Teamwork, collaboration and coordination: How cinema students produce films during the pandemic
It was 4 a.m. in Helsinki, Finland, and pitch black outside — a stark contrast to 2020 graduate Oona Wuolijoki’s bright laptop screen. At a time when many students might be sleeping, Wuolijoki, who majored in cinematic arts, film and television production, was hard at work. She was awake this early because she, like many other international students at USC, rapidly packed up her apartment in a matter of days, booked a last-minute ticket home and began taking online classes mid-March while staying with her family.
Not only did Wuolijoki have to grapple with the time difference, but she also had a movie to produce.
“I pretty much switched my schedule around, like my sleeping schedule, because all the post-production was happening, obviously, during the day L.A. time which is middle of the night Finnish time,” Wuolijoki said. “Because I’m the one that all of the communication flows through, I was staying up a lot.”
All of this work was for Wuolijoki’s “Advanced Production” class, also known as CTPR 480, which is the School of Cinematic Arts’ longest-running production class reserved for students of senior standing. Designed to mimic the creation of a professional film, CTPR 480 students are assigned principal crew positions on four faculty-approved film scripts. This year’s chosen films included “Spit It Out, Margot!,” “The Order,” “You Missed a Spot” and “Strawman.”
The class involves immense collaboration and coordination. Directors, producers, writers, editors and actors must come together to tell a cinematic story. The students involved are typically enrolled in 18 units and may have other internship or job obligations. Many students are assigned to these positions for the first time.
Lead instructor of CTPR 480 and professor of practice Brenda Goodman knows that without a pandemic, the class is already a difficult undertaking as storytelling is not an easy task.
“Time challenges are humongous,” Goodman said. “It’s creating art, managing time, doing all those things that, in and of itself, without a pandemic, is pretty challenging.”
A NEW SET OF CHALLENGES
Without access to SCA’s state-of-the-art facilities, including the scoring stages, recording studios, editing labs and classrooms, the 480 film teams had to overcome both technical and communication difficulties.
Luckily, however, all of the 480 students were fortunate to have completed filming before USC transitioned to online instruction and were transitioning to post-production.
“We have amazing technology that allows us to do so many of the functions in our business online,” Goodman said. “But how to do that collaboratively was really my biggest fear.”
For Wuolijoki’s film, “You Missed a Spot,” one of the biggest challenges she faced as co-producer was sound editing. Since the sound editors did not have access to the SCA Foley sound stages, students had to find creative ways to execute their work from home.
“Our sound designer … was building this home booth by wrapping curtains and clothes and just trying to get some sort of sound isolation,” Wuolijoki said. “We were not able to do pretty much any Foley for this film or ADR [the process of re-recording audio to improve sound quality]. Right now, all four films are still not in the proper theater mix.”
Director of “Spit It Out, Margot!” Ella Harris felt the challenge of balancing schoolwork while meeting class deadlines. Harris, who is majoring in cinematic arts, film and television production, also said that it was difficult to keep everyone up to date without the luxury of being in the same room to disseminate information.
“Our biggest issue or biggest roadblock came just in post-production and really trying to stay focused when everything was happening,” Harris said. “Staying on the timeline was really difficult and demanding.”
With the absence of some of SCA’s in-house sound technology or image editing equipment, the wait time for uploading and transferring film clips to show drafts to project members increased. Miriam Sachs, a cinematic arts, film and television production major, writer and one of the sound editors for “Spit It Out, Margot!,” spent hours sitting at her home desk waiting for files to upload.
“[There was] a lot of waiting for things to upload, things not uploading … spending so many hours just trying to get the film out so that the director and our producers could watch,” Sachs said. “That was probably the most infuriating part of it, to be completely honest, because normally you’re just all together in a room mixing together. But because it’s all virtual, we had to upload drafts.”
Instead of meeting together in person, the teams had to communicate online via Zoom and other platforms to stay connected and manage time efficiently. Editor of “The Order” Yiwei Pu, who majored in cinematic arts, film and television production, remembers feeling both the strain of time management and the difficulties of communicating online.
“Before the pandemic, we could just schedule a time to meet in the labs and just make adjustments,” Pu said. “But now, people can’t see those changes instantly. So they have to wait for the new cut to be exported and uploaded. And if it didn’t work, then we need to go back and change it and go through the same process again. So what usually takes maybe three hours in the lab will now take 10 hours or even a day because we all have other tasks and personal business that are also affected by the pandemic.”
Co-producer of “Strawman” and cinematic arts, film and television production major Aditya Vempaty echoed Pu, stating that this abrupt transition took a toll on the traditional creative process.
“In post-production, it’s great to be able to sit together in groups and be able to watch cuts or a soundtrack or music or whatnot and be able to give feedback on it,” Vempaty said. “So just the fact that we weren’t able to do that affected [the film] a lot.”
The separation also brought about surprising challenges. When the “Spit It Out, Margot!” team met with their professors to picture-lock — a process that involves all team members agreeing to be done with editing the frames — the group faced an unexpected distraction. While meeting via Zoom, co-producer Madison Holbrook had to simultaneously receive feedback from faculty and speak with firefighters who put out an accidental oven fire that erupted in her apartment during the meeting.
“Usually [picture-locking is] this celebratory day where you’re all in the editing labs together,” co-producer of “Spit it Out, Margot!” and cinematic arts, film and television production major Caroline Quien said. “You have final little touches, you’re kind of working on the titles, the professor might be there with you. Instead, this was all remote. It was on Easter, we were all in different places, different time zones. When the faculty was like giving us final notes, Madison’s oven burst into flames.”
A COLLABORATIVE EFFORT
Fire or no fire, the teams grappled with perfecting their films. The spirit of collaboration and sense of community that is created among the CTPR 480 students would be difficult to maintain without in-person classes and meetings, Goodman thought. But her students shocked her.
“These four films are fantastic,” Goodman said. “Other than missing the physical presence and maybe some things that they technically could do like sound mixing and color grading that maybe they could have done at a slightly elevated level, I’m hard-pressed to see how these films could be any better … I was really surprised and pleasantly surprised. That’s really because of the way the students just rose to the occasion.”
The students may have pulled it off, but not without struggle. Quien said that, because of the collaborative nature of filmmaking, remote instruction led to a sense of creative and emotional distance from her project.
“When you’re doing editing and you’re doing sound work, and you’re all in the studio together, as a team, it’s way easier to focus,” Quien said. “But if you’re just watching clips alone, you’re going to have a different experience, and it’s going to be hard to communicate.”
Co-producer of “The Order” and cinematic arts, film and television production major Akshay Ravi affirmed that, without the luxury of face-to-face communication, coming together as a team is even more crucial. In what he called a “tumultuous school year,” supporting his crew became a top priority.
“When we’re all separated … since the timeline for a specific work or things becomes so much longer, it becomes really important that we’re constantly checking in on each other to make sure that we’re mentally healthy,” Ravi said.
Kevin Maxwell, a graduate student and co-producer of “The Order,” felt that, with a great deal of teamwork, he believes that this year’s CTPR 480 experience has left students with invaluable lessons about the industry as it moves forward amid the pandemic.
“One thing that it taught us as a whole is the power of collaboration, the power of flexibility, the power of clear, coherent communication and patience,” Maxwell said. “We’re not able to sit in class with each other and to react to the film. That really changed things for us and doing screenings online is a different experience. That taught us a lot about the power of cinema and the communal experience of the theatre.”
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
The effects of the coronavirus have extended into almost every aspect of life, and the film industry is no exception. While the future of the industry remains uncertain, the CTPR 480 students believe that the production of their films equipped them for a career that will continue to evolve in a post-pandemic world.
As protocols for filming are being worked out by the industry and by SCA, future student productions will need to adhere to public health protocols once they are implemented on campus. Currently, SCA faculty are talking with their students about scripts and stories that allow both student filmmakers and actors to work safely.
“Production’s never going to look the same because we can’t be that close to each other on set anymore,” Harris said. “I think the exciting thing is, as we move forward, we get to be a part of that change … We get to be the ones to figure out what the new wave of this industry is going to look like.”
Director of “The Order” Ryan Zhang admitted that, at times, a film school education can be overwhelming. But, this experience, he believes, taught him the importance of empathy in the creative process and looking at film production from a broader perspective.
“We’re just people struggling through life, and we just all care about making the movie as best as possible,” Zhang, a 2020 graduate who majored in cinematic arts, film and television production, said. “But sometimes, life gets in the way. And this is the most perfect example.”
Although the pandemic interrupted the typical workflow of CTPR 480 production, co-producer of “Strawman” Erik He stated that the entire process reinforced his belief that, despite all the hours spent in pre-production, things will never go perfectly according to plan.
“This was such a good exercise in learning that you sometimes don’t have control … Even with everything prepared, there can be the absolute worst-case scenario,” he said. “It’s such a humbling lesson that no matter how much time you devote … ultimately, it’s not like assembly work. It really comes down to being flexible and just being prepared for absolutely anything.”