Written by Lauren Koleszar
Despite the restriction imposed by safety guidelines, film students continue to safely produce top-notch films this semester.
Film & Media Arts is one of the most hands-on majors at Cleveland State. It relies on massive collaboration and in-person filming that normally requires between ten and thirty cast and crew members for upperclassmen producing junior- and senior-level professional content. New COVID-19 guidelines require a “Safe Sets” certification, and students have been limited to crews of ten people or less on a set at one time. Camera departments that normally run on four to five students are being managed by two if they’re lucky — more often just one person. Students are choosing to produce scripts that need only a few actors and can be filmed at safe, easily accessible locations. Students are desperately working on pre-production and editing from home; and when on set, they’re filling multiple crew positions to make up for the absence of the much larger number of students who are normally able to work on one set together.
In spite of these challenges, film students at CSU are producing impressive creative content and becoming multi-faceted filmmakers as they take on many new responsibilities that, though extremely challenging, are ultimately shaping them into better equipped professionals who will have a wide range of skills and experience gained from having to step into so many new roles.
We talked to film major Davis Chu, whose freshman year at CSU coincided with the opening of the university’s new film school in the fall of 2018. The initial lockdown hit during Davis’s second sophomore semester, and he took us through his personal experience and observation of the evolution of student filmmaking at CSU over the course of the last year.
Film is collaborative, and Miss Rona ripped that collaboration away from us.
LAUREN KOLESZAR: Elevator pitch. Who are you, what do you do and what interests you?
DAVIS CHU: Hello there, my name is Davis. You can call me Vis for short. That’s a pretty badass name honestly. I’m a third year film major, concentration in post production, with a minor in graphic design. I am also in the Honors college. My passions include (but are not limited to): writing, comedy, animation, editing, music, screenwriting, acting, and television. To clarify, when I say “television,” I mean watching it. Although I’m also working on an original pilot for school.
LK: Why are you studying film, and what are some of your favorite films, creatives or influences?
DC: I think if life is a circus, then studying film is a trampoline. It may not have the safety net of other more stable fields, but it’s a great launching pad for someone who wants to pursue the arts. I’m still trying to figure out exactly what I want to be when I grow up, but I know I want to do something related to the arts.
I’m a film major, but I don’t consume as much film as I do comedy and TV. My comedy influences include the Marx Brothers, Monty Python, Mel Brooks, Larry David, Dave Chappele, Ricky Gervais, Dana Carvey, Marc Maron, Conan O’Brien, John Mulaney, Sarah Silverman, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Pete Holms, Jake and Amir, Middleditch and Shwartz, Bill Burr, Tina Fey, Julia-Louis Dreyfous, Emo Phillips, Fred Armisen, David Sedaris, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph — and I’m sure there are others.
For TV shows: VEEP, Barry, Fleabag, Atlanta, Master of None, Crashing (the Pete Holms one), Crashing (the Phoebe Waller-Bridge one), Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, Succession, Girls, Seinfeld, Raised By Wolves, The Comeback, DEVS, Nathan for You, DARK, The Boys, Game of Thrones, Rick and Morty, and, again, I’m sure there are others.
LK: Film is so hands-on, and most classes changed dramatically with the switch to Zoom. Describe the impact of the March 2020 lockdown on your film classes and projects. What kinds of things unique to film students had to change?
DC: The period of January to March was a very slow, then exponential realization that the world was falling apart. Like I said, I’m a post major, and I was supposed to
edit a student short by The One True Brian Lachowski. My assistant editor was my dear friend Alex Maytin (who is currently studying hard for the MCAT because he is amazing). They were yet to shoot, but the production was underway and Alex and I were preparing to tackle the footage. We had, like, footage bins set up in the editing software and everything. It was an ambitious project and it honestly seemed monumental. We were ready to take on anything. Like, “this fucking matters”-type attitude. Little did we know that the lockdown would dwarf our problems completely.
When I say my realization was exponential this is what I mean: When school announced it was going virtual, Alex and I started brainstorming a potential remote workflow. He was gonna merge and organize the footage, mail it on a USB and I would edit. Like, we really thought the production was still happening. Needless to say, it didn’t.
Film is collaborative, and Miss Rona ripped that collaboration away from us. The profs responded with creative opportunity. Everyone in the school had to take on their own projects and oversee it from start to finish. People chose to make documentaries, short narrative films, I decided to make a small series of sketches titled Under Quarantine.
LK: What has filmmaking been like in the era of COVID-19?
DC: Strange. And slow. And tense. I’m sure everyone remembers that Tom Cruise audio from a while ago. I think the lasting impact on the film industry will be distribution. We were already moving in the direction of streaming services. But I think the presence of COVID-19 has accelerated the process. Furthermore, as more and more movies debut on streaming services such as HBO or Amazon Prime, perhaps the type of content will change. My prediction is that studios and creatives will probably lean away from film and into miniseries. I don’t really mind that. Storytelling is storytelling, whether it’s a 120-minute movie or a three-episode hour-long miniseries, ya know?
LK: How has your personal approach to creating and studying changed over the past year?
DC: I’m definitely not alone in saying I’ve grown a lot in the past year. What has changed the most is my approach to learning and creating. I’ve come to the conclusion that almost every skill is learnable. So if you want to get good at something, all you have to do is take the time to do it. Last semester, I had a lot more time I could dedicate to my school work (just by removing the time it takes to walk to and from class). And as a result, I made some stuff I was really proud of. And through that experience, I found a love for animation. I think I have more patience for overcoming learning curves now.
LK: What has changed for the better? For the worse?
DC: There are a couple super small silver linings if you look close enough. One of them is the accessibility and flexibility of education. Obviously, nothing is perfect. But the idea that you can attend college online from your parents’ house (and not pay for housing) is pretty epic. Every class is different, and some classes kinda flopped when they transitioned to remote. But for most of the classes I was taking, the transition was rather smooth. If I’m taking an animation class, and we’re all using our computers anyway, and we don’t really have to be in the same room together, why don’t we take advantage of this great technology we have and just meet virtually? At the very least, the option of attending class virtually may be a lasting effect that might be nice for future college attendees. Not so much for high-schoolers though… God, imagine life without snow days. That would SUCK.
LK: How have other film students responded? What's collaborating like? How are you able to persevere and still work on sets?
DC: Other film students have been understandably upset. Again, I’m lucky enough to be in a position where my classes were still manageable in a remote setting. On my end, collaboration is a lot of dropping off/picking up flash drives. However, (perhaps because of COVID-19) I’ve come to realize that I prefer working on my own projects rather than other people’s. I have so much more fun writing/animating/editing a project of my own making rather than just cutting someone else’s. As for working on sets, I couldn’t tell you. My set is this: a dark room, where I wrap myself in blankets, sip coffee, strap on my blue light glasses, hunch over my desk like a goblin, and click-clack away at my keyboard. Not a bad life.
LK: How has the transition been for professors and faculty? In what ways have they helped make accommodations for students?
DC: The professors have been incredibly accommodating. Earlier this semester, I tested positive for COVID and [it] wiped me out. I was okay, and thankfully nothing awful happened, but it was still a struggle. I emailed all of my teachers and within a day, every one of them responded with empathy and get-well wishes. Through extensions and exemptions, I was able to catch up and now I’m back! It’s also cool that the faculty are conscious enough that not everyone has access to the same level of technology. For my post III class, we only meet once a week, and the remaining class time is reserved for if anyone in the class needs to use the FMA editing labs.
LK: Has there been anything you've learned or had the opportunity to experience because of the impact of COVID-19? Personal or film-related?
DC: I don’t know how much of this is related to COVID-19 but I have been pretty introspective lately. Particularly, I’ve been slowly coming to terms with the Asian-American experience and how race (and unfortunately racism) has affected me. With this topic in mind, I started writing a TV pilot for my class. I guess that is one of the benefits of being an arts major. Be it COVID-19 or racism or any problem, we have the luxury of being forced to process our emotions. Also I should note this was before the tragic Atlanta spa shootings. However, with Asian Americans suddenly being the talk of the town, this definitely feels like the climax to my introspective realization.
Also, my grandfather just got out of the hospital from having COVID. He’s starting his recovery now so that has been a whirlwind.
LK: Finally, what inspires you and how do you work to overcome the weight of the pandemic on your college and creative experience?
DC: Itake everything one step at a time. And I try to remember that so long as I’mdoing my part to keep other people safe, that’s all that really matters. Controlwhat you can, set a good example for others, and let go of the rest. Andcreatively, so long as I have access to tools I can use to make stuff, I’m satisfied.