Class gives film students a taste of real life

4:50 a.m., Saturday: At an hour when most students might be found in bed, writhing from the spoils of a weekend night, junior Andi Riveron, a student film producer, is awake and waiting for her ride to a 12-hour day on set.

Action · Film school students are assigned principal crew positions for four faculty-approved scripts. The crew of Little Spoon started preliminary filming in February in the house of lighting director Katie Mitchell. - Photos courtesy of Jane O’Neill

“This past week I’ve been saying, ‘I’m never producing again,’” Riveron laughed, knowing the majority of her day will be spent wrangling, feeding and energizing up to 30 cast and crew members.

Riveron is currently enrolled in a class known ominously among cinema students as “480,” and her early-morning wake-up is all in the name of a good grade.

Designed to mirror the workings of a professional film set, Production Workshop I (CTPR 480) students are assigned principal crew positions for four faculty-approved short film scripts, each of which is directed by a veteran of the class.

Little Spoon, the film that Riveron is producing, concerns the withdrawal of a self-describe “spooning” addict, whose family problems suggest a need for intimate human contact.

The course is taken by many students hoping to direct similar scripts in the future.

“Ultimately, I want to direct,” said junior Alysia Russo, the film’s assistant director. “But anything you can do to put yourself on set is valuable. My job puts me close to nearly every department in the production.”

According to most principal crew members, the greatest challenge of the class is managing a large team full of different ideas and opinions.

“In an ideal world, your crew would be totally synchronized,” Riveron said. “I think the biggest problem we face is taking too long in making decisions. In a leadership position, you have to be forceful and be the boss.”

Professor Michael Peyser, who teaches the course, said he agrees.

“Everyone makes their own movie,” he said. “But what 480 students learn is that everyone is making the movie. Even the directors and writers who know what the film is discover it in that group endeavor.”

Preliminary filming for Little Spoon started at the beginning of February in the Los Angeles home of lighting director, junior Katie Mitchell. When it arrived, the day was uncomfortably hot.

The halls of Mitchell’s house were festooned with coffin-sized metal cases, racks of light stands and multi-colored piles of cables. In the front yard, production assistants assembled a 15-foot tall silk to block sunlight as Mitchell’s mother, Joyce, watched with a mixture of fascination and unease.

The day played out like a football game, with production halting after each take. Dead camera batteries were swapped for fresh ones. Endless adjustments were made to the position of the camera and diffusion of lights. The day’s final shot — in which the camera moves away from the house on a long, angled dolly track — was assembled with painstaking precision. Wedging wooden blocks beneath the tracks and taking level measurements, the crew struggled to hide their exhaustion.

Though no one on the project is financially compensated for their work, Mitchell is quick to note the importance of production assistants.

“Everybody that’s not in the class is not being paid and we have to remember that,” she said. “We have to treat them with respect as a part of the crew. We need them.”

According to Mitchell, kind gestures work wonders on and off the set.

“Once, the crew got left with loading the van,” she recalled. “Alec [the director of photography] and I felt really bad and took them out to lunch.”

Despite the challenges of the work, the camaraderie of the principal crew has brought assistant members back to set each weekend.

“The chemistry on this set is the best I’ve ever seen,” said freshman Alanna Hanson, a key grip. “More than anything, seeing such a well-run film set makes me want to work on others.”

Two weeks later, the crew relocated to an apartment building on The Row, this time with actors, shooting an irreverent “Spooners Anonymous” meeting. The atmosphere was notably pleasant.

The actors enjoyed themselves and caused a lot of laughter among the crew, which now operated with lightning efficiency and care. Lighting decisions were made with little debate; camera positions changed in seconds. At one point, a loose cable nearly sent a victim crashing to the floor. Instantly, however, Riveron secured it with tape.

While enthusiastic about the production, the crew did not hide their anticipation of the film’s wrap and the inevitable celebrations. The film will screen after finals week, but before that night of exaltation, many hours will be spent in the basement of the George Lucas Building, digitally trimming scenes and taming audio levels.

“We held a public screening last night for a group of uninvolved viewers,” co-producer junior Taylor Luce recounted. “The film is coming along well. With each edit, the story becomes more clear, concise and effective.”

The film’s May 13 premiere will mark the end of a collective endeavor that has taken considerable residency in the lives of its makers.

“After we wrap, we can go back to being ourselves,” said Mitchell.