SFTV Faculty Rise to the Challenges of the Zoom Era

As happened at every film school across the country in spring 2020, when Covid-19 forced widespread shutdowns of campuses, SFTV shifted to teaching all its classes remotely partway through the semester. Though the switchover was quick and the learning curve for remote teaching tools sometimes steep, SFTV’s faculty did what all good film and TV pros do—assessed the situation and adapted to their new reality. In fact, the transition to remote instruction had some unexpected benefits.

For screenwriters, Zooming led to better class participation

Screenwriting courses were among the simpler ones to teach remotely since they focus on writing, reading, and discussing scripts that are easily shared online. Students and faculty alike found that holding classes via Zoom helped provide an equitable learning environment. ​”Since students’ faces are of equal size and presence during a Zoom session, no one can hide in the back of the classroom,” says Karol Hoeffner, associate professor and chair of Screenwriting.

That meant that quieter students were more visible to faculty and peers and felt more empowered to contribute, while students who tend to speak up more were less likely to dominate class discussions. ”The Zoom format helped us, as faculty, take extra care to ensure that every student was participating in classroom conversations,” says Hoeffner.

Film and TV production students got creative at home

For courses that typically use industry-standard production equipment and are taught on SFTV’s sound stages, faculty had to make numerous on-the-fly adjustments to assignments and learning outcomes. The shift resulted in imaginative projects from students and robust lessons from the revised format and coursework, says Mikael Kreuzriegler, associate professor and chair of film and television production.

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For PROD 101, one student built a miniature set and used stuffed animals to depict actors in a scene from John Sayles’ film LIANNA.

In SFTV’s introductory ”bootcamp” course (PROD 101), students are introduced to standard production methods for films and TV. Typically in this class, students get one chance per semester to play every role on a film set (e.g. director, camera operator, sound). Together the class shoots one scene each week from a pre-selected list of existing film scripts, during a single three-hour class on a sound stage.

The shift to remote instruction meant that student directors filmed their scenes at home, using their mobile devices or DSLR cameras, while classmates served remotely as producers and editors. Many students were able to convince family and friends to stand in as actors in their scenes. But students who didn’t have human actors available showed ingenuity by using stand-in objects as “actors,” including dolls, stuffed animals, and even vegetables, says Eugene Brancolini, assistant clinical professor, who taught the course last spring. ”They even built detailed sets scaled to their stand-in actors, had classmates do voice-overs for the scenes, and designed the same camera shot coverage as if using live actors,” he says.

Students also did extra reading assignments and took extra quizzes during remote instruction. Each week, the class met live on Zoom to watch and critique that week’s scene and to discuss the filming plans that the following week’s director had put together. ”Because directors were filming at home, they had more time to produce their scenes and they put that time to good use,” says Brancolini. ”I came away impressed by how our students rose to the occasion to come up with really fun, creative ideas under very unusual constraints.”

Directing students did much more directing

For Kreuzriegler’s upper-level visual directing class (PROD 598), students shifted from jointly re-shooting a scene from an existing script once a week on SFTV’s film stage, with members of the class rotating crew positions each week, to directing their own short films at home, from original scripts, once a week.

The revamped class format allowed each student to play the role of director multiple times during the semester instead of just once—a change they found valuable. ”Students told us that more frequent directing assignments helped them hone their skills with different scenes from different films from week to week,” says Kreuzriegler. He and other SFTV faculty are using the lessons learned from spring remote instruction as they continue developing the school’s plans for instruction this fall.

Limitations led to inspired work

For PROD 379, a workshop class that focuses on scene work with actors and the camera, students had completed their first set of scenes before Covid-19 forced LMU’s campus to close. Right after the shutdown, visiting professor and veteran producer Tommy O’Haver had his students watch the documentary The Five Obstructions by director Lars Von Trier. ”It’s a great film about filmmaking in which a director is forced to remake a short movie five times, each time with a different set of obstacles,” O’Haver says. ”The filmmaker uses the obstacles to his advantage.”

For their final projects, O’Haver had students shoot short films on their mobile phones for an end-of-semester Quarantine Film Festival, complete with awards. ”The only rules for the project were those imposed by the shutdown itself, and the final results were some of the most inspired work I’ve ever seen in a class,” he says. ”The topics included a Mafia parody starring one student’s ten-year-old sister; an epic time-travel spoof shot with Lego; and a quiet documentary shot in the French countryside. Each film was proof that limitations can be a gift, and it was a wonderful way to end a very chaotic semester.”

Better planning leads to better outcomes

For cinematography classes he taught last spring, Charles Swanson, associate professor of film and television production, had students use the free app Filmic Pro for projects they shot on their mobile phones. The typical end-of-semester assignment for each student involves developing a lookbook for their work and an approach to shooting a portion of a scene, with deliberate choices made for camera placement, movement, color, and lighting texture.

Instead, students did a more detailed lookbook than usual and presented it to him and the entire class for feedback, so they could incorporate suggestions into their project ahead of filming it. ”Using the lookbook as a pre-production tool resulted in stronger work,” says Swanson.

He was also impressed by how students creatively demonstrated the capabilities of the mobile app. ”Any tool has its strengths and limitations, and I teach students to embrace both as they’re working,” he says.

While apps and mobile phones can approximate some of the settings used by industry-standard equipment, faculty agree that they’re not a replacement for the real thing. ”In the long run, our students will need to use the equipment we have on campus to become fluent on it,” Swanson says. ”It’s like practicing a sport—you get better with repetition.” There’s a lot to learn about filmmaking that happens before picking up a camera, he adds, but once it’s safe for students to use them, they can quickly hone their technical skills with practice.

Overall, the spring 2020 semester was a crash course for students in adapting to unexpected changes to their plans—a well-known reality of working in film and TV. ”No one can ever fully anticipate every single thing that might happen on a production,” says Swanson. ”But being flexible and planning ahead will increase your chances that projects will turn out well.”