Film Camp Teaches Young Adults With Developmental Disabilities How To Make Movies – And More

Aug 4, 2017

Darrell Pullie is standing on a film set between the camera and actors holding a clapperboard, the black and white object you see in film outtakes that mark the start of a new scene or take.

“Quiet on the set. Dragon scene six, take two,” he says.

Pullie is 16 years old and is working with a crew on a film called "Dragon." It’s a story about a boy with scaly green skin who's bullied at school.

Pullie is really into science fiction movies and video games. He posts video-game tutorials on his YouTube channel. Right now, he’s working on a fan film teaser trailer for "Star Wars."

He also has autism spectrum disorder.

He’s one of 60 kids and young adults participating in the Joey Travolta Film Camp hosted by the Arts for Autism Foundation in Pittsburgh. The camp teaches film skills to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and Pittsburgh is one of three sites nationwide.

The campers work in teams to pitch movie ideas and then spend the next two weeks working with professionals to produce them. It requires a lot of teamwork, which camp directory Joey Travolta – older brother to actor John Travolta – says was the whole reason for starting the program.

“It is not whether the films are good, bad or indifferent,” he says. “It’s the process.”

For Travolta, the camp is more about empowering participants. An actor and director himself, he's also worked as a special education teacher.

He spends the first two days filming interviews with campers asking them for advice in hypothetical situations.

Travolta says this is his favorite part of camp. He wants to know what they’re thinking.

“They’re never asked that. They’re either trying to be kept quiet or go do this, go do that," Travolta says.

A majority of the campers have autism spectrum disorder, like Pullie. Census data from 2010 showed that one in every 68 children has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. That's twice the rate from just 10 years earlier. Researchers say the rise in the rate stems both from growing awareness and changes in diagnostic criteria.

The disorder impairs communication, which can make forming new friendships difficult, so Travolta tries to make that easier.

Every day of camp starts with a dance party. Campers tend to circle around and one person takes over the show in the center. It’s one way staffers try to build up a campers' confidence.

“You know the great thing about filmmaking and actors in general, we’re an odd bunch,” Travolta said. “If you’re a little different as an actor, that’s good. We like different.”

Pullie says he has enjoyed learning how to write a script and keep track of what scene and take the crew is on. But perhaps more importantly, he's mastered the art of making friends.

In his third year at camp, he's now the one pulling new friends onto the dance floor.