THE 13-YEAR-OLD boy with the bright eyes is staring straight into the wrap-party camera and speaking with an easy confidence. “I was one of the people responsible,” he says by way of introduction, “for the great special-effects sequences in this film.”
The boy, Matthew Jensen, is not talking about “Game of Thrones” or “Wonder Woman,” pop-culture smashes whose cinematic looks he will one day help shape. Instead, it is the summer of 1985 in Washington, and he has just helped make a student film about time travel.
Today, Jensen is an A-list cinematographer who has contributed award-winning work to two seasons of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” (the new season begins Sunday), as well as such other premium-cable hit series as “Ray Donovan” and “True Blood.” His film work includes “Chronicle” and “Filth,” the latter of which especially caught the attention of director Patty Jenkins, who sought Jensen for her latest project, “Wonder Woman.” Since opening last month, the DC superhero release has rocketed to become the fourth-biggest film of the year, grossing about three-quarters of a billion dollars worldwide.
During a recent conversation about his own origin story, Jensen recalls the decade when his family lived in Northern Virginia, just a Metro train hop from the Mall. Because it was at the Smithsonian where the craft of filmmaking really began to feel real to him.
Jensen took numerous classes at the Smithsonian back then, from weekend seminars to summer camps. He especially remembers one class that focused on what you can learn from each shot of an artful film. It was the mid-’80s, and the instructor showed the teenage students some scenes from such recent films as “Alien,” “Jaws” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” The class, Jensen recounts, “really got into how filmmakers told a story.”
After the class ended, the instructor — a filmmaking buff — then guided about a dozen students for a Smithsonian summer camp in which they would get to make a short movie. The experience has stayed with Jensen to this day.
“It had an enormously positive influence on me,” Jensen tells The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs.
Jensen recounts the influence, too, of that instructor, whom he lost contact with shortly after that class. Three years later, Jensen’s family would move to Hawaii, and the teacher only taught a student-film course at the Smithsonian that one summer.
Turns out, though, the instructor vividly remembers that class, too — as well as the raw cinematic gifts of Matthew Jensen.
TODAY, Phil Berardelli lives primarily in western Maryland, where he keeps a trove of personal archives, including a 10-minute student film shot in a couple of weeks in July 1985. When a reporter calls, Berardelli digs out a copy of that film, which was shot on Super 8 before he transferred it to videotape.
The film, which centers on a space-time portal, is called “Timefall.”
“We shot the film from an original script developed by a previous class,” Berardelli says of the project, which was part of the Smithsonian’s Young Associates program.
Berardelli was an amateur filmmaker who would go on to a Washington cable-access show, which ran from 1985 to 1990. He produced the program, titled “The Moviegoing Family,” and co-hosted it with former Post film critic Gary Arnold.
In the summer of 1985, though, he had decided to turn over his McLean, Va., basement — filled with film equipment — to his students.
“I tried to teach the kids, who ranged in ages from about 12 to 17, the basics of the filmmaking process,” Berardelli says. “That meant figuring out how and where to shoot the various scenes.”
He also taught them how to “cover” a scene with enough shots to provide a basis for editing. And how to finesse the special effects on a minuscule budget. How to assess whether a take had succeeded. And he demonstrated the physical process of cutting the film and combining various shots into the finished reel.
Before cutting film in McLean, the students met at the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building and shot their color scenes in the Smithsonian’s offices and classrooms. Meanwhile, to achieve a sci-fi feel, “Timefall’s” black-and-white scenes were shot in the Smithsonian’s main computer room and in the basement of a sparse self-storage facility in Northeast Washington.
And then there was one of young Matt Jensen’s biggest creative contributions.
Jensen grew up in a family of film buffs, with his parents bonding in college over movie musicals. “Movies were woven into a lot of the discussions from an early age,” Jensen recalls by phone from Los Angeles. “I listened because I wanted to learn what everyone was talking about.”
Jensen’s mother was also talented at sketching, he says, and he followed suit. “I spent a lot of time as a kid drawing,” he says, “and that led me to storyboarding. I came late to the idea of cinematography.” Jensen already showed a knack for positioning a camera by age 10, when his still photos reflected a sense of composition.
For “Timefall,” though, the team needed an effect on the cheap to render a sense of science-fiction travel. It was Jensen’s idea to shoot in a nearby Metro station. “For the pulsing lights,” Berardelli says, “we boarded a Metro train and shot out the window.”
Jensen and two fellow students, Jack Cook and Rob Lawson, handled most of the camera work, effects work and editing.
The final film was screened for parents, though never shown publicly — partly because the snippets of background music weren’t cleared for use, Berardelli says.
“As I explained to the parents when we screened the finished film several months later,” Berardelli says, “it was meant to be an example of the process [and] not a product.”
WHEN Comic Riffs calls Berardelli to ask whether he liked the look of “Wonder Woman,” he says he was very impressed.
He had no idea when he watched the film, however, that he was viewing the elite craftsmanship of a former student of his.
“I remember that Matt quickly displayed a very good eye for composition and camera angle,” Berardelli says, “so I’m not surprised to learn that’s the part of the business he entered, and that he’s succeeded so well.”
Jensen remembers Berardelli’s class even more crucially. “It really gave me the confidence,” he says, “that I could go to film school.”
To view “Timefall” and the “making of” scenes, click here.