WESLEY CHAPEL — Leilyn Torres became captivated with film work when she was 11 and her parents gave her a hand-me-down video camera to fiddle around with.
It was an old-fashioned Sony with cassette tapes — not the digital kind of today — but it was enough to plant a seed that would grow into a passion for capturing video images to tell a story.
Now Torres, 18, is a student in Wesley Chapel High School’s Academy of Television Production, where she has continued to hone her skills. The next step is the University of South Florida, where she hopes to study film and business.
“I’ve always loved watching movies,” Torres said.
The academy, with 156 students, has been a fast-growing program at the high school and in 2014-15 will change its name to the Academy of Digital Video Production to better reflect changes in the video production and television industry, said Pam Willoughby, the teacher who took charge of the program about two years ago when there was less space and equipment.
A renovation project helped expand what was basically a classroom into a large working area that includes the classroom, a control booth and the studio where camera operators and news anchors set up for a daily newscast.
“I love it,” said Lacey Henning, 16, a junior who served as a co-anchor for the news this week. “I love talking in front of people.”
Henning is eying a career in Christian radio. Her co-anchor, Megan Wheeler, 17, also a junior, enjoys the TV production program but has unrelated career aspirations. She wants to be a Christian counselor.
The girls open their newscast with a hearty, “Good morning, Wildcats,” said in unison.
Each school day, the five-minute newscast is recorded, then uploaded to YouTtube where teachers can show it to students. In the 2014-15 school year, the academy plans to move to live streaming of the newscast, though it will still be available on YouTube.
Some students enjoy going on camera.
“That’s the reason I wanted to be in this to begin with,” said Annalisa Shiwbalak, a 17-year-old senior.
Others shy from the exposure, preferring to work behind the scenes.
“You’ll never see me in front of the camera,” said Alanis Smith, 16, a sophomore.
Ditto for Christian Bjornsen, 18, a senior who plans to major in film at the University of Central Florida.
“I don’t like being on camera,” he said.
Regardless, students involved in the academy do share something in com0mon.
“Everybody has a passion for it,” said Evan Mirocke, 16, a junior.
Willoughby, with former television experience working for Fox 13 and WTSP Channel 10, is known for telling students to grab a camera and go anytime something happens on campus. They joke about a testing day, when students relaxed by playing Monopoly after they finished their test. Willoughby sent a crew to film the Monopoly faceoff.
As much as they laugh about it, the teens said that turned out well.
In addition to working on the newscast, students learn the history of television, create videos and have homework assignments that require them to watch television. Some students are entering videos in a competition sponsored by the Florida Association for Media in Education.
Some future students should have a head start when they arrive on campus. Weightman Middle School, next door to the high school, launched a TV production program this year to feed into the academy in the same way the middle school’s agriculture program prepares students for a similar high school program, Willoughby said.
One of Willoughby’s favorite anecdotes about the TV production program comes not from a school activity, but from when a few of the students traveled on a church mission trip to Jackson, Tenn. The local CBS affiliate filmed a segment on the mission work and — out of all kinds of students from various locales — happened to ask Torres to go on camera.
She was handed a clip-on microphone with a wire that needed to be hidden beneath her clothes. Before the TV reporter could explain how to attach the microphone, Torres deftly had it in place.
The surprised reporter asked how Torres knew what to do with the microphone.
“I learned it at school,” she replied.