film career takes flight

Making it in the film industry today is almost as impossible as trying to fly. But for 2012 Mt. Lebanon High School alumnus Chris Kelley, the unachievable goals are the ones worth setting.

Kelley, a recent graduate of Ithaca College in New York, is the winner of the 2015-16 David Ames Film Award and $5,000 grant. Applicants from the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca must write the script for a short film, assemble a pre-production plan, crew members and actors before presenting the film concept and defending their script to the award panel.

Chris Kelley

Kelley was shocked to learn that his script for Icarus won the award. Icarus, which originated out of a bet with his mother, is a departure from Kelley’s past films, which tended to be more flashy and bold, he says.

“I usually do films that are kind of on the opposite spectrum,” Kelley says. “My mom, who is like my best friend, didn’t want to watch any of them. [She said] ‘I bet you $5 that you can’t write something happy and something that I want to see.'”

Filmed in various locations around Pittsburgh, Icarus is a straight and narrow film that follows the daily life of 7-year-old Kit and his dream to fly. The eight-minute film, which was originally a project for Kelley’s Intro to Screenwriting class, has no dialogue and relies completely on visual storytelling. “[Having no dialogue] adds a layer of whimsy and keeps it deceptively childlike for as long as it can before the end of the film,” Kelley says. “It helps build up to the final shot, where all of the music and art of it strips away, and it feels like the city is increasing in volume.”

Kelley, who lived on Jonquil Place before moving to Abington Drive, took four years of video production at the high school, and says high school teacher Michelle Kramer, “completely shaped the way that I saw film.”

“As a student, Chris had lots of imagination and drive,” Kramer says. “He would design these complex projects and carry them through.”

Though Kelley had many options for film locations, he eventually chose to return home to Mt. Lebanon and shoot the film over his spring break. Three students from the high school digital film making class, Eoin Wilson-Manion, Kelly Hois and Julian Auer, joined Kelley on set as production assistants. “I wanted to bring it home to Lebo to keep the cost low but also pay it forward and bring in multiple generations of people who like film,” Kelley says.

This film has special meaning for Kelley, whose goal to make it in the film industry is similar to Kit’s struggle to fly. Kelley’s film, however, reinforces the importance of following your dreams, even if they seem impossible.

“This film is saying that it is OK to follow your dreams and what you believe in, because if you work hard enough and believe in yourself then things will actually happen,” Kelley says. “I think this film represents my hunger to continue working in film and continue achieving goals.”

Some of that drive and hunger to achieve the unachievable has paid off. Over four years, Kelley’s films, including Insertion and Fly Trap, have played at 10 film festivals. Now that he’s graduated, Kelley will work as a production designer for “The Manhattan Front,” a film co-written and directed by his thesis advisor at Ithaca, and hopes to begin work on his first feature film in 2017.

To learn more about Icarus and potential showings around Pittsburgh check out the film’s Facebook page at