Local student film finds cinematic success

El Diamante juniors Noah Lillywhite, Kai Wiley and Sam Zurek win an Emmy for their short film “Incursion”

VISALIA – “And the Emmy goes to … Noah Lillywhite, Kai Wiley and Sam Zurek for ‘Incursion’.”

The three El Diamante High School juniors won’t hear those words during the televised broadcast of the TV awards this fall on CBS, but they have in fact, won an Emmy. The amateur filmmakers submitted their short film, “Incursion,” to the Emmy’s in the student film category, and received word of their win in early June, although nominations for professional categories won’t be announced until mid-July. But they did remember to thank their parents and share their shock.

“This is pretty crazy,” Lillywhite said in an interview in June.

Wiley said, “It was a pretty big confidence booster.”

Zurek admitted, “I haven’t entirely processed it yet. It kind of doesn’t seem real.”

The film has already achieved acclaim locally after the film won both the Best of Show and Blockbuster awards for high school entries at the Slick Rock Student Film Festival last month. The festival is Central California’s premier film competition for middle and high school students in Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, Mariposa, Merced, and Tulare counties presented annually by the Tulare County Office of Education with support from the Tulare & Kings Counties Suicide Prevention Task Force.

Incursion is a science fiction cautionary tale condensed into a four-minute short by the students enrolled in Visalia Unified’s Media Arts pathway at El Diamante. It’s a cautionary tale based on the adage, “Be careful what you wish for.” The movie can be viewed on YouTube by searching for “Incursion Short Film.”

The idea for the movie began like many films, with a single character. Lillywhite has always been one to make his own costume for Halloween, a tradition which became more elaborate as he entered the Media Arts pathway at El Diamante. In 2019, Lillywhite built his version of Harold the scarecrow from the book “Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill your Bones.” Lillywhite said growing up he was enthralled with movies of scary robots and creatures, such as Terminator, Aliens and Predator. The special effects for all of those films was done by Stan Winston, whose studio won an Academy Award for Aliens, the second movie of the franchise, Terminator 2: Judgment Day as well as Jurassic Park, another of Lillywhite’s favorites.

“I remember seeing Jurassic Park for the first time and then watching some behind the scenes footage about the making of the film,” Wiley said. “I knew this was something I wanted to be a part of.”

Inspired by Winston’s work, Lillywhite decided to build an alien of his own last Halloween. He submitted the costume in a contest through the Stan Winston School and took home third place.

“I was surprised and shocked,” Lillywhite said. “

The costume was so spectacular, Jeff Watamura, a media arts teacher at El Diamante, suggested he write an entire script and make a movie surrounding the character and submit it to the Slick Rock Student Film Festival. Lillywhite began working on a rough draft of the script and then called in Wiley to round it out.

“I had a rough outline for the film, and then Kai came in and made it better,” Lillywhite said.

A lifelong storyteller, Wiley began crafting scenes in his mind and adding details to quickly provide some background to the main protagonist in the movie. At the same time, Wiley started created props and scouting locations for the short film.

“I’ve always loved coming up with stories and seeing where I can take the story,” Wiley said.

When it came time to capture the characters and scenes they had created, the two brought in Sam Zurek to handle most of the cinematography and graphics. Zurek and Lillywhite had previously collaborated on a film for the Media Arts program in 2019 called “Janitor’s Closet.” The short film won Best Blockbuster for a high school at the 2020 Slick Rock film festival.

“We basically worked on it every free moment we had in the month of December,” Zurek said.

Once the film was done, Watamura decided to share it with someone he had connected with at the Stan Winston School of Character Arts two years ago when Hollywood special effects master David Monzingo visited El Diamante to lead students through a “blood F/X” workshop and demonstration. Wiley said not only did Stan Winston like the film, he shared with Watamura it had received high praise from Daniel Hanley, who has edited all of Ron Howard’s films since Night Shift in 1982, and a thumbs up from Hollywood icon Adam Sandler.

“That is an indescribable feeling,” Wiley said. “To have people at that level to know about the film, and to like… it’s incredible.”

While it’s difficult to follow up an Emmy with, well anything else, the film may find more success next month. The El Diamante students submitted “Incursion” to the New Jersey International Film Festival, which begins in September, and the LA Indie Film Festival, which happens in October.

Upon the suggestion of Hollywood’s elite, and because they enjoy gaming online together, the trio said they want to stick together and try to improve upon their cinematic success. The El D three said they will collaborate on a longer 15-minute film beginning this film to meet the requirements of their senior thesis.

“I keep thinking about what we were able to accomplish in just a few weeks and next year, we will have a full year to write, produce, direct and shoot the film,” Lillywhite said. “We’ll get to use all of the skills we’ve learned and put them all into one big project.”

Once the film is complete, they will pair it down to 4 minutes and try to win at Slick Rock, but more importantly, continue submitting to film festivals and strive for the success-solidifying second Emmy.

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