The ‘Aves’ and the Have-Nots: Finding a Team to Create a Memorable Short Film Showpiece

The amazing program in the Masters of Fine Arts at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles allows students to focus on six disciplines of filmmaking. (See related story: AFI Film Fest Focuses on the Up-and-Comers)

Over the two-year course, like-minded students come together to share their expertises in Cinematography, Directing, Editing, Producing, Production Design and Screenwriting and create a short film that will in all hopes be a calling card to show off each of their specific talents.

It’s an exclusive group, only 140s students are accepted a year since the program started in 1969.

The alum from this school includes a notable list not filmmakers such as David Lynch (“Twin Peaks”), Darren Aronofsky (“Black Swan”), Terrence Malick (“Badlands”), Patty Jenkins (“Wonder Woman”), Paul Schrader (“Taxi Driver”), Mimi Leder (“The Morning Show”) and many others.

Cut to this recent year, when one of the most captivating of the student films is “Aves,” a 19-minute film that is so involved, so compact, so rich and so intense that it’s impossible to review without giving something away that could spoil it for audiences.

But how this team came together is kismet in itself, told by Kevin Sweeney, one of the co-writers of this short film. Kevin and Eli Snyder became fast friends in their first year at the school.

James Morrison (from “24”) plays the lead role as Professor Abel Marks

Eli was trying to shed what he is “Known For” on his IMDB page that highlights his acting roles in “Watchman” and “300” but also that he is the son of Zack Snyder who not only directed those two movies, but also “Justice League,” “Man of Steel” and “Army of the Dead.”

Kevin and Eli became caught up with an idea of how no one can escape their past, and how it can catch up with you. Their families dealt with losses and even family members who were survivors of the Holocaust.

“We liked the idea that there’s good and bad in everyone,” Kevin says. They took the idea to the extreme to explore evils also that may lurk inside of all of us.

“We also don’t know anything about war,” Kevin explains. “Our generation has no idea of what the societal impact of what a war is, and what happens to people who live through it.”

Their story, written by Kevin and Eli, and with Kevin’s close friend Hayley Tibbenham, starts off with a close-up of the dissection of a bird’s brain in a college lecture during an ornithology class. The story takes place in the 1990s and the professor, Abel Marks, sees a student at the end of class.

Prof. Marks is haunted by the girl he sees in the class, and he faints. The familiar face makes him relive or recall suppressed memories of an attempted sexual assault and murder while he fought in WWII.

The film delves into the professor’s confused sanity and grip of reality as he desperately tries to find the student and assuage his guilt of something that may have happened in his past.

“Plenty of people did horrible things in their past that they try to suppress, and they live with PTSD, it’s a real thing,” Kevin says.

The team studied a lot about birds, and found out that the word “Aves” is “birds” in Spanish, so that became the metaphor and title. They also watched a lot of short movies, 8 minutes, 12 minutes, good ones, bad ones.

The younger version of the professor is played by Reed Michael Campbell

It’s not surprising that movies such as “Altered States,” “Perfect Blue,” “Midsommar” and “Black Swan” were inspirations for this short film (and that Aronofsky who did “Black Swan” went to their school.

The film leaves some questions open, and that’s what the filmmakers hoped to do.

They found exceptional actors for this short, including the professor played by James Morrison, a recognizable character actor from “24.” The younger version of the professor is played by Reed Michael Campbell and the mysterious student is played by Grace Katharina Hanson, while the main woman who haunts the professor’s dreams is played by Soma Chaya.

“We had a conversation about whether we should get big-name actors and perhaps we could have, but we wanted people who were a good fit, and I think we got that,” Kevin says. “We didn’t want name recognition to overpower the story.”

The film was shot during the second year of their schooling which made it hard because it was the big spike of Covid in early 2022. The school required all the filming have strict testing, especially on locations.

“It was great learning from my peers and we had our ups and downs, but we all pitched in to do all the jobs, big and small,” Kevin says.

Screenwriting, unlike most other kinds of writing, is more of a collaborative process, Kevin discovered.

“I enjoy collaborating and like working with people and bringing the best out of them, because it brings the best out me,” he says.

Kevin and Eli are already working on a future feature project that is very different from “Aves.”

The plan for the short film is to have a world premiere in a film festival such as Sundance or Tribeca. The AFI Film Festival screening got them a great deal of accolades.

Whatever the future, it’s a great calling card to show off what they can all accomplish together.

The team of the short film includes students Shunchao Xu and Tara Austin as producers, Tianyi Liu as the cinematographer, Cyrum A. Ramirez as the production designer and Yijuan “Reggie” Zhao as the editor. All the skills that they honed in the AFI program came to fruition with this masterful short film.

Read more about the short film at: AVES (