Whatcom County Kids focus on creativity at Camp Hollywood

Forget everything you thought you knew about reality TV. Forget Simon Cowell and “Fear Factor” and the teams on “Survivor.”

“Surviving the Magic Hat” trumps all of them, with a magic hat from Argentina assigning challenges to two teams. When one team cheats, bribing the hat for easy challenges, the other can only win by lifting a car over their heads.

If it all seems a little far-fetched, that’s because it was born in the minds of a group of local middle school students at Camp Hollywood.

“What’s great about it is (the kids) haven’t built that judgmental thing that says ‘this won’t work’ yet,” says Eero Johnson, who runs the film camps and his company Video One. “The ideas they come up with are absolutely outlandish, and they’re convinced everything will work. It’s great.”

For the kids, the camps — now in their fifth year — offer a chance to use their imaginations to make something real. Previous camps have produced films about alien abductions, vengeful monkeys and a silly spectrum of other ideas.

“You just come in here not knowing what you’re going to do; you start with nothing and end up with something,” says Ellie Stephenson, 12, a Meridian Middle School seventh-grader. “I think the funnest part is just brainstorming.”

Last summer’s camp produced the film “From Monkeys with Love,” which made it into the NWProjections Film Festival and gave the kids a chance to really see themselves on the big screen.

“At that age, movies still hold a lot of magic,” Johnson says. “When the kids see themselves in an actual movie with sound and editing, it is just so much fun.”

In addition to taking home a DVD of their film, many of the kids receive something intangible, whether it’s acting skills, new camera angles, green-screen knowledge or a stronger belief in themselves.“I used to be shy before I started, but acting is just to have fun, so it’s built a lot of confidence for me,” says Sarah Kruhlak, 12, a seventh-grader at Kulshan Middle School. “I like how (Johnson) doesn’t make us have a script; we can do what we want and make up our own characters.”

Taking on new characters is a challenge many of the kids gladly accept, especially when they get to play mad scientists and plotting, cheating reality show contestants.

“I like to be someone else because my life is boring to me,” says Hayley Krogh, 12, a Whatcom Middle School seventh-grader. “Acting, you get to be something else, get in someone else’s shoes. I love playing the bad guy because at school I’m kind of a goody two-shoes.”

Though they know how hard it can be to make it in Hollywood, some campers hope to apply the skills they learn to a career in the film industry, whether it’s writing, directing, animating or acting.

“It’s an amazing thing these kids do,” Johnson says. “They write it, they create it, they do everything.”