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(Photo courtesy of Imagine Cup)

A WINNING TEAM: Princeton University students Andrew McConnon, Ben Eachus, Greg Marx and Jessica Inocencio placed second in Imagine Cup's international student film competition. The four received an all-expense paid trip to Brazil this summer for the competition's finals in Sao Paulo, along with a $4,000 prize check.
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Princeton Students Travel to Brazil, Place Second in Short Film Competition

Candace Braun

While many college students spend the summer living at home with their families and working at a summer job to save up some cash for school, others plan vacations with friends to places such as the shore, a theme park, or maybe even a hot and sunny island.

Princeton University students Jessica Inocencio, Andrew McConnon, Ben Eachus, and Greg Marx had the ultimate summer vacation this year, when they travelled to Sao Paulo, Brazil for a week in July. Unlike many of their friends, all their vacation expenses were paid for by Imagine Cup 2004, a technology competition for high school and college students all over the world.

Funded by Microsoft, Imagine Cup began three years ago as a software design competition, and then expanded to allow students to use other outlets to express themselves creatively through technology. Each category of the competition this year highlighted a different blend of technology and art, according to the competition's website (www.imaginecup.com). The four categories of the competition were software design; rendering an interactive animation program; an algorithm competition of brain teasers; and a short film competition in which students had to create a video of eight minutes or less explaining the students' perspective on the culture of innovation.

The top five groups in each of the four categories were invited to Brazil to participate in the finals. Those finalists included Jessica, a junior art and archaeology major, Greg, a freshman undeclared major, and Andrew and Ben, both juniors and art history majors. The four Princeton students were the only American group to place in any of the four competitions, earning second place in the short film category and walking away with not only a free week-long trip to Brazil, but a $4,000 prize.

Jessica first applied for the competition last year after learning about it from one of her video professors. As Princeton University doesn't have a department specific to film, Jessica contacted friends of hers that she knew had a keen interest in video production to see who would like to create an entry along with her.

For Ben and Andrew, who had written film scripts together in the past, this was an opportunity to take something on paper and transform it into a film for the first time, said Ben: "I was pretty sure I was interested in pursuing something in film before, but this really solidified it for me."

What made this group of students stand out from other students who may have had a similar interest in the competition was Jessica's access to film equipment. With her own video camera and editing equipment on her computer, it made the entire process much easier, she said.

However, as rewarding as the final product was, she found it tough to get the project done while also juggling schoolwork and completing the required junior project at Princeton.

"I was skeptical ... but not so much that it prevented us from [entering the competition]," said Jessica.

Calling themselves Split-Level Productions, the group decided to make the subject of their project the evolution of dance as a social metaphor. Or, as explained by Microsoft in an award citation, "a short film epitomizing the ideals and mores governing the 1950s social relationships of suburban youth. The film – through improvisational dance routines – addresses how these ideals have transformed over the years."

The group started by contacting dance groups on campus to see if any would like to be involved in the making of the video. Members of Princeton's Sympoth (break dancing), Raks Odalisque (belly dancing), BodyHype, Black Arts Company, and Expressions (hip hop groups) turned out for the filming of the video. The dancing was performed impromptu, to make it seem more natural, said Jessica.

Starting with footage of the proper etiquette expected at a formal dance function in the 1950s, the film then cuts to a modern scene of guys and girls meeting each other outside an elevator, and commencing to dance together.

"The girls initiated the dancing, which is very different than how it was in the 1950s," said Jessica. "We wanted to express the changes in gender roles and the informality of dance today."

The format of the video appeared to work, since the group's film was selected by judges to become one of the final 30 entries. Each video was judged by Microsoft in three categories: the relevance of video to the topic, the overall quality of the video, and an essay written by the group to accompany the video. Through a public vote on Imagine Cup's website the film competition was then narrowed down to five groups, who then travelled to Brazil for the finals.

Being able to travel to Brazil and meet students from all over the world was the most rewarding part of the experience, said Ben: "The best part was just interacting with the other teams."

Other countries that travelled to Brazil for the short film competition finals included Romania, which placed first, Germany and Canada, which both tied for third, and runners-up China and Romania. Students involved in the other competitions came from France, Russia, Greece, Lithuania, Belgium, and Bulgaria.

The teams were all brought together in various social settings while in Brazil, including watching a performance by Brazilian dancers, and flying to Iguacu Falls, on the border of Argentina and Paraguay. Imagine Cup also held a screening for the students, where they were able to see each other's film entries.

"It was really great to talk to them and to see what they did [for their projects]," said Ben. At the end, a formal awards ceremony was held for the students, where CEOs from Microsoft applauded the work that each student put into his or her project.

Overall, it was a great summer vacation, and an eye-opening experience for these four aspiring filmmakers, said Jessica, who plans to use her share of the winnings to buy more filming equipment.

"I'm never going to doubt myself creatively again," she said.

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