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It’s dawn. UW sophomore Allison Urban is finally heading home after spending 13 hours on a sailboat moored near campus. She arrived the previous afternoon to set up lighting for a scene being filmed on the boat; she finished dismantling the lights at 5 a.m.
It was all in a day’s work for Urban, one of 27 students producing a feature-length film through a UW course, “Digital Production Studio.” The students served as the film’s cinematographers, assistant directors, set designers, gaffers (lighting), sound technicians, and everything in between. “I don’t think anybody on the set did a little bit of anything,” says Urban. “We all did a lot of everything.”
The course was the brainchild of Noel Paul, a doctoral student in Digital Arts and Experimental Media (DXARTS). “I thought, ‘If I could go back to being 19, what is the one UW class I really wish I’d taken?’” says Paul, who had served as a teaching assistant for DXARTS video art courses. “I started thinking along the lines of a large-scale group collaboration.”
Paul pitched the idea to DXARTS director Richard Karpen, who saw potential for a summer offering. Although most DXARTS courses emphasize experimental media, Karpen welcomed this more traditional foray into cinema production.
“One of the grounding principles of DXARTS is that in order to truly embrace the future, you have to embrace the past and tradition,” says Karpen. “We want students to have a love for existing art forms. We want them to know how to do them. And having an instructor like Noel, who is focused on experimental art but
has experience in traditional cinematic production, brings a different kind of
depth to making the film.”
A Rotating Crew
Paul wrote the script for the production, basing it on a children’s book, At the Back of the North Wind, by Scottish author George MacDonald. “I chose the story because it is half fantasy and half real world,” explains Paul. “I wanted to write a script that was completely and totally impossible to make, so that students would be required to find clever and experimental and ingenious ways to get at the essence of what the script was calling for. It involved a ton of problem solving.”
At the beginning of the quarter, just learning the mechanics of cinema production was challenge enough for many of the students. Most arrived with little or no prior experience. Paul and two teaching assistants (TAs)—Sean Porter and Apryl Richards—assigned each student a specific role on the film crew, with the understanding that they could take a turn at other jobs throughout the quarter. Positions ranged from costume and set design to scheduling to technical crafts such as camera, grip, electrical, and sound. (Acting roles were held by local professionals, freeing students to focus on production.)
“Because it was a class, there wasn’t the same hierarchical structure you see on most film sets,” says John Lyon, a fifth year student who had some film and community theatre experience prior to taking the course. “On a commercial set, there is a strict definition of your role. If you are a gaffer, you can be fired for touching anything in the art department. But that wasn’t the case here. It was a very experimental, experiential learning experience.”
Some of the students “made a grand tour, trying every position,” says Paul, “but as time went on, they tended to find their place. They realized what they really liked to do.”
Sophomore Maggie Hess signed up for the course after reading about it in the UW student newspaper, The Daily. With no experience and no idea what role suited her, she met with Paul during spring quarter to discuss her options. “I kept telling him how much I love stories and how I’m in it for the story aspect,” she recalls. “When he asked how I would translate that visually, I just brightened up.”
Based on that conversation, Paul assigned Hess to art direction. He also sent her the script and asked for comments. “The script changed after that, and my changes were in there,” says Hess. “He was incredibly open to feedback. That’s when I realized it would be a great experience.”
That openness pervaded the production. Urban recalls the first time she made a lighting suggestion to the director of photography, an experienced TA. “Normally, when you don’t know what you’re talking about and it’s your first time doing something, you hesitate to speak up,” she says. “But I was able to walk up to him and suggest putting the light in a different place for a different effect. He was completely open to trying it out. That’s been incredible. That’s how I learn best.”
And learn she did. Although Urban started as a second assistant camera person, she rotated to camera operator after the third week and discovered something remarkable: she had a real talent for it. “It turns out she has a really great eye for framing,” says Paul. “She’s just a natural.”
Other students had similar revelations. “The coolest part of the class was seeing these students blossom and realize, ‘Wow, I can do this,’” says Paul. “They really rose to the challenges, which were many and were great. I was very impressed.”
One of the challenges was making something out of nothing. The budget for the production was a mere $5,000—less than most feature films spend on lunch.
It helped that the students provided free labor. It helped even more that they were indefatigable.
“I’d get off of a 12- or 14-hour day and be ready for more,” says Urban. “I couldn’t take a step back. It completely dominated my life. I was so connected to the project and the people involved. For me, it wasn’t just a class.”
Adds Lyon, “The crew was like family. People came from different departments and had different reasons for being here, but we all share a love of film. Based on that, we built some pretty strong friendships.”
Still, sweat and camaraderie will only get you so far. There are expenses in making a film. Sets ate up most of the meager budget, even with the crew devising low-cost solutions.
“I had no idea how we would do it,” admits Stefan Moore, a junior who served as second assistant director. “When I read the script, it seemed like the most expensive movie to make. We were forced to be really creative.”
Because the story combined fantasy and reality, the crew had to build—among other things — an iceberg, a tree, a fantasy land of snow and ice cliffs, and a boat cabin. And a bedroom with a ceiling that resembled a real night sky.
Moore remembers being particularly impressed with the
iceberg, a fiberglass and wood structure covered in fake snow. “With fans and fog machines going, it looked pretty real,” he recalls.
For Hess, the “mystery transformation” of potentially cheesy materials into believable sets was a favorite aspect of the production. “The mystery piece is the difference between what you build and what you see behind the camera,” she explains. “Once you have the lighting and the shot framed, it becomes real instead of a set. The idea of raw materials making themselves into something entirely different on camera is just incredible.”
At a Theatre Near You? Probably Not
When will the rest of us be able to see the finished product? A handful of students are editing the film and composing a musical score this fall; Paul anticipates completing the project by later November. “I owe it to the students to get it finished so they have something to show their friends and family,” he says.
Hess has already shown her father a sample trailer. “He said with surprise, ‘You’re making a real movie!’ she recalls with a laugh. “And I responded, ‘Yes, that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.’”
A wider release, however, is unlikely. The production was designed as a learning experience, not a professional feature. And it has already accomplished its goal.
“This movie was made to tell a story,” says Hess, “and not just the story of the script. It’s also our story. It’s the first time many of us were exposed to all this. For some of us, it’s the first time we’ve been so passionate about a project.”
As a result of the class, Urban plans to pursue a career in cinema. “I’m ready to dive in and do more,” she says. “This just fits for me. The passion is unleashed. I’ve never encountered anything like that before.”
Hess is less certain about a future in cinema but no less inspired by the course.
“This production has shown us what we are capable of,” she says. “Our abilities have always been there, but the real gift is that now we are aware of them. And that is of incredible value.