Running Through the Gamut
Students get a taste of different filmmaking disciplines in Jana Memel’s MPTV 234 class
(L–R) Actors Alea Mosley and Ignacio Lopez and students Xiuzhu “MiMi” Guo, Marcus Vaughn, Qiang “Celine” Guo, Bryan Wilks film a scene for Blood Money, an MPTV 234 project. Photo by Nina Tabios.
Shoot day was going well for Cyrus Esfandiari and his group up until about 3 p.m. on April 11, right when their three-hour shoot window was starting to close. At the peak of crunchtime, their camera started malfunctioning: The SLR wasn’t reading the SD cards correctly and batteries were faulty. In a last-ditch effort, director Marcus Vaughn whipped out his smartphone and recorded the last scenes to his mobile device as time ticked away.
“Everything was running pretty smoothly at first,” said Esfandiari, a second-year directing major. “We were a little behind schedule but we were starting to catch up. Then everything just went downhill.”
Esfandiari, Vaughn, a second-year cinematography major, and Qiang “Celine” Guo, a second-year directing major, are one team in School of Motion Pictures & Television Executive Director Jana Memel’s Scene Production Laboratory class (MPTV 234) at Academy of Art University. The students just wrapped the second cycle of the course which is meant to replicate the real-world experience of filmmaking.
Memel said the class is unique because it brings all of the film disciplines into one.
“We’ve been teaching them in isolation, basically,” Memel explained. “This is what cinematography is, this is what sound design is, this is what producing is, this is what directing is and so forth. But we haven’t taught them the entire discipline coming together as a unit.”
In MPTV 234, students are broken up into groups of three and each one plays either the role of director, producer or writer. They have five weeks to complete a film and once one cycle is complete, the students shift roles and the process starts over. The director now becomes the writer, the writer becomes producer, the producer becomes the director and so on. By the end of the semester, the class will have gone through three cycles for a total of 12 mini-films.
Each role handles different tasks; the script writer develops the story idea, the producer acts as the problem-solver and the director oversees the entire operation leading up to and during shoot day.
As a collective, the students run through the gamut. This includes writing and editing scripts, creating lookbooks and shot lists, meeting with cinematographers, sound and production designers and holding auditions, in addition to resolving issues and of course, handling paperwork.
“You have a lot to work with on shoot day and you only have three hours,” Esfaniari said. “Paperwork is the last thing you want to deal with.”
According to Memel, the class is designed to give third-semester students a big picture idea of what it’s like to make films. In addition to collaborating with other like-minded artists and managing all the moving parts on a film set, Memel wanted to show her students lesser-known, but equally important and fulfilling film careers exist.
“When people decide they want to make films, everyone thinks they can only be a director,” she explained. “This class helps students see the different positions and hopefully they find their strengths.”
Memel serves as the executive producer throughout the course; effectively the one who gives the greenlight. During class reads, Memel coaches the writers through story developments to flesh out characters and setting: “In short films, what you see is more important [than] in feature films. What they have on their desk, on their walls is your character’s backstory.”
Playing an executive role, Memel is also there to be mindful of film budgets. One group originally had their story set in a hospital; Memel gently reminded them that hospitals are particularly expensive settings to shoot. She asks the questions of “What role does the setting play in the story? What is the relationship between character and setting?”
“I’ve seen tremendous growth in their storytelling,” Memel said of her students. “A good story doesn’t stop at a good script, it extends from character to music to set design to shot list, and so on.”
“She’s been very supportive. She’s kind of acting as the higher force that steps in whenever we need help but still leaves us to learn for ourselves,” Esfandiari said. “I’m actively figuring out how to work around problems and when I can’t, she’s there to help.”
Despite the complications, Esfandiari commends the end product as “presentable.” The group’s film, titled Blood Money, follows Stanley, a banker riddled with debt, who is fired after being accused of stealing money from the company. As he’s clearing out his desk, a guard implies that Stanley’s boss is the one embezzling money and that Stanley should investigate.
“The final product, really, was saved by Marcus’ directing,” he said. “We were faced with lights and cameras breaking down and just general mishaps. We had so many technical issues that I think it bogged down the quality of the film, but we were still able to get great shots.”
After the groups show their final drafts to the class, everyone shifts gears for the next script for the last film cycle. Ideas of cyborgs, magic books, car accidents and trapped co-workers fighting over cat food float around and the students of MPTV 234 prepare to make another mini-film.
When asked if the class needed any tweaks for the fall semester, Memel said the only change would be to ensure there were enough people available for sound, camera and editing. Other than administrative adjustments, she said the department was very happy with how MPTV 234 worked out for the students.
Memel believes the class not only pushes students to test what they’ve learned in in MPTV 234, it also empowers them so that they can actually put those skills to use. The class has allowed them to see what they’re capable of and she’s there to help them recognize their potential.
“I think that they were really scared at the beginning on if they could do this. Now I see confident filmmakers,” she said. “It excites me to see students really coming into their own. I think that’s what this class has allowed people to see—that they can do this. It’s exciting to see how truly talented they are, to be able to help them know that about themselves.”