Post-Normal Filmmakers: developing practice, voice and projects in a pandemic

By Dr Angie Black and Donna Lyon, VCA Film and Television, University of Melbourne

Introduction

2020 has been a challenging year for everyone and none more so than the Film and Television student cohort at VCA, University of Melbourne. While the majority of the curriculum was halted due to the lockdown restrictions enforced in Melbourne to control the spread of COVID-19, some students began to find creative ways to respond to the restrictions. What we discovered is that VCA film students produced work in one of two ways. They either worked with the restrictions, creating films that you could not tell were made during COVID times or they worked against the restrictions imposed by the isolation of being in lockdown.

Post-Normal Filmmakers: developing practice, voice and projects in a pandemic (Black, Lyon 2020) pairs two films as exemplars of either working collaboratively or working in isolation. The first film, Gunshot Straight, is from the newest members of the VCA filmmaking community. These first-year students were already familiar with a DIY filmmaking practice and adapted to the restrictions imposed on them as a new set of working conditions. The second film, Restrictions of Infinity, responds to the acute isolation brought about from the Melbourne lockdown experienced by international Masters students from China. These students were set to embark on their graduate year, intent on planning and executing a substantial piece of film work to enter the industry with.

We chose these films because the first-year filmmakers are just entering an institution of learning and are yet to be introduced to an industrialised process of filmmaking. On the other hand, the graduating students are leaving the institution and entering a world on the precipice of making in new ways. Their emotional responses are reflected in the work below.


Film 01: Working collaboratively with the restrictions

 Gunshot Straight (Benson, 2020)

Senior Lecturer Angie Black designed a production exercise for the first-year Bachelor of Fine Art, Film and TV students to demonstrate the possibility of building a story world through mise-en-scene elements whilst being in two separate locations. The exercise required that two directing students would collaborate to work together (as director and creative collaborator) in two remote locations, undertake the role of performers, camera operators and edit the shots captured together to create the illusion that they are in the same setting in space and time.

This exercise references filmmaking in the Era of COVID-19 and tests the students’ knowledge and understanding of screen direction, mise-en-scene, the importance of the verisimilitude in the story world and the application of the Kuleshov effect in editing the footage together (Carrasco, 2020).

Given the Melbourne stage 4 lockdown meant that the students were isolated from one another, Black saw this exercise as a way to introduce the students to working as creative collaborators. The scene for the film was written by a first-year VCA Screenwriting student, being a dialogue exchange between two non-gender specific characters and without the description action ‘big print’ or indication of tone or setting. The directing student was required to interpret the scene by creating a story world, genre and add their own directorial voice to the world. They were then required to create a mood board for this world and write a prologue for their scene to explain the given circumstances for the characters. Working with their creative collaborator (fellow directing student and their supervising producer), they designed the scene in two locations (given the directing students were not able to be in the same room) to make it appear as one setting.

The biggest challenge for the students was having to work with what they had at hand in terms of location, set setting, props, wardrobe and hair and make-up. The aim of the exercise was to produce a scene that was shot in two separate locations with the intention of making it look like the two characters are in the same room. The following film Gunshot Straight (Benson, 2020) is an exemplar of one of the films produced from this brief. Benson worked with their creative collaborator via zoom to build a setting in two locations. Not only did they have to perform in their own scene but they also had to demonstrate their understanding of world building, mise-en-scene, shot design, eyelines and sound design to create the effect that when the footage recorded from each location is cut together it appears as if it was recorded in the same location and that the characters were in the room together.

The creative collaborators lived in small apartments in Melbourne CBD. The director shared with two other students which meant set locations were minimal and difficult to create. For this film, they transformed a corner of their own bedroom into the set so shooting would not disturb their housemates. The lighting and colour grade was simple and effective, suiting their chosen genre of film noir and also could be easily recreated by their creative collaborator’s reverse shot. Collaboration between the two of them required developing good communication skills, and they became very deft at this from having to share a scene with a filmmaker who is behind another screen in another location.

The film produced demonstrates the filmmakers’ ability to work collaboratively, while distanced to produce a scene that appears to be recorded in the same location.

Film 02: Working in isolation in response to the restrictions

Restrictions of Infinity (Qu, 2020)

VCA postgraduate film students are on the precipice of developing an artistic voice, professional identity and practice as filmmakers, yet they are enduring enforced isolation due to a global pandemic.

Masters students Arctic Qu and Cathy Yang live in a two-bedroom apartment in Melbourne CBD and have been in some form of lockdown since February 2020. Qu takes the role of director and Yang is the producer.

The filmmakers were given the brief to make a film that responded to their experience of being in lockdown. This was designed more as a provocation to get Qu and Yang contemplating visually as to whether the medium of filmmaking is generating a subversive DIY dogma movement, or if it is stifling practice. Senior Lecturer, Donna Lyon was curious as to how an artist develops a unique voice in their practice and how one makes projects during a pandemic. Their experimental response is Restrictions of infinity (2020, Qu).

As Lyon reflected on what Qu and Yang had created, it offered her a rich phenomenological interpretation of filmmaking as practice and as a process whereby its makers can seek to embody experience as it is lived in context (Sobchack, 2004, pp.2).

Qu and Yang’s work embodies the lived experiences of filmmakers caught in a time where human bodies are wrestling consciously and unconsciously with seen and unseen materialities. This plays out in a visual metaphor as Qu struggles to locate her material self (her body is wrapped/ trapped in cloth and she wrestles to get out of it). The unseen essence of this may be interpreted as the artist grappling with the effects of an unseen virus – a virus that can live on materials for varying lengths of time, and a virus that is isolating the maker from deepening the collaborative processes so pertinent to their final year of making.

Like film one, Restrictions of Infinity demonstrates the filmmakers’ ability to work collaboratively, but at the same time addresses the tension of having to make work in an environment of isolation from their peers and wider practice. This is represented through the filmmakers’ visual exploration of these themes and a reflection on the meta-themes related to the filmmakers’ embodying praxis.

Conclusion

Both student films in this curated response, combine to collectively provide an example of working in an alternative filmmaking practice, beyond location shoots and beyond isolation. Both films act as evidence of a student experience in being and becoming emerging filmmakers in a post-normal screen world. The films emphasize the potential of DIY iso-technology, thinking and embodied practice as tools for creating and developing artistic identities.

REFERENCES

Benson, E. (Director), Websetr-Morely, X. (Creative Collaborator), Stephens, M (Writer), Black, A. (Supervising producer). (2020) Gunshot Straight . VCA, Film and Television, The University of Melbourne.

Black, A. Lyon, D. (producers) (2020) Post-Normal Filmmakers: developing practice, voice and projects in a pandemic . VCA, Film and Television, The University of Melbourne. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VL83H_4lQh8&feature=youtu.be

Carrasco, S. (2020), ‘Being There Without Being There in the Era of COVID-19: A Filmmaker’s Perspective’, Senses of Cinema, no.95. http://sensesofcinema.com/2020/feature-articles/being-there-without-being-there-in-the-era-of-covid-19-a-filmmakers-perspective/

Qu, A. (Writer/Director), Yang, C. (Producer), Lyon, D. (Supervising Producer). (2020). Restrictions of Infinity . VCA, Film and Television, The University of Melbourne.

Sobchack, V. (2004). Introduction. In Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (pp. 1-10). Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press. Retrieved November 9, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pnx76.4

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