Studio Time: Jeff Natalie's ErieKIDS and J Michael Films
Posted Nov 8, 2007

Raised in a 100% Sicilian family, Jeff Natalie learned from a young age the importance of having strong family relationships and the effect those relationships have not only on the family itself, but the surrounding community as well. Natalie credits his parents with instilling in him traditional European values, which include the necessity to work through issues as they arise. He also credits his father for his heightened awareness of the sacrifices necessary to have a successful family life. "My father worked two jobs to provide the life he thought we deserved," Natalie recalls, "and he knew he did not have a choice in the matter. And there are some things in life you do not have a say in." And referring to the direction he’s taken in his own adult life, as a videographer and founder of a nonprofit organization called ErieKIDS, Natalie says, "I will never not have enough energy for helping kids."

The values Natalie learned from his parents led him to a career in psychotherapy focused on therapy for children and families. After going into private practice in 1998, Natalie found himself with the time to give presentations in the community covering common issues with children and families and how to deal with them successfully. But it was at the suggestion of his wife, Leslie, that he decided to go beyond the talks and give a name and structure to what he did. The result: ErieKIDS.

ErieKIDS is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to help families to change in response to children’s mental health issues, and to advocate change in the community. "ErieKIDS" stands for Emotional Resilience through Information and Entertainment with Knowledge, Involvement, Discipline, and Support. "There are families that do not know how to be a family," Natalie says. "There is a loss of parenting skills, there is a confusion of roles and whose responsibility it is to parent a child, and what children actually need in terms of direction."

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Natalie wants to use ErieKIDS as a means to reach out to the community and create a context for families to learn how to create a successful environment within the family unit. ErieKIDS uses many outlets as tools to achieve its goal, such as community education through its website, training sessions for both families and community counselors, and children’s mental health videos.

Natalie believes that the videos are the future and success of ErieKIDS. All of the videos are musically based and carry the same core cast of characters. Intended audiences are children in the pre-kindergarten to grade 6 age range—a fairly wide range for targeted educational material. "We were amazed at how much the younger children understood," Natalie says, "and that the older children notice the more subtle messages embedded in the videos."

The videos’ topics go back to his original community talks, introducing the importance of family structure, childhood anger, childhood depression, and childhood anxiety. Natalie has already completed videos covering the first two topics, Lost in Erie and Emily Gets Angry. A third video, In the Middle, is now in production. Natalie says, "There was no intention to go beyond the first movie, but the response spurred us to do the second, then the third, and to hopefully finish the whole series."

In the Middle
ErieKIDS’ latest video project, In the Middle, deals with the important topic of childhood depression caused by divorce. The opening scene depicts the parents of the main character, Ari, signing divorce papers. The story progresses through typical issues caused by the changes that arise in broken households. It also deals with concerns such as warring and self-absorbed parents that cause children to feel lost and isolated. Through its musical numbers and carefully worded dialogue, Ari, and hopefully viewers in similar situations, learn that they are not alone and that there is hope and help to be had.

figure 1"We are trying to show that high-conflict divorce is really the norm," Natalie says. "Kids that are going through tough fights between their parents often get lost in the turmoil. And while I will not give away the ending, it is not a ‘mom and dad get back together’ solution. We want to show what is real."

The Videography Dream Team
To fund ErieKIDS and the production of the videos, Natalie started an Erie County, Pennsylvania-based event videography business called J Michael Films. J Michael Films produces television, radio, and print ads, along with wedding and event videos. Currently, the studio produces about 15 events a year.

In his time spent producing videos for J Michael Films, Natalie continually looks to for inspiration and assistance. Through VU, Natalie has connected with many successful videographers—many of whom he has turned to for help in making the ErieKIDS videos. Those who have lent a hand include Steve and Laura Moses of Vantage Point Productions, Mark and Trisha Von Lanken of Picture This Productions, Laura and Chris Randall of Edit 1 Media, and Jenn Moak of Images by Moak. All of these videographers, Natalie says, "have a finger on the pulse of what is beautiful in our society today, and they also get the mission of ErieKIDS and its importance in the community."

Each contributes to ErieKIDS videos in different ways, Natalie says. Steve Moses supplies sound and intelligent advice. Laura Moses helps with details, such as suggesting specific scene re-shoots. Similarly, Mark Von Lanken offers shooting suggestions and also helps with voiceovers and sound. Randall, says Natalie, "just knows things that make small changes, but a big difference."

Finally, there is Moak, who Natalie considers his mentor, saying, "She gives tough advice in a productive way." Overall, Natalie considers these videographers "a perfect team" and admits with no hesitation that their "range of responses has made the movies better."

The Technical Stuff
The shooting of Natalie’s event work differs from the ErieKIDS videos in that for the latter he is going for "the film look," as opposed to the "documentary feel" he shoots for with his event videography. He attributes the distinction between the two approaches to to the difference of shooting and editing styles and the equipment he uses. In his event work, Natalie uses two cameras, a Panasonic DVX100B and a Sony PD150, shooting in 60i. With ErieKIDS he uses the Panasonic DVX100B, but shoots in 24p to create a soft film look.

For audio at events, Natalie uses the less-invasive iRiver to capture all audio. For ErieKIDS, he uses a boom mic for capturing audio and is able to use a mixer and sound technician. With ErieKIDS he is also able to have more control over lighting. Another major difference between his shooting styles is his crew. With his events he has a full staff to help make everything perfect, and with ErieKIDS, the video side, he says, "Tends to be a one-man show, because it has to be done for free!"

Show me the Money!
Although Natalie and his wife put every penny from J Michael Films into ErieKIDS, it is not enough to reach their primary goal: distributing their videos to every elementary school in Pennsylvania. While they have nonprofit status, most people, Natalie says, are wary of giving them money and ask, "What’s in it for you?"

The responses in schools that ErieKIDS has reached have been overwhelmingly positive. Aside from the various grants they have applied for, Natalie is currently working with a county executive to secure funding with the hope of getting the Pennsylvania governor involved. And just recently, Natalie was nominated for Erie's Young Professional of the Year.

The Future of ErieKIDS
Natalie’s ultimate goal, aside from successfully distributing each of the children’s mental health videos, is to become a "nonprofit for nonprofits."He hopes to provide specific services for other nonprofits: branding, supporting them on technical issues, producing audio and video, and creating print and web advertisements. What’s more, Natalie says, "Our first-hand knowledge of creating and maintaining a nonprofit allows us a unique perspective on how to help new nonprofits."

So what does Natalie see in the future? Aside from continuing in his three full-time jobs (psychoanalyst, videographer, and president of ErieKIDS), this fall, Natalie started a teaching position at a local college. And if that weren’t enough, Natalie still takes the time to try and be the parent and husband that his father was.

Carly Mulliken is a freelance writer based in Chicago.