MFS alum snags award for his homage to Burlington County and Spielberg

Austin Harris won “Best Cinematography” at The National Film Festival For Talented Youth (NFFTY), the world’s largest youth-oriented film festival.

Austin Harris.

Austin Harris’ first encounter with film equipment was in 10th grade at Moorestown Friends School. The experience got him hooked on filmmaking and set him on a path toward New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Ultimately, his passion brought him back home to Burlington County where he filmed his 16-minute short film “Stevie’s Aliens.” A recent graduate of NYU, Harris has debuted his film at several festivals and most recently, “Stevie’s Aliens” won “Best Cinematography” at The National Film Festival For Talented Youth, the world’s largest youth-oriented film festival.

A Willingboro native, Harris grew up stealing his mother’s camera on family vacations. His mother and aunt were voracious film lovers and gave him a proper education on classic movies. He grew up watching “The Birds,” “E.T.” and the Indiana Jones films.

When he was in 10th grade, a documentarian came to Moorestown Friends School to make a film commemorating the school’s 235th anniversary. Harris was one of 15 students selected to work on the film.

He was so captivated by the experience that he approached an MFS theater professor and asked if he would help him add a film minor. The teacher crafted a class for Harris that started with film theory, moved on to production elements and ultimately, he was able to make his first short film in that class. He said MFS help set him on his way to Tisch.

“Stevie’s Aliens” is Harris’ capstone project for Tisch. The film follows Greg, a high school senior, who sees a UFO and a night of adventure ensues when he encounters his strange neighbor Stevie who knows quite a bit about UFOs. Greg, Stevie and Julia, Greg’s girlfriend, work together to summon the UFO.

He wrote the short film as a homage to Steven Spielberg’s early work. He said watching “Close Encounters of The Third Kind” as a child sparked a love science fiction, and since then, he has always had an affinity for movies that get a reaction out of people — whether it’s a thrill, laugh or nervousness.

“I knew that I wanted to pay homage to close encounters since that was the movie that made me want to be a filmmaker in the first place,” Harris said.

When it came time to film the project, Harris knew he wanted his science fiction movie to take place in suburbia, and he wanted the project to have a personal feel. So, he returned home. The film was shot in Mill Creek Park in Willingboro and at an Airbnb in Marlton last March.

Unlike other some of the darker short films, “Stevie’s Aliens” plays on themes of belief and faith. He said what drew him to Spielberg’s style of filmmaking was his optimistic and loving approach to storytelling, and that was something he wanted to infuse into his own work.

Representation was also of great importance to Harris. Two out of three of the main characters in the film are black. He said African Americans are a rarity in science fiction films, and as an African American director, it was important that his film serve as a call for more representation for people of color in film and television.

After a week’s worth of shooting came seven months worth of editing. Harris brought in a friend to compose the music. Much like Spielberg, Harris wanted his film to have a main theme as part of the score, and so the pair worked on something that he could weave throughout the film.

“I grew up to listening to film scores even just outside of the movie,” Harris said. “I was really obsessed with film scores. I’ve always wanted to release a soundtrack album to a movie I’d made.”

“Stevie’s Aliens” debuted at the First Run Film Festival and was subsequently screened at the San Francisco Black Film Festival, the DC Black Film Festival and the Coney Island Film Festival.

When he applied to NFFTY, he thought the festival might be a bit of a reach, but he had a strong feeling he might make it. He submitted his film, crossed his fingers and waited to hear back. The film aired at NFFTY on Oct. 27, and the screening went more than well when he walked away with the award for best cinematography for his love letter to the South Jersey suburbs.

“Stevie’s Aliens” will be distributed online by the site Watch Dust, which is run by the production company Gunpowder & Sky, early next year. Visit austinsharris.com to learn more about Harris.