On Earth Day, a trio of Pittsburgh organizations hosts the C.A.U.S.E. Challenge High School Film Festival, where young filmmakers turn their eyes—and camera lenses—to focus on the environment.

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On Earth Day, a trio of Pittsburgh organizations hosts the C.A.U.S.E. Challenge High School Film Festival, where young filmmakers turn their eyes—and camera lenses—to focus on the environment.

When filmmaking and science collide, the result can mean anything from The War of the Worlds to Star Wars. But last night at the Carnegie Science Center, Pittsburgh’s young filmmakers—and their high schools—were awarded for their talents with more than $10,000 in cash and prizes at the sixth annual C.A.U.S.E. Challenge High School Film Festival.

The C.A.U.S.E. Challenge, which stands for “Creating Awareness and Understanding of our Surrounding Environment,” showcases Pittsburgh filmmakers who turn their eyes—and their video-camera lenses—to the environment. And it’s no coincidence that the festival was held on Earth Day: Presented by a Pittsburgh-based Bayer Corp., Carnegie Science Center’s Regional SciTech Initiative and the Pittsburgh Filmmakers, the challenge encourages students to gain hands-on experience with environmentally important issues while showcasing their talents behind the camera.

“It gets students involved and gives them a well-rounded education on an issue that involves them,” says Dennis Childers, who teaches media arts at the Pittsburgh Creative And Performing Arts High School (CAPA) and has worked with the event since its inception.

This year’s competition inspired 68 local Spielbergs-in-waiting to enter a film focusing on the theme “Mutual Impact: The Environment and You.” Thirty-seven films representing 13 Pittsburgh-area schools competed for honors in the four categories of Abstract/Art/Experimental, Narrative, Documentary and Communicating Science.

But just one film earns the grand-prize nod every year: This year’s grand-prize winner is “Drilling Marcellus: Gas Drilling in Pittsburgh,” a documentary by Juliana Stricklen, a senior at CAPA High School who worked with Childers on her winning entry.

Juliana Stricklen’s grand-prize winning video "Drilling Marcellus: Gas Drilling in Pittsburgh"


“There were so many incredible films. I was definitely nervous and very surprised,” Stricken says. “I was not expecting to win, and I’m very honored.”

Stricklen’s documentary combines interviews, archival film clips and informative narration to debate the benefits and risks involved with gas drilling in Pittsburgh, especially its impact on the Monongahela River. Stricklen hopes the film will raise public awareness and show that the consequences resulting from drilling are more than economical.

“Drilling Marcellus” stood up to some tough competition: Topics ranging from Pittsburgh’s water quality to carbon emissions comprised the field. Winners in the other genre categories are as follow: Abstract/Experimental, “Lids Off” by Amy Foster, Ashanti D. Lee and Levi McCandless, of Lincoln Park Performing Arts; Narrative, “Scenes from Later,” David Korotky, of Moon Area High School; Documentary, “Green Burial in Pittsburgh” by Samantha Shipeck, of Pine Richland High School; Communicating Science, “What’s In Your Water?” by Randall Mialecki and John Grondwalski, of St. Joseph High School.

But what set Stricklen’s film apart from the rest is its complexity, according to festival judge Ben Hernstrom, who owns Ambulantic Videoworks in Pittsburgh. “Juliana’s video is incredibly sophisticated,” Hernstrom says. “She didn’t just preach recycling or some other generic environmental catchphrase. She examined a critical issue in a nuanced fashion.”

The challenge draws a wide crowd of young filmmakers and environmentalists, who can work individually or in teams to construct a 5-minute, original film that effectively conveys a message relating to the theme. The use of original film work can be paired with footage from the public domain, which leaves much of the production difficulty in the editing room.

As Stricklen relates, the most difficult aspect of her project was “cutting down the film to focus it.”

“I had more than two hours of film,” says Stricklen, who, when asked how a film competition about the environment fit her interests, simply says: “[It’s] right up my alley.”

An independent panel of judges with expertise in the environment, science, technology and filmmaking evaluates each project to select the winners. “I found this year’s entries had a broader array of quality, meaning that there were some really amazing videos this year,” says Hernstrom. “But much like last year, selecting the winners was pretty tough.”

Stricklen took home a $1,000 cash prize, $1,500 for her school’s science and media programs and a prize package that includes a trophy, video camera and director’s chair. The four genre winners received $1,000 per film and $1,500 for their schools. Stricklen already plans to use her winnings for future projects. “I’m especially excited to win a new video camera,” said Stricklen. “I plan to take it to college with me to continue this kind of work.”


Other winners from the C.A.U.S.E. Challenge High School Film Festival: 


Abstract/Experimental category: "Lids Off" by Amy Foster, Ashanti D. Lee and Levi McCandless, juniors at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School.


Narrative category: "Scenes From Later" by David Korotky, senior, Moon Area High School.



Communicating Science category: "What’s in Your Water?" by Randall Mialecki and John Grondwalski, juniors, St. Joseph High School.



Documentary category: "Green Burial in Pittsburgh" by Samantha Shipeck, junior, Pine-Richland High School.