Jonny Wheeler has always loved movies, in particular science-fiction productions, which his father would let him stay up late to watch when he was young.
So it makes sense that when Wheeler, who teaches art at Flynn Elementary School, made a film, it involves a child — in his case a child at play.
“When I wrote it, it was kind of about childhood and growing out of childhood to become an adult,” he said in a phone interview.
Wheeler’s movie, titled “Spin,” is among the 17 entries selected for the fourth annual Chippewa Valley Film Festival, an event dedicated to short films. This year’s selections will screen at 7 p.m. Saturday at Micon Cinemas Downtown.
The festival will be broken down into two parts of about an hour each, said Mitchell Spencer, co-organizer of the event along with Kyle Bowe. The first half will consist of nine works by filmmakers from Wisconsin and Minnesota, and the second half features eight international productions from countries such as India, the Netherlands, France, Taiwan and Israel.
A question-and-answer session with the audience and attending filmmakers will follow each of the sessions.
Genres represented at the festival include drama, comedy, animation, music videos, documentary and experimental. Selected films were made, respectively, by students and professionals, and some have received awards.
All of the films in this year’s festival are noteworthy, Spencer said, adding, “Several have a twist in the plot at the end.”
Before they began their festival, Spencer said during a phone interview, he and Bowe had talked for several years about doing such an event, possibly with feature-length movies.
Striving for variety
They ultimately decided to take the short road, so to speak, “because it would offer a variety to the audience in terms of the genre and whether it’s a narrative or animation,” he said.
This year the selection was narrowed down to 17 from 500 entries, said Spencer, who is a retired professor from UW-Stout, where he taught courses in the construction and interior design programs.
They attracted submissions through the FilmFreeway website, which offers information about various film festivals and contests.
“When we view the videos, we view them blind,” Spencer said. “We really don’t know the person’s background. We just look at the video and make a decision.”
They judge entries on cinematography, plot, sound quality and the overall appearance of the video.
“Plot is very important for a short film,” Spencer said. “Because in a short film you don’t have much time to tell the story, and it’s really important that the story is concise, the plot is concise and that it has an ending.”
Today’s aspiring filmmakers have the potential advantage of more manageable cost. Wheeler said that fact made the interest easier for him to pursue.
Besides economics, other encouragement to pursue the art form could come from film opportunities offered in schools. Spencer said he has noticed more classes as well as extracurricular clubs dealing with cinema.
“It’s getting more in the curriculum, which I think will be potentially helpful to (having) more filmmakers from the area,” he said.
This year the festival received a Cultural Arts Grant from Visit Eau Claire and the Wisconsin Arts Board.
The kind of films Wheeler was allowed to watch as a boy included episodes of the “Dr. Who” British television series and the 1976 sci-fi effort “Logan’s Run,” considered by some a cult classic.
Here is how Wheeler describes the plot of “Spin”:
A child is playing with toys he made out in the woods. At the same time, an adult, possibly “a grown-up version of the boy,” is working. It appears as though her tasks, unlike playing, are related to a professional career and its attendant responsibilities.
“Metaphorically for me it was kind of about how we play as children sort of becoming an adult, but then as adults we’re not playing even though we’re going through the same motions we did before, playing as children,” Wheeler said.
The star of “Spin” is Wheeler’s 10-year-old son Nico, and Wheeler said watching Nico growing up as well as considering his own profession inspired the story.
“Working with kids at Flynn Elementary too really does give me a lot of different kinds of perspectives when it comes to how many different kinds of children are playing at different kinds of things,” he said. “And even being their parent sort of gives me that sense of connection between parent and child.”
Wheeler said he hopes to put his other son, 3-year-old Rigby, into one of his films, but not yet.
“Nico will pretty much do whatever I say when it comes to filming,” he said. “Rigby pretty much ignores me.”
The idea of making a short film attracted Wheeler because of his responsibilities as a husband, father, teacher and student in his second year of pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree in UW-Stout’s design program.
“(M)aking a feature length film or a longer film would be really cool,” he said with a laugh, “but I don’t have that much time to be able to do it.”
Another short film Wheeler made, titled “Sweep,” was in last year’s Chippewa Valley Film Festival. He’s also made a lot of documentary films he described as short form promotional films that are about teaching and learning and doing research.
This year said he’s especially looking forward to attending the festival with his wife, Angela Wheeler, who stayed home last year because they couldn’t find a sitter for their children. Plus, she has a role in “Spin.”
“I cannot wait to look at her expression as she watches herself on the big screen,” he said.
Wheeler said he enjoyed seeing the other films at last year’s event and also enjoyed taking questions from the audience despite describing himself as a “very nervous public speaker.”
“There were a couple of high school students there who were asking questions,” he said. “And I could tell their questions were based on their own desire to make films themselves. I thought that was kind of an inspiring experience.”
Just as his father did, Wheeler said he watches films with his sons.
“Even when they might not necessarily want to watch a movie, I have them sit them down with me and I say, ‘Hey, this is a classic. This is something you need to watch.’”
The joy of that experience even goes beyond the quality of the movie.
“If a movie’s doing anything great it’s doing that,” he said. “It’s connecting us up to our memories and our experiences.”
Perhaps at the same time it can inspire participants and organizers of future film festivals.