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MPTV Students Create Web Sitcom During Collaborative Course

Skill sets were combined and flexibility was the key during the fast paced sessions that emulated behind the scenes life 

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Katherine Genge, Alex Sandru and Pawan Tangsritrakul on the set of web sitcom 'Grounded.' Photo by Bob Toy.

Over the summer, a group of Academy of Art University students transformed an empty room at 466 Townsend Street into a bustling film studio where they shot five episodes of a web sitcom called Grounded. The show revolves around two flight attendants, Roz and Stuart. Both have had flings with a philandering, bisexual captain whose shenanigans are putting their airline in jeopardy. The two are forced to be roommates and deal with the captain’s antics, when they’re grounded in his love shack. 

Grounded was the result of a course that gave students from different departments the chance to work together in an environment designed to mimic the behind the scenes world of an actual TV sitcom.  

 “Making a sitcom is a very difficult process,” said Robert Keats, executive director of the School of Writing for Film, Television & Digital Media. “The students were ‘hired’ for their particular skill sets, then given the opportunity to do their best work and collaborate. This is how TV shows work in the real world.”

Keats’s writing department partnered with the School of Motion Pictures & Television to offer the course. Kenn Ferro, head of the Academy’s cinematography track, taught the class with writing instructor Ken Estin, a two-time Emmy Award winner, who served as the showrunner.

The class met for five and a half hours, twice a week. Each session simulated the fast pace, scheduling and teamwork required to make a TV sitcom. Ferro said that the turnaround time to shoot each webisode was very short, and there was a lot of preparation between takes. So it was important for everyone to focus and stay on task.  

“In a sitcom, if you don’t go with the flow, you’ll have a difficult time,” he explained. “The class was not about one star—everyone had a turn in a leadership role.”

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Sebastian Valles and Marcello Pautasso on the set of web sitcom 'Grounded.' Photo by Bob Toy.

Along with Chadrick Baker, M.F.A student Marcello Pautasso was one of two producers for Grounded. Pautasso admitted that the hectic pace and tight schedules were challenging. But he loved the experience. 

“I worked with the showrunner, saw how writers work and make changes and managed budgets and schedules,” said Pautasso “I want a career in TV and this showed me a piece of what’s waiting for me after school—it was amazing.”

As showrunner, Estin managed the writing team and the day-to-day operations of the sitcom. He also guided students who took turns being showrunners for a day.

“Being on the set with Ken Estin was phenomenal,” said student Kelcie Gruenberg, one of three writers responsible for retooling the original scripts and making on the fly revisions during filming. “He took me under his wing and taught me so much.”

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Deidre Locklear on the set of web sitcom 'Grounded.' Photo by Bob Toy.

Estin was impressed with Gruenberg and the other writers. He was also pleased with how well all of the students worked together, and how they got better and faster at their jobs as the course progressed. 

“In the beginning, it took a long time to do everything,” Estin said. “By the end, it was very quick and efficient. They could do the same projects in half the time.”

Ferro was equally proud of the students. “They exceeded my expectations at every level, from attendance, flexibility, their ability to put problem-solving ahead of egos and their willingness to cooperate with each other.”

He added that it wouldn’t have been possible to make Grounded without support from other departments. Production design teacher Kris Boxell, for example, oversaw the 10-person crew that built the sets for the show from scratch. The cast was comprised of Academy acting students. A team of fashion design students created the actors’ wardrobes. And the multimedia communications department provided cameras and staff. 

It’s clear that the launch of the new collaborative web series production course was a hit for all involved. According to Keats, the class will continue to be offered in the future. “The students not only shot five webisodes in a short time, they also made a great show and had fun doing it,” he said. “That’s a huge success.”