By Rachel Madison
Todd “TJ” Stephens is one of those rare people who already knows what he wants to do with his life. At 18 years of age, that’s a big deal.
Since he was just a young boy, Stephens has been making films. At first, it was stop motion after his mother signed him up for a class on the subject. Next, he was filming live action gun fights with his friends just for fun.
And now? Not only does Stephens make hype videos for nearly every sport at Liberty Hill High School—including football, volleyball and cross country—but he also makes short films for local film festivals and competitions. On top of that, Stephens maintains and frequently posts new content onto his YouTube channel, Todd Jason Films, which has more than 700 subscribers and videos that have been viewed thousands of times.
The LHHS senior acknowledges that his passion can be difficult—it requires numerous pieces of filming equipment and countless hours of editing—but for the most part, it’s just plain fun. Stephens said his inspiration for filmmaking comes from two things: Steven Spielberg and music.
Spielberg’s movies, particularly “Jurassic Park,” have always inspired Stephens. Growing up, every time he’d watch “Jurassic Park,” he’d also go to the “extras” menu on the DVD and watch the behind the scenes content to learn about how the film was made.
“I was a typical young boy who was into dinosaurs,” he said. “But as I got more into filmmaking I realized the stuff [Spielberg] did was the stuff I was doing.”
Stephens added that music is where many of his storylines come from, starting with images that pop into his head.
“When I listen to music I get images in my head and I want to bring those images to reality,” he said. “I try to develop the story behind them. Say I see an image where someone gets hit by a train. I need to develop a reason behind that. So then I start thinking more and more and the process is started just from one idea.”
In order to fuel his passion, Stephens has spent the last two summers taking classes at the Austin School of Film. Through the film school, he was also able to participate in South by Southwest’s Annual Youth M.A.F.I.A Day Film Festival & Screening in 2017. M.A.F.I.A. stands for Make a Film In a Day, which is exactly what Stephens and his teammates had to do.
“You’re locked in a building for 24 straight hours, and you get a team of five people, a prop and a genre,” he said. “You have to make a film using those things. We got a helmet for a prop and the horror genre. We came up with the idea that whoever was wearing the helmet is possessed by a demon. We developed a story about two sisters who discover the helmet, one girl is curious and puts it on, and then it goes downhill from there. That one is called ‘Our Lullaby.’”
The 24 hours of work paid off. Stephens’ team took second place for fan favorite at the festival.
Stephens is now working on a short film project with Austin School of Film and the Mozilla Foundation—a nonprofit organization that works to keep the Internet an open and accessible global public resource.
“Film schools around the country chose people who have taken their classes, and I was one of the five people selected to participate,” Stephens said. “The project is called a five by five. Each of us will make a very short 30-second to two-minute film that shows what our lives are like behind the camera. I’m looking forward to that. It’s meant to help educate aspiring filmmakers.”
Another project Stephens just completed for the University Interscholastic League’s Young Filmmakers Festival is a short film titled “Vigilante Justice,” which tells the story of a brother’s quest to seek revenge after a deadly drug takes the life of his sister.
He learned this week that his film has made it to the second round—and will know by Feb. 9 if he is a state semi-finalist. State finalists will be announced by the end of February.
This project is important for Stephens because it’s the first short film he has written, directed, shot and edited completely on his own.
LHHS Theater Director Chuck Harris was Stephens’ sponsor for UIL. Stephens also credits Harris for guiding him through the screenwriting process of his film, especially because he is the only student from Liberty Hill who competes in the film portion of UIL.
“His first year, as a freshman, TJ did a PSA for not texting and driving using Minecraft characters,” said Cheryl Stephens, TJ Stephens’ mother. “It was all animated and he finished 11th in the state in animation. I think he’ll go further this year than he has in past years for sure. The quality of this film is just amazing.”
The inspiration behind “Vigilante Justice” comes from a personal, private family experience, which in part is why it’s Stephens’ favorite project to date.
“I wanted to step things up a notch my senior year, so I used a casting website to hire volunteer actors,” he said. “It was also a lot more fun to make. The final fight scene was in the rain, which was torture for us but made for a great scene.”
Portions of the film were shot in Liberty Hill with familiar backdrops including Lions Foundation Park and the LHHS parking lot.
After high school, Stephens has aspirations of going to Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where he can earn a bachelor of fine arts degree in film. His portfolio has been submitted to the university, and now it is a waiting game to see if he will be accepted. If he is accepted, he will start school there in the fall.
“TJ’s dedication, love of the art and talent are why he [will go far],” Cheryl Stephens said. “He has a good work ethic. He stays up until the middle of the night getting stuff done. If he starts a project, he doesn’t stop until it’s done.”
To view Stephens’ films, visit his YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/user/tjracer24.