By Elliott Grover
Not many college freshmen can say they’ve made their own film on a professional sound stage guided by Hollywood veterans. Now, freshmen in the VCUarts Cinema Program can.
The Cinema Program’s summer intensive has long set the department apart from other film schools. Students spend two summers in Richmond honing their craft, allowing them to graduate in three years. Historically, the summer intensive has involved second- and third-year students. However, under the leadership of Program Director TyRuben Ellingson, a visual effects art director who has worked on blockbusters like “Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition” and “Jurassic Park,” the model has changed.
“Freshmen tend to be extremely enthusiastic students with a real passion to learn,” said Ellingson, “so why wouldn’t we take advantage of that mindset and give them something substantial to kickstart the evolution?”
Ellingson and his Cinema colleagues designed a project that split the freshman class into four production teams. Although the groups were all shooting from the same script, they produced four distinct films.
“Between the lighting, the color strategies, the aspect ratios and the different combination of actors, each film is going to have a very different look and emotional impact,” said Kevin Gallagher, a VCU alumni and faculty member who oversaw production.
“That’s something we want the students to be able to see,” he said. “You can take the same source material and build something that’s totally different.”
Two of the films were shot in color and two were in black and white. The script was written by faculty members, Ellingson said, to maximize learning opportunities. “It has a variety of dialogue scenes, there’s a one-year time shift––so students have to think of ways to make the first half of the movie look different from the second.
One of the most unique aspects of the project is that students rotated through the different production departments on a regular basis.
Gallagher, a noted film electrician who worked on the Oscar-nominated film “Loving,” the Golden Globe-winning television series “Homeland,” and the Primetime Emmy award-winning miniseries “John Adams,” said students gain a variety of experiences in the program.
“A student could start the day as the boom operator and then end the day as the camera operator, and in between work as an art director or key grip,” he said.
This model ensured that all students received the same opportunities.
“As an academic, as an educator, my number-one concern is equity,” said Ellingson. “I want students to have equal access to learning and equal access to resources. I want to make sure all boats rise.”
To raise the bar, Gallagher assembled a team of eight summer instructors, a mix of current VCUarts faculty and film industry professionals. There were 44 freshmen, so each production team had 11 students who worked directly with instructors when it was their turn to shoot.
“In terms of student-teacher ratio, you can’t beat that,” Gallagher said.
In addition to Ellingson, who designed sets and props for directors such as George Lucas and James Cameron during his extensive time in Hollywood, students learned from instructors with impressive résumés. Bunt Young is an industry veteran with over three decades of experience as a cinematographer, and Sheree Chen is a writer and filmmaker whose work spans indie and studio projects.
The technical and creative knowledge that VCUarts’ faculty shared with students in such a concentrated setting made the summer intensive an impactful experience.
“It’s incredible,” said Will Lange, a cinema student who participated in the summer intensive. “Most of them have 20-plus years of industry experience under their belt. You can tell they’re all very passionate about what they’re doing.”
As a cinema major who is minoring in sound design, Lange has particularly enjoyed his rotations in the sound department working with Jake Weeks, a professional boom operator and sound mixer.
“Everything Jake talks about––the sets he’s worked on or the people he’s worked with––is super interesting to me,” said Lange. “He’s a great mentor.”
For his part, Weeks relished his first teaching experience.
“I find it very rewarding,” he said. “I’m trying to teach a technical skill, but at the same time I’m also trying to teach the social culture of filmmaking.”
As an outsider to VCU, Weeks was impressed.
“VCU’s program is in a very unique position,” he said. “A lot of the faculty here are people I’ve worked with on shows before. To have that level of experience is amazing.”
The Cinema Program’s sound stage is the brainchild of Ellingson and Christopher “Dinkus” Deane, a VCUarts alum who is currently the school’s director of operations. Deane has built a number of Hollywood sets, including for Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” Last spring, he offered a class on set construction. Over the 15-week semester, Deane worked with students to build a full-scale set of a bar and grill. While it was designed for the summer intensive, it will become a permanent installation for students to utilize.
“We now have a 360-degree set that can be shot in any direction,” said Ellingson. “It has inset lighting, an open roof and flying walls.”
The authenticity of the bar’s design is jaw-dropping. “When I first walked in and saw the set, I remember being in awe. It looks so real,” said Marie Welch, a current theatre major at VCUarts. Welch is one of several actors who auditioned for the project.
“Being surrounded by people who care about the craft is very rewarding,” Welch said. “This is what I want to do, so having the experience of being on a film set gives me a lot of confidence,”
Ellingson said he is extremely proud of the industry-grade technology the Cinema Program has been able to acquire. Through faculty connections, they procured a sophisticated hydraulic dolly system and two Arri Alexa Classic cameras.
“It’s a camera you see in a picture with Christopher Nolan and think, ‘oh, that’s what he uses, I’ll never shoot with one of those,’” said Lange. “But then you step onto the set and it’s right in front of your face and you’re cranking the handles to make sure it’s focused. Everything here is top-notch.”
As exciting as the future is, current students appreciate the present. “When most people talk about film school, all they talk about is film theory,” Lange said. “This is completely different. This is about getting hands on cameras and sound equipment and finding what you love compared to talking about what you love. Everyone here loves movies, but we can all agree the one thing that’s better than talking about movies is making them.”
Lead Image: Students, faculty, instructors and actors working together on the newly built 360-degree set during the 2022 Cinema Summer Intensive.