Terrifying sock puppets and a heartbroken robot helped area teen Nathan Ginter become a U.S. Presidential Scholar.
“At some point, I just looked around and I was surrounded by these puppets and I was like, ‘I have to do something about this,’” says Ginter, staring into the camera, a look of confused terror on his face as he sits in a darkened room with a table full of puppets of his own creation in front of him.
The scene is from Ginter’s short film Little Voices, which he wrote, directed and starred in. The four-minute 49-second film is a dark comedy about a boy visited every night by a hypercritical sock puppet that is driving the boy insane and, well, to say anything else would be a spoiler.
In June 2017, Ginter submitted Little Voices, along with A Future Day Romance (another live-action short film that tells a comedic, yet tragic love story about a boy and a robot) and a fairly extensive application (“almost like a college application,” he notes), to the National YoungArts Foundation’s national arts competition. Ginter says he didn’t expect anything to come of the application.
“I think that my films are so personal and are small stories that are told in this larger-than-life way and I think that the humor is pretty dark and pretty subtle. We never would have thought that they would be selecting my work for something that was such a national thing.”
To his surprise, Ginter was named a finalist in the competition in November and traveled to Miami in February for a week of classes, mentorship and opportunities to show his work to the public.
“I had disqualified myself due to the nature of what I was making,” Ginter says, “so that really did catch me off-guard.”
The surprises didn’t stop there. Ginter learned in February that YoungArts had nominated him, along with 59 other artists, for the U.S. Department of Education-run U.S. Presidential Scholars Program. Of the 161 students from many disciplines that are annually selected as Presidential Scholars, only 20 are chosen in the arts category.
In May, Ginter learned that he was selected to receive the award, which comes with a $5,000 cash prize along with the honor.
“YoungArts kind of blew my mind and then this is a whole other level,” he says. “It’s really exciting and it’s motivating.”
Ginter traveled to Washington, D.C., in June to receive his Presidential Scholar medallion and had his work exhibited in the Hall of Nations from June 9–July 1.
The making of a filmmaker
Ginter grew up in Kalamazoo and graduated from Interlochen Arts Academy last month. Before he was a Presidential Scholar — in fact, even before he became an student at Interlochen — he was a 5-year-old boy making a “little monster movie” with his dad, Paul Ginter.
“We made this ‘Dracula’ film on the family camcorder and used ketchup for blood,” he says. “And I think after that I was just really obsessed with it. I always loved watching films, and growing up I always called myself a filmmaker, even before I was making films by myself.”
By middle school, Ginter says, he was making films with his friends. They would come up with and shoot the films “on the spot” and then give their families premiere showings.
As Ginter got older, he became more and more invested in filmmaking and was “obsessed” with movie directors’ commentaries and behind-the-scenes featurettes.
In 2013 he debuted a nine-minute 49-second mockumentary called Zombie Life at the Kalamazoo Teen Filmmaker Festival. It won the festival’s People’s Choice Award that year.
“It’s so different when you experience people reacting to your film and you get a sense of what’s working and what’s not working,” Ginter says.
Aubrey Rodgers, program coordinator at Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s Center for New Media, spent a few years teaching the young Ginter film-editing skills.
As Nathan matured, Rodgers says, she stepped back from directly teaching him, becoming more of a mentor, critiquing his work and providing advice when necessary.
“When I met him as a young teenager, he was just so committed to learning different types of film techniques and trying to come up with creative and unique storytelling,” Rodgers says. “Whether it’s with dark humor or just the editing style, it has a little bit of an unexpected and unpredictable aspect to storytelling, and I think that’s what makes his stuff unique.”
Finding like minds
Ginter attended Portage Central High School as a freshman and sophomore before transferring for his junior and senior years to Interlochen Arts Academy, the renowned residential school for artists in Interlochen, Michigan, near Traverse City.
“When I was going to high school back in Kalamazoo, I was spending so much of my time working on these school projects that weren’t an interest of mine,” Ginter says. “The amount of time that was going to that kind of limited the amount of time I could spend on these creative things.”
At Interlochen, which has about 500 students, Ginter was enrolled in the school’s motion picture arts area. This gave him an opportunity to spend more time focusing on his filmmaking and opportunities to connect with students with similar interests.
“My friend group in Kalamazoo was always really supportive and down to be in front of the camera, behind the camera and help out,” he says, “but that’s not their passion or what they were interested in, so I was just really excited to meet more kids like me.”
This fall Ginter will meet even more people like himself when he attends college at the Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn, New York. He says he isn’t sure what his future career will look like, but hopes to continue working in short films and one day make feature films.
“The dark comedy, satire or horror elements in my work are a way of exploring difficult ideas or hard-to-grapple-with themes in a way that is manageable or even fun,” he says. “I constantly aspire to shine a light into the darkness of the world for myself and think that connecting with others over those ideas is really amazing.”