August 2012 Features

On Course: Mawrters Make Movies!

In Bryn Mawr’s video production class, students master the art of filmmaking, from script development to final cut.

By Molly Petrilla

Illustration by Jason Marz

Huddled outside Merion Hall with a handful of local actors, Travis Gettinger ’12 readied the scarecrow and doused the sidewalk with plenty of water. It was 7 a.m.—the college equivalent of predawn—and he’d made only one dummy, which meant he had only a few minutes to get the shot right.

Someone lit the alcohol-soaked dummy and tossed it to the ground.

It fell out of the camera’s frame, and the group swiftly reconfigured as it continued to burn.

They dropped it on the ground again.

Did they get the shot this time?

They did.

The hours Gettinger spent preparing and shooting a burning “body” on Bryn Mawr’s campus translated to only about 15 seconds in his short film, Skin. A substantial time investment, certainly, but not by professional filmmaking standards—and in the class he was filming for, Advanced Video Production: Narrative Filmmaking, Erica Cho, visiting assistant professor in the history of art department, encourages her students to create films that are as professional as possible.

While Cho doesn’t endorse setting things on fire—Gettinger admits that just hearing about his shoot made her nervous—she does challenge her students to write and produce films that tell concise, compelling stories. “We talk about every part of how a film is constructed,” Cho says of her class, “but it’s really challenging to teach creativity.”

So how does she do it? Sometimes she’ll devote an entire four-hour session to a highly specific lesson, showing a string of food scene clips, for instance, and asking students to write their own food stories on the spot. The goal: to explore how specific, detailed actions can reveal character without relying on dialogue. Other times, she’ll concentrate on broader, more technical aspects of filmmaking: cinematography, sound, editing.

She’s also developed in-class production exercises that force students to think on their feet. Last semester, Cho showed up to class with a short film script she’d written and asked each student to choose a filmmaking role—director, actor, cinematographer, soundperson—and create a two-minute film together in a single-class session.

Rhianna Shaheen ’14 says that each week she often spent 15 hours or more outside of the classroom working on projects for Advanced Video Production. In addition to weekly assignments, each student is required to write, direct, and edit a 5-minute short film over the course of the semester. “It was a very rigorous class,” Shaheen adds, “but kind of addictive because you get such a thrill out of doing all the hard work it takes to make a film.”

Though she generally worked on her “film stuff” before attacking other homework, Shaheen says inspiration sometimes struck at odd hours. One night, she found herself awake at 3 a.m. filming the opening credits to her short film, The Death Effect. “It was about a painter, so I painted my titles on cards and then took rollers full of ink and rolled them on top,” she says. She edited that footage in reverse, making it look as though ink was being rubbed away to reveal the film’s title. “It was totally experimental live action,” she adds. “I wasn’t sure about it, but then a lot of people in class said they liked it and wanted to know how I did it.”

Cho says that such feedback from other students is a critical part of her course. “It’s unlike other classes where you turn in a paper knowing that it’s not going to be publicly displayed,” she adds. “The group critiques are invaluable.”

Those discussions offered Farhat Rahman ’12 more than just filmmaking advice. “I learned the value of collaborating and listening to other people’s ideas,” she says. “Most classes focus on individualizing your educational experience. This class really helped me understand how partnerships and the simple act of listening can enhance your energy and overall appreciation of your classroom encounters.”

After taking Advanced Video Production, several students are now considering careers in filmmaking. Gettinger has been trying to break into the industry—something he admits is difficult in Philadelphia—and Shaheen plans to apply to film schools after finishing her fine arts major at Bryn Mawr. “That class showed me the power I have to tell stories and make projects that are meaningful to me,” Shaheen adds. “Film has become a really big part of my life.”

Even Cho’s students who didn’t refocus their career goals say they’ve started to watch movies differently. “Now I notice when a scene has a bunch of different shots of the same action, and I think about how long it must have taken to shoot the whole thing and edit it,” says Carolyn Cai ’12, who majored in biology. “It’s really given me a new appreciation for how movies and films are made.”

Next Stop, Sundance

In early May, students, faculty, and residents from across the Tri-College region descended on the Bryn Mawr Film Institute (founded by Class of ’63 alumna Juliet Goodfriend) to watch short films and hear from their directors. It was the launch of the inaugural Tri-Co Film Festival, developed by Bryn Mawr film professor Erica Cho and featuring work by student filmmakers from Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore colleges. As part of her Advanced Video Production: Narrative Filmmaking class last semester, Cho required each student to apply to the new festival. “I wanted to give my students an off-campus, real-world, professional experience,” she says. “It really inspires and challenges them to think of an audience beyond the classroom.”

Out of 36 submissions, guest programmer/juror Chi-hui Yang selected 10 short films created by students across the schools to be shown on the Institute’s big screen. Three of those films came from Bryn Mawr students: Travis Gettinger ’12 (Torn), Rhianna Shaheen ’14 (Nude), and Sarah Cooper ’12 (Backstabber).

“It was super cool,” Gettinger says of the experience. “There was a Q&A afterward, and while I’ve been to other director Q&As before, this time I was the one answering the questions.”

All of Cho’s Advanced Video Production students attended the festival and participated in various marketing, publicity, and technical roles. “There were students from a lot of video classes there, so there were a lot of films I hadn’t seen before,” Carolyn Cai ’12 says. “It was amazing to see that all these films could come from students.”

Cho plans to make the festival an annual event, eventually transforming it into a fully student-run affair. “I could tell they felt a sense of positive competition,” she says of her students who attended. “They saw what was possible, and that it wasn’t out of their reach, since it was their peers who had produced this amazing and creative work.”

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