Mar. 16 will mark one year since USC announced that instruction for the remainder of the spring 2020 semester would be carried out online. Though many students hoped for a return to campus come Fall 2020, virtual learning continued — even for students creating films.
For the School of Cinematic Arts’ students, the difficulties of a pandemic production environment revealed themselves rapidly. As the pandemic sprints toward its one year anniversary, SCA students continue to cope with the challenges of isolated creation.
Carolyn Knapp, a junior majoring in cinema and media studies with a minor in screenwriting, had just wrapped up shooting her short film, “Cherry Bomb,” when the pandemic hit Los Angeles. Instead of collaborating with her crew for post-production, everyone was sent into quarantine.
“Normally you would get pick-ups,” Knapp said. “You would go back in and get some shots that you could re-do or do better. That didn’t really happen.”
Forced to work with what she had from the first round of shooting, Knapp’s next challenge was to overcome the mental setback that quarantine initiated among the film’s post-production crew. Whereas directors, editors and other crew would typically meet to collaborate on the editing process, the need to isolate meant that the entire post-production process had to be done remotely.
While editing in quarantine was definitely “doable,” as Knapp said, it was more of a “mental delay” that slowed the process down. As the world shut down around them, editing the footage was no longer the first objective on anyone’s to-do list.
“It kind of felt like, ‘OK, well great, we got this all, but this isn’t the biggest thing we’re worrying about right now,’” Knapp said.
Although Knapp delayed the post-production process, the boredom of early quarantine allowed for her to make one unexpected discovery: the marketing power of TikTok.
Knapp had hoped for in-person screenings or cast parties to promote “Cherry Bomb,” but with everyone stuck scrolling through their phones in their childhood bedrooms, she had to come up with a strategy more feasible for quarantine, which meant promoting through the app.
Given “Cherry Bomb’s” over twenty thousand views on YouTube, it appears that some filmmakers may have learned a successful tip or two from the pandemic.
Knapp spent the summer honing her animation skills from home, since in-person limitations made further film production nearly impossible. However, as coronavirus numbers slowly drop and in-person production inches closer to becoming a reality again, Knapp is finding her way back onto set for smaller-scale projects and feeling grateful.
“The mood on set is very thankful, almost. It’s like, ‘Whoa! We’re actually here doing this; this is crazy,’” Knapp said. “We’re not taking things like that for granted anymore.”
Mila Danton, a senior majoring in cinema and media studies with a minor in screenwriting, was also able to find a silver lining amidst the frustrations of virtual film production.
When Danton’s production class was forced to move online in Spring 2020, drastic changes were made to the way students produced their short films. After returning to their homes for quarantine, students who did not have access to their own personal equipment were told to shoot using their phones.
While this would obviously decrease the quality that could have been achieved from borrowing SCA’s professional equipment, Danton recognized something inspiring from the situation.
“It kind of solidified the idea that anyone can make a movie,” Danton said. “Ultimately, if you want to tell a story, anyone can do it.”
Danton is telling her stories this semester through a production class that has adapted to have a more virtually-feasible layout. In “Advanced Genre Writing,” students work together to write a full-length feature script.
In normal circumstances, the script is then produced the next semester in “Collaborative Directing for Film and Television.” However, given that in-person production is still extremely limited, the class was altered to produce a podcast instead. Danton is a co-director and co-head writer of the podcast.
“We’re sort of doing everything on the back-end in terms of pre-production: planning storyboards, how we would choreograph all these scenes in terms of camera work and how we would cast and what the costume design would look like,” Danton said. “Up until the point that you can film. We do everything until that point.”
Though the film will be adapted to a six episode podcast, the students still hold out hope that regular production will occur somewhere down the line, once it is safe to do so.
In the meantime, SCA is doing what they can to create a meaningful experience for students. The team creating the podcast is presenting their work to industry professionals and receiving feedback.
However, the critical element of in-person production remains lacking, and SCA students have not forgotten.
“Human to human interaction is definitely something that makes filmmaking super impactful,” Danton said. “There’s something about the collaborative process of making movies and making television shows that is so fulfilling, and it’s definitely hard to find that when you have a screen in front of you versus being able to see the eyes of your colleagues.”
While some courses have altered their formats in order to simplify production in a virtual setting, others are sticking to their original designs. Frank Ding, a transfer student majoring in film and television production, has had to cope with being a cinematographer over Zoom meetings.
“It was really challenging, slow and limiting to try explaining ideas over Zoom,” Ding said. “Controlling the camera with just speech is a lot more difficult and slower than it sounds. You couldn’t just be like, ‘Move it left. Move it right. Move it up a little bit. Pan down,’ … it’s just super slow … at some points we had to resort to drawing diagrams to explain angles and lighting.”
The SCA filmmaking community has discovered some tricks to make virtual production slightly easier, such as HDMI capture cards, which allow students to plug their cameras directly into Zoom. But as Ding explained, these solutions can’t sufficiently minimize the difficulties students face while producing from separate spaces.
As a transfer student whose first semester at USC was Fall 2020, Ding has only experienced SCA in a virtual setting. Despite this seemingly disheartening start to his Trojan experience, Ding maintains his belief in the quality of SCA’s educational value.
“I’m just still learning how to better take advantage of everything we have access to,” Ding said. “We have industry professional professors. I could always be reaching out to them for career advice, feedback on personal projects, or even school projects, and building important long term relationships and mentorships.”
Even SCA professors have noticed that the drive to create has continued in their students, despite the obvious hardships of the situation.
Kathleen Dowdey has been teaching “Practicum in Television Production” for two years, a course where students work together to produce television segments for Trojan Vision, USC’s student-run television station. The course, which specializes in live multi-camera production, was extremely difficult to adapt to a virtual setting.
Dowdey and other instructors met virtually over summer to come up with a plan for adapting the course, which included implementing new tools such as Streamyard, which is a live-streaming studio that students can access on their browsers.
Naturally, this solution encountered unforeseen problems shortly into the fall semester, such as network connection issues, the strain of streaming on laptops and video lagging.
Despite the difficulties both students and professors faced, Dowdey was impressed by the creative ideas that students generated to create their individual segments. Rather than trying to conform to usual television standards, students embraced the online setting and leaned into the goofy nature of virtual production. Whether drawing fake elements of the outside world, or using a sandbox as a “beach” setting, students were unafraid to get creative.
“There’s kind of no limit to what you’re ready to put into it because it’s yours,” Dowdey said.
Though virtual production lengthened the leash of students’ creative freedoms when producing their television segments, the desire to return to the studio for in-person production remains.
“We really have learned a lot in teaching online … but it is ultimately a temporary fix,” Dowdey said. “Whatever we try to do to approximate it, [the hands-on experience] is never gonna be as fulfilling as that minute when the clock hits zero and your live broadcast begins, and your show is going out as you make it. That’s irreplaceable.”