Meet One of the Only Film Majors in the History of St. Lawrence University

Film has intrigued Austen Sparke for years, and since becoming a film major, he's directed a short film titled 'Murder Go Round.'

The art of creating a worthy film takes great collaborative efforts from many different parties. Those who wish to pursue a career in film often attend universities that cater to those interests, and the universities possess the expensive tools that are necessary for professional film production.

For Austen Sparke, a film student who attends a school with no film program, not having a network of creative and practical support for honing his craft can be difficult. However, through sheer determination, Sparke negotiated with St. Lawrence University to be one of the only film majors on campus, and he’s now on the fast track to becoming a filmmaker.

Sparke attended public high school before enrolling at St. Lawrence. In his younger years, on the other hand, he was home-schooled. He recalls his mother focusing on creativity in his schoolwork rather than typical core classes, such as English and math.

That said, even though he was a bit behind in certain courses, Sparke cites his mother and her style of educating as a great source of both creative inspiration and development.

Even in high school, Sparke received permission from teachers to pursue his creative ambitions. In fact, one of his earliest projects as a filmmaker stemmed from an assignment in a high school English class.

The young filmmaker and his friends created a music video that drew inspiration from John Proctor, a character from Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” and Psi’s “Gangnam Style.” Although he now describes the video as “silly” and “stupid,” the project doesn’t embarrass him because it showcased the early inklings of his skill.

Through the help of his friends, Sparke could scratch his creative itch throughout his secondary education. When it came to university, however, the young filmmaker came upon some academic roadblocks because St. Lawrence University does not currently offer a major in film.

Sparke underwent a rigorous trial of making proposals for the academic bureaucrats at his school, and with much determination, the board decided to let Sparke pursue both a film and performance art major. He says, “Yeah, that was a lot. Sophomore year, I really wanted to become a film major; I was bent on that. So, [I’ve studied] creative writing, directing actors on stage and [I’ve taken] one or two acting classes as well.”

In his time at St. Lawrence, Sparke has directed a number of short films, one of which is titled “Murder Go Round” and is a murder mystery that seeks to break the conventions of the genre. The story consists of a frame narrative, telling the respective tales of four murder victims and one unidentified killer. Each character exemplifies archetypes found in cinema.

There’s a nerdy loner, the pompous blonde, the reckless fraternity brother, the begrudged store clerk and the proud drug dealer. Sparke’s use of character archetypes was necessary for the success of the film because in-depth character development couldn’t take place due to strict time constraints.

One way in which Sparke gets around time constraints in the mystery genre is by consciously omitting a key role: the P.I. When part of a frame narrative is missing, the absence of that narrative aspect can let the audience themselves become part of the frame.

That’s exactly what Sparke has done with “Murder Go Round” through letting the audience play the role of the private investigator. This aspect of audience interaction only adds to the mystery portrayed in the film.

In fact, audience interaction is exactly what Sparke loves about murder mysteries. In his short film, Sparke intentionally keeps the identity of the killer disclosed to let the audience participate in an investigation. The young filmmaker believes that although a full-length film may not have the highest of production values, a short film should engage its audience.

Because he includes audience participation in his work, Sparke utilizes some of the same creative tactics that video game designers use when making their own interactive experiences. He intends for the audience of “Murder Go Round” to have a feeling of responsibility in solving the case of the four murders.

“I’ve made some other short films…but this one I’ve shown way more than any other [production],” says Sparke. “Even though the film is less than 10 minutes long, I’ve been able to have much longer, much more interesting discussions on the film because of [its interactive nature].” His audiences often request to see the film again so that they can come up with a better solution for the mystery at hand.

The ingenuity and imagination one needs to be a great filmmaker are only the first tools for the cinematic tool belt. While Sparke’s independent nature of pursuing his dream career can be admired, there’s no doubt that he’s got a loving and supportive network of friends and family. However, without his strive and determination, he could never have gotten where he is today.

Cason Ragland, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

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Cason Ragland

UNC - Greensboro

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