When Wharton sophomore Kota Yamamoto started Penn in 2020, the traditional red and blue balloon arches, scattered move–in carts, and awkward first meetings took a back seat to Zoom links and surgical masks. At the height of the COVID–19 pandemic, he sought camaraderie, comfort, and a creative outlet, and soon began to search for a community outside of Penn’s pre–professional sphere.
At Penn, Kota aimed to take advantage of the opportunity to explore his creative ambitions without academic pressure. Feeling that many of Penn’s clubs were business–oriented and overly competitive, he instead looked for “something more creative and different—a ‘nobody does it kind’ of thing.” Shortly after his first days of college life, he found it in a small, but “unique” club as he calls it: Penn’s premier film production group Bent Button Productions.
Now the Vice President, Kota quickly came up through the ranks. Despite the limitations of a virtual film set, he’s worked on numerous films such as D_STANCED, What’s Underneath, and Brendan Ash: The Rise to Stardom. The latter is a TikTok mockumentary that Bent Button shot last semester, which Kota cites as his favorite piece thus far. The piece explores an oblivious TikTok user's career as an "influencer," subtly ridiculing the obnoxious teenager. As the first film he worked on in–person following Penn’s strict health and safety guidelines, it holds a special place in his heart, and there's a glean in his eye as he describes the strenuous, but rewarding process. “We did try to make films over Zoom so that's fun, but also, it didn't feel like filmmaking. This film we actually did in person and went to different locations, so it was a fun and memorable experience,” he explains.
Though he “acted in an amateur film over the summer," the majority of Kota’s film experience comes from Bent Button. The club allows its members to explore a variety of pre–production and post–production roles such as camera–operating, story–boarding, script–writing, and video–editing, making two five–to ten–minute short films throughout the semester. As the Director of Photography for projects such as D_STANCED and Brendan Ash: The Rise to Stardom, he “visualizes the script.” Communicating with the director and camera operator to create a storyboard that is not only feasible, but coherent, he describes the camera angles, background music, and action in a scene.
As a long–time movie fan—which is what at first drew him to Bent Button—Kota noticed a shift in his viewing habits after working on film projects with the club. In particular, he expressed an interest in horror films and the decisions that go into creating their signature effects. “I really focus on the camera work and how the film is made. I look at the movie differently. So horror movies are interesting in that aspect because there's a lot of camera movements that try to make it look more scary and try to make uncomfortable vibes,” he explains.
When asked about his future in filmmaking, Kota hesitates. While filmmaking is a passion project of his, he isn't quite sure how it fits into his career aspirations yet. That said, he considers his time at Bent Button to be invaluable and tells me that it’s a hobby that he’ll carry with him no matter what career path he follows. “It’s a tangible thing,” he says. “You get something that’s going to last forever.”
Filmmaking “requires very holistic skills," Kota explains, "and I love how what you can learn varies from different aspects." As a Wharton student, he finds that filmmaking combines the best of the two worlds. "It requires business skills like producing the film, scheduling, and then you require all the artistic skills. How do you film it?" he says.
Kota's future may be uncertain, but his excitement for the present is contagious. The VP shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon as he tells me about Bent Button's current project: one–pager scripts. He flashes a smile as he animatedly elaborates: “We usually do one script for a project but this time we're trying to do multiple one–pager scripts... so that more people can try different roles and [we can] get more people included or engaged." Though he's dipped his toes in camera–operating, storyboarding, and acting, he notes that he would love to write a script and direct a film in the future.
To students struggling to reconcile career and passion, Kota suggests ignoring the peer and academic pressures that come with a university that so heavily emphasizes pre–professionalism. “If you're at Penn, you kind of [feel like you] have the obligation to join a business club but I feel like... you can have the business experience outside of school and through your classes,” he explains. “I just think a lot of people have an interest in exploring the arts and creative side of themselves, but don't do it... try to decide based on your passion, not what others are doing.”
Kota most certainly recognizes that there's value in a hobby, and he knows how to distill its potential. Regardless of his future endeavors, it’s clear that what he's learned from Bent Button will follow him beyond Penn. As he well knows, filmmaking skills are not one–size fits all, and Bent Button gives students the opportunity to figure out who they are outside of work.