Career Classroom: County vocational-technical schools help students break into N.J.’s booming TV and film industry

New Jersey has earned the designation “Hollywood East” with a growing number of location shoots, studios and sound stages. That growth now includes an investment of more than $850 million by Netflix to create one of the largest production facilities in the world — right at Fort Monmouth. 

Maximizing these spaces takes skilled employees both in front of and behind the cameras. Luckily, New Jersey has a homegrown talent pipeline fed by county vocational-technical schools. The schools’ highly focused programs train students early on for roles in entertainment and the arts.

Nearly right next door to the future Netflix site, Monmouth County Vocational School District operates the Communications High School, which exposes students over four years to different paths within the broad communications field. Students begin to narrow their focus in their junior and senior years after discovering their talents and interests.

“Going to high school at CHS was entirely instrumental in me choosing my career path,” said 2015 graduate Vivian Lau, a self-employed director of photography in the film industry. After enrolling in CHS with a plan to study journalism, Lau said she instead “fell in love with film production” and cultivated skills in cinematography under the guidance of her instructor, David Salowe. She recalled how, during her junior and senior year film classes, she realized her “path lay in moving images” as she learned by doing under Salowe’s direction.

Vivian Lau, a 2015 graduate of Communications High School within the Monmouth County Vocational School District, is now a freelance director of photography. ­— Courtesy Vivian Lau

“I didn’t fully appreciate the camera equipment and computer labs at CHS until I went to college and realized most students had not had access to such tools,” Lau continued about her high school experience. “All of the resources I had at CHS made my transition to film school seamless, and I never felt like I struggled to keep up in college with the technical aspects because of the head start I got at CHS.”

That head start propelled Lau to success at Emerson College, where she graduated cum laude with a B.A. in visual media production. Today, she noted the skills she has honed, starting in high school, have earned her jobs on feature films, short films, commercials, music videos and documentaries. She has had her commercial work featured on the world’s biggest stage — Times Square — for big-name clients, such as Nike, Vogue, LG and the artist Lil Nas X.

Jody Lazarski, video production instructor at Passaic County Technical-Vocational Schools, said her district’s audio visual production program is on par with college-level programs. Her students’ head start often includes college credits through dual enrollment with nearby colleges and universities.

Lazarski said that, like MCVSD, PCTVS offers students tools to train on that are in line with what they may use in college and as a professional. She listed a few of the many state-of-the-art features at her school: a whisper room for voiceover work, a Broadcast Pix Switcher, vMix operations, a robotic PTZ camera, a Yamaha TF1 audio console and more.

Lazarski said students use the equipment throughout their four years of high school, progressing from executing public service announcements and music videos to producing interview-style news programs and their own films. Her students’ work caught the attention of David Schoner from the New Jersey Motion Picture and Television Commission, who has visited PCTI School of Communications Arts in an advisory role. 

“He saw the work my students were doing, and he nominated me,” said Lazarski, regarding her recent honor as Educator of the Year at the Garden State Film Festival. 

Jody Lazarski, video production instructor at Passaic County Technical-Vocational Schools, celebrates three of her students whose films were “official selections” in this year’s Garden State Film Festival. — Passaic County Technical-Vocational School

Louis Libitz, instructor of cinematography and film/video production at East Brunswick Magnet School, part of the county vocational school district named Middlesex County Magnet Schools, received that same honor last year. He also helps students produce exceptional films that they submit to festivals throughout the tri-state, and even nationally and internationally.

Just this year, Libitz’s students have participated in six different festivals, with multiple students often accepted to each one. He keeps a running list of their festival accomplishments, dating back to 2015, a year after he started teaching at the school. The experience he brought into the classroom from working in both experimental and documentary-style films has influenced the quality of his students’ video works. 

But, Libitz is humble about the impact he has had, noting it is “all about the students.” He added, “The work they produce speaks for itself; their success is just incredible.” 

Libitz’s coworker at MCMS, Lea Anello, is preparing a different cohort of students to enter the entertainment industry through the arts technology program. Her students support peers throughout the MCMS School of the Arts studying theater, dance, digital filmmaking, graphic design/commercial art and illustration, multimedia art and design, and music performance and technology. Together, they put on 11 different shows a year. 

Anello’s students take on design and production roles to pull important elements like the sets, lights, costumes and props all together, in addition to stage management. She said they spend about two years “learning a little bit about everything” before focusing on one aspect of entertainment design and production. 

“For those students who love to run the shows, I steer them towards the stagehands union, and I have no doubt many of those students will be designing sets for TV soon,” she said.

The program, like others at county vocational-technical schools, has a close affiliation with the IATSE stagehands union and graduates apprentices every year who go straight into the field. Greg Hancox, president of Local 59, regularly visits both Lazarski’s and Anello’s students to help them understand the requirements and benefits of apprenticeship, and to talk about the ever-expanding opportunities in the industry. 

Louis Libitz helps students produce original films, from concept to final edit, as an instructor of cinematography and film/video production at East Brunswick Magnet School, part of Middlesex County’s vocational-technical high school. ­— Courtesy Isaiah Gomez

Students across county vocational-technical schools not only connect with and learn from industry professionals, like Hancox, on campus, but they often have built-in space in their curriculum for workplace learning. This is a requirement for Communications High School students at MCVSD, and both current and past students continue to reflect on its value. 

Senior Aaron Diament plans to attend Dodge College of Film and Media Arts at Chapman University in the fall. He said he is increasingly confident about these next steps because of his current mentorship with StoneDog Studios in Freehold, where he is helping to build sets and props for movies and TV shows: “I know I will need to construct my own sets in college for the films that I work on.” He is ready for that challenge.

Emily Winter, a 2015 CHS graduate, said her mentorship with Shamrock Communications in Tinton Falls turned out to be the “most beneficial real-world experience.” Not only did she assist on shoots, where she learned industry lingo and practiced her technical skills, but she learned how to be a professional in the industry: “I learned the importance of being on time, the length of time to budget for preparation, the best way to load in gear and so much more.”

Winter continued to keep in touch with the Shamrock team, which led to paid jobs when she was on break from Clemson University. It also gave her a bit of assurance that she could take on a fast-paced, high-pressure role shortly after graduating college.

Today, she works as part of the broadcasting team for NBC Sports and is currently preparing for Kentucky Derby coverage. Her main role, however, is as a sideline assistant for “Thursday Night Football,” which requires her to juggle a number of responsibilities, from coordinating scenic shots of host cities to feeding information to the sideline reporter during the game. Although live TV has its challenges, Winter said she “felt prepared for it because of the preparation she received in her CHS classes.”

As an instructor, Lazarski said each student’s success story fuels her purpose as a county vocational-technical school teacher: “My job is to help my students build their resume and gain skills and experiences that set them apart; in my opinion, these kids could work anywhere.”

This series on education and industry is presented by the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools.