UA Film Students Adapt Hands-On Courses to be COVID-Safe
After the announcement was made in mid-March that The University of Alabama would be transitioning to online learning for at least the rest of the spring semester, a general consensus among students was a difficulty to stay focused without face-to-face instruction.
On top of that, the Journalism and Creative Media (JCM) department specifically had to scrap several film projects, often final class assignments, that were just weeks away from shooting. Most students start with a finished script and begin gathering a crew of, on average, 10-20 peers to fill specialized roles. Everything from costume design to locations to actors is usually finalized and scheduled weeks in advance.
Then news broke from the JCM department that stated for fall 2020, film students would be required to have a limited cast and crew and maintain social distancing requirements.
Several junior and senior film students felt these guidelines would make it near-impossible to complete their assignments due to the close-knit collaborative nature of film sets. Projects like these are often magnum opuses for creative media students, and like with most senior-level students trying to finish their college career strong while navigating a pandemic, the emotional and mental turmoil cannot be fathomed. However, with the help of some new guidelines, a bit of ingenuity and a lot of flexibility, these students are making it work – and making a statement to go along with it.
The JCM department's Production Committee, which is comprised of faculty and staff within the college, adopted the health and safety practices of union film sets across the country. Requirements include the mandate that masks be worn at all times, all crew be responsible for their own meals off-set, and there must be a dedicated crew member ensuring set safety.
UA senior Abba Mellon is a student in "Capstone Directing," a senior-level course designed to take a script and walk through the entire process of planning and shooting to post-production. Each student is designated a weekend to shoot a film and must prepare everything before then.
Mellon chose one of the first available weekends and had to scrap her original, more ambitious idea for a short film and instead adapted an animated short concept for live-action. A new take on the classic Rapunzel tale, "Overgrown" tells the story of a young girl who lives in a garden and befriends an older woman from the other side of her fence.
"It's about connection between women and intergenerational trauma," Mellon said. "This girl has to decide whether she wants to let someone in or continue living in her perfect little garden by herself."
Mellon, who is considered high-risk for COVID-19, mentioned the respect and caution that was taken by all her cast and crew members. She took extra steps in wiping down equipment between takes and ensured hand sanitizer was readily available all weekend. She mentioned that she got a laugh once or twice for carrying around a yardstick between scenes just to make sure guidelines were enforced.
Maya Champion is the instructor for Capstone Directing, and her daughter starred in Mellon's film. Champion elaborated on how students have responded positively to the changing circumstances.
"It's a lot more hands-on of a class than others I teach. [Students] need that constant feedback up to their shoot date so they know exactly what they want to do," Champion said.
As the instructor, Champion found a particularly difficult hurdle when organizing the hybrid class. With a maximum of eight students allowed in the classroom studio space at a time, Champion mentioned how there's less physical activity, including scene workshops and live feedback from students. Instead, students do most of their work with actors and selective crew outside of class and bring it in for critique.
"I think what suffers is the networking part of it," Champion said. "A lot of the students will network in class and have class as their production meetings ... It's like wearing a lot of hats; they're not getting that individual crew learning like, 'This is my position on set, and this is how I do it.' Either that or they have people rotate."
Another senior in the class, Nicholas Ferlisi, echoed those sentiments but found that during his pre-production planning process, there was a more intimate, energetic feeling among his now limited crew. With just a month out before filming, his film shoots the last available weekend before the semester ends.
Like Mellon, Ferlisi felt that having to rethink his script allowed him to hone in on something more meaningful and timely. His short film, entitled "Fading Dreams," follows the story of a young man who comes to terms with his past regrets and experiences through his dreams.
"I think we're in a good place, although there's going to be things even up to shooting that need to be tweaked," Ferlisi said. "This might seem like it's impeding on your creative ability but I don't think that's necessarily true. It doesn't come to a complete stop. I felt that I needed to make something, and make the best of it with restrictions I'm given."
On top of directing his own film, he – like almost every other student – is working on a crew for other classmates' projects. Ferlisi mentioned the feeling of shared responsibility that students on set take on when practicing safety.
"The growing situation with COVID-19 – I mean, that is certainly something that took us by surprise and impacted us, we just didn't realize it at the start," Ferlisi said. "As a director, whether that's official or not, I think it's my responsibility to take care of myself, as well as everyone that's under my care."
Champion agreed, echoing the sentiment that everyone involved in a particular project is responsible for one another.
"I haven't seen anybody act irresponsibly. It's all on us," she said. "Everyone wants to do their film. So everyone's being really careful. This is the time that we're in, this is what we have to do."
Editor's Note: Noah Lueker is an alumnus of the College of Communication and Information Sciences' Department of Journalism and Creative Media. While he knows this article's subjects professionally, he has no affiliation with any of these productions.