Students find film niche on campus
Film production course brings together students from diverse academic backgrounds
February 25, 2011, 3:54 am · Updated February 25, 2011, 12:00 am·
Sunday night, a group of students will most likely be watching the Academy Awards with a different perspective, being in the middle of their own filmmaking projects.
Students in Communications professor Paul Messaris’ “Visual Communication Lab” are tackling every aspect of a film’s production in their short film, “Orientation.”
The title refers to a rock that possesses the power to change people’s sexual orientation. This rock inadvertently falls into the hands of a group of students on their first day of class, which is taught by an unusual anthropology professor.
To direct the film and play the role of the professor, Messaris opted to recruit Communications professor John Jackson, who is currently teaching a graduate course on ethnographic film. For their final project, several students in Jackson’s class will put together a documentary covering the making of “Orientation,” fostering collaboration between the two courses.
The idea of teaching the classes together came from Messaris’ desire to have an outsider direct the film his students were making. As he admired Jackson for his creativity and extensive experience in filmmaking, Messaris approached Jackson with the idea.
“We both thought, ‘Well, we both do production classes; wouldn’t it be cool if we could find a way to teach them at the same time as an excuse to get undergraduates and graduate students in the same conversation and operating on the same plane?’” Jackson said.
He added that the students involved in the project come from diverse academic backgrounds.
This diversity of film staff members, who are all striving to achieve a common goal in a short period of time, is what Messaris sees as the future of not only filmmaking, but also business in general. The course’s unique structure is valuable for students of all aspirations, Messaris added.
College junior Stephen Guss — who entered Penn intending to study political science, but changed his plans after an internship at NBC Sports — hopes the experience he acquires as an editor of the film will facilitate his entry into the field after graduation.
“It’s really important that if we want to break into the entertainment industry that we know the nuts and bolts and we know the industry from the ground up,” Guss said. “I think this class provides that.”
Similarly, College junior Adam Hamilton, who acts in the film, hopes to pursue acting as a career. A theater arts major, Hamilton was studying abroad in England at the British American Drama Academy when he heard about Messaris’ course in the fall.
Yet despite this desire to pursue performing arts, Hamilton plans on applying to law school after he graduates while continuing to pursue acting.
“It’s a pretty tough industry, so I try to be practical,” he said.
For Hamilton, attending Penn was a practical decision in itself, as he was interested in visual and performing arts before he arrived on campus.
“Where my thoughts are right now and what I want to do in the future is not something I have always known,” Hamilton said, explaining why he chose to attend Penn instead of a more artistically inclined university. Enrolling in an art school, he felt, would limit his career options.
College junior Julianne Mele, an actress in the film, echoed this sentiment.
“I definitely think that there is a group of people that are very strongly interested in pursuing fields within the media, but I do think that people on the whole are pretty realistic about what a hard industry it is,” Mele said. “The people I know who are interested in it have backup life plans."
Film and Video lecturer Ellen Reynolds sees the benefit of attending an institution like Penn, which offers a wide variety of academic programs.
“I am amazed at the level of intellectual ability that the students bring to their filmmaking because of their work in other departments,” she said.
As for students interested in pursuing filmmaking as a career, Reynolds isn’t worried about the resources Penn provides. She cited better collaboration among academic departments and increased incentives offered by Penn — such as the Seltzer Family Digital Media Awards, which grant students money to fund their own film projects — as reasons for the growth of Penn’s filmmaking community in recent years.
College junior Janice Shiu, who was involved in the Greater Philadelphia Student Film Festival, noted that Penn doesn’t foster strong interaction among filmmakers.
“There were a lot of [Penn student] submissions from personal effort but I can tell that … the cinematography would be complemented by a good script, or good directing skills,” she said. “I think there are [student filmmakers] here, but there have to be more resources to stick these people together.”
Nevertheless, Jackson has faith in Penn as an institution “that’s about a holistic way of learning,” even at it’s most specialized level. Acknowledging students’ hesitance in declaring the entertainment industry as a career path, he offered up another benefit of studying filmmaking.
“We’re giving you tools that you can use in a whole bunch of different ways and the key is: can you be critical about how you deploy them?” Jackson said. “And if you can be, then you’ll be able to translate that skill into corporate America, into a law firm, anything you might imagine.”