” he says. “At that time, they were doing things more hands-on with the practical aspects of silk-screening and negative development was still going on for traditional film cameras.
“All of that was super cool, but to taste the contemporary world, I was bringing in the digital side of that.”
Small changes saw the program move into the digital photography realm and into graphic design as well as digital film production working towards broadcast journalism television and feature film and short film production.
“There’s only so much you can do in high school,” he says. “But it’s at least giving students a taste of the real world that would allow them to put together the big picture and decide if that’s something they wanted to do through the development of hands-on skills here in the school.”
A number of alumni have gone onto careers in film and video production.
Chase Ashbaugh, a 2019 Comp grad, recently completed a two-year run as an editor on Netflix’s animated My Little Pony series, his first major gig after graduating from the Vancouver Film School.
The journey likely wouldn’t have started without his introduction in high school, he says.
“It was just a really good environment and, honestly, if it wasn’t for that class, I don’t think I would have taken the direction that I have,” he says. “I used to be more into math, but through Ben’s class I was able to find this is something I’m naturally good at.
“The whole curriculum was based around on instead of telling us what to do, it was more about getting us to explore what we already knew we wanted to do and then just honing those skills.”
Ben Smith, a 2018 Foothills graduate, has parlayed the videography and photography skills he developed into a burgeoning media production business that he does in conjunction with being a member of the military in Cold Lake.
“Being able to use all of the high-end gear they have at the school and I was able to branch out and start my own thing,” Smith says. “I do photography, videography, commercials, I do automotive photography and work for all three dealerships up here and get them all new content.
“I have my egg in all kinds of baskets up here.”
He says the new media program gave him the opportunity to develop a passion by first touching the equipment.
“Being able to learn and be proficient with it, that gave me a leg up and foot forward compared to everyone else,” he says. “Almost immediately after picking up a camera, I got into doing it as full-time work. I’ve spent four of my summers up in Cold Lake and for two of them I was the photographer for the entire base and was able to use the school’s gear up here.”
In the past two years, the new media program has branched out even more with the addition of video-game design.
Stevens has a background in film and television production, where he worked out of Los Angeles and Halifax prior to joining the education ranks, and has also designed a virtual reality multiplayer boxing video game.
The school has tournaments in the boxing game as a teaching tool.
“It’s pretty neat the stuff that we’re starting to offer here,” he says. “We’re one of the few schools in the country offering a robust program that’s so well equipped. And a big thanks goes to Foothills School Division for consistently funding the program, even through the COVID years.”
For Stevens, it’s vital to give the students the opportunity to go out and express their creativity through practical skill development.
“There’s a place for theory, but we don’t spend much time on it because I believe the theory reveals itself through practice,” he says. “Once you’ve reached a certain level, then I think it benefits the learner more to dive into that theory because they’ll have something they can relate it to.
“It’s kind of the same thing as learning a physics or a math formula without any context. What then do you apply it to in the real world? Instead, we’ll start with a real-world problem, students take a crack at solving it and we’ll come back and we roundtable critique it.”
Grade 12 student Cooper Felker says the new media program is a unique experience from the traditional classroom structure where students can essentially trial and error everything they do.
“I’ve made a lot of bad projects and made some mistakes, but I’ve learned a lot and feel pretty confident in my film abilities now,” Felker says.
“Mr. Stevens is great, he’s very helpful, but he gives up lots of independence at the same time so we can express ourselves however we want and make whatever we want and then have all of the technical advice so that we can have what’s in our heads go onto the screen.”
Students get opportunities to develop skills and put them to the test at Skills Canada events, from regionals, provincials to nationals.
Foothills students have a proven track record of shining on the competition stage.
In 2022, Hogan Holditch and Christofer Kapiniak won Skills Canada national gold in video production.
“I’m sure we’re the most decorated school at this point in terms of our new media program and the kids who’ve come in and have been advancing through film production,” Stevens says. “It starts in our school competitions, usually, with our kids who have the time and the talent and the motivation to compete for a chance to represent the school on the Skills Canada team.
“Ultimately if they make a good project and they’re happy with what they put together, then I’m super happy; podium placements are kind of secondary to that. We want everybody feeling good about their efforts.”
The Skills Canada competitions are typically comprised of a seven-hour assignment where teams of two create a film on-site, with the events often held on the SAIT campus in Calgary, where they’re then judged by industry professionals.
Grade 10 student Levi Packwood entered the Skills regionals in March with what was set to be the fourth film he’s ever created.
“The first one was really rough and they’ve been slowly getting better,” he says. “Everything is really new and we’ve done three projects in the past month to try and prepare.”
A veteran of the Skills competition, Felker says it was a rewarding and challenging experience.
“Being in this film class with Mr. Stevens does prepare you really well for it because Skills is very similar to how he teaches classes,” Felker says. “It’s here’s a prompt, go do your own thing and figure it out.
“There’s not a lot of structure to it and you have to figure it out on your own.”
Another opportunity outside of the school is afforded through the Okotoks Film Society’s 24-Hour and 48-Hour Film Festival.
“That’s a wonderful thing to be able to offer students who are testing the professional waters,” Stevens says. “It’s really encouraging and our kids have done super well in the festival over the years.”
Grade 11 students Wynn Brown and Kiyan Karimaghaei are veterans of both the 24- and 48-hour film challenges.
“We can get credit for them (at school) and we can hand in the projects we make for it,” says Brown. “Mr. Stevens suggests we do them for the experience and the 48-Hour Film Challenge is nice because it gives us a direction to go in, a line dialogue and sometimes a genre.
“It’s a different environment than working at the school and trying to figure out school-related things and you can go and do your own thing.”
Inside the school, Karimaghaei says the film students have both the instruction and the equipment not often seen in educational settings.
“Mr. Stevens is very experienced and the film program is probably better here than most post-secondary courses,” Karimaghaei says. “We have the best computer lab in Canada for high school and we have the best funded film program in Canada as well.”
Stevens says the program saw a slight dip in numbers during the pandemic, but it’s very much trending in the right direction.
“We’re starting to build that sense of family that we had prior to COVID hitting and we were all forced apart, into our own homes and even at times teachers teaching alone in the school to kids on screens,” he says. “It just tore the heart out of some of that programming so we’re rebuilding that and it’s starting to bloom here again.
“That all exists because of the community between the students and the staff and we need to be together for that, I believe. It tends to be a calming environment for most students.”
Grade 10 student Tia Kasdorf can speak to that level of comfort.
“I’ve met some really great people, Kiyan and Cooper, you see them in their film class and you want to be there,” Kasdorf says. “It’s such a family environment and you feel so close with everybody.
“I thought it would be editing that would be (my favourite), but I think it’s seeing all the equipment and all of the little things you can do just with your handheld camera and lenses, being able to change one lens all of a sudden having a whole other view, I think that’s so cool.”
As more productions move into the area, from HBO’s Last of Us and FX’s Fargo, to name a few, Stevens is hoping more formal partnerships can be forged in the Calgary region down the road.
“It’s just now starting to grow in terms of the industry involvement there, we’re starting to get more soundstages and more production interest in the area,” he says. “In the last couple of years we’ve seen a lot of U.S. productions come in, which is brilliant, but it’s also more difficult because often when U.S. productions come in, they bring their own personnel.
“I think it’s inspirational, but also it’s another world. The more we can bridge that gap between the high school, post-secondary and then that world of practice, the better.”