Deep within the windowless basement of Sever, in the wee hours of the morning near the end of the semester, students can be found toiling away behind locked doors. Sound like some kind of torture? Actually, it’s Visual and Environmental Studies 50: “Fundamentals of Filmmaking.” The class is divided into two sections, one taught by Professor Alfred Guzzetti ’64 and the other by Roberto “Pacho” F. Velez ’02, himself a former student of VES 50. The class requires no prior experience and lays down the basics of filmmaking. Early in the year, students learn how to operate a variety of expensive equipment—$50,000 worth, in fact—and view examples of nonfiction film done by professionals and past students. As students begin working on their own projects, class time becomes mostly devoted to critiquing each other’s work.
“We would watch everybody’s footage in class, and then everybody would comment on the different things that they liked, what they didn’t like, what could be improved,” says Eva M. Williams ’13, currently a student in the course. “There’s a lot of class participation and a lot of great feedback.”
The first project the students work on is a light journal, for which they individually shot a silent, minute-long black-and-white film studying natural light in one location. For their second and final project this semester, students have paired up and are producing a documentary on the life of a specific person. In the weeks before the final project is due, the students are especially busy. According to Williams and her project partner Fanaye S. Yirga ’13, the pair will spend over 80 hours filming, syncing, editing, and re-editing their film by Thanksgiving.
Shooting the footage involves staying flexible—while they usually have an idea of what they would like to get on film, things don’t always go according to plan.
“You just have to roll with it,” says Yirga. “A lot of times you can’t enter a process thinking the end result is going to be the same as what you initially think it’s going to be. So you have to keep an open mind and be open to changing things.”
Next, with all their raw footage, they synchronize the audio with the visual—sound and image are on separate rolls—and create a rough cut, in which the scenes are not yet in the final order. Williams and Yirga are currently working on the final version.
The film medium provides an extra challenge. Unlike video, which is electronic, film is a physical medium involving 18-pound Aaton cameras and thousands of feet of cellulose triacetate. Because the supplies are costly and limited, students must be careful when handling film to prevent premature exposure and potentially disastrous damage.
“Anytime you want to edit something, you need to not only cut the picture, but also cut the sound, make sure they stay exactly matched up, and then keep them on rolls together,” says former VES 50 student Jackie P. Palumbo ’11. Otherwise, the entire project could be destroyed.
Working with film can be tedious, but the VES faculty believes it is a good learning experience. The students acknowledge—albeit at times grudgingly—what they have to gain from it.
“Now we live in a digital age, where people are using digital cameras,” says Williams. “Those things do focus, they do exposure, they do all of these things. The great thing about film is that it really teaches you how to use a camera, what to do with your lens.”
“It forces you to stop and look at the world and decide what it is you really want and make sure you have that on film,” says Palumbo.
A BIG IN-VES-TMENT
In addition to the seven hours spent in class each week, students can devote over twenty hours per week to their projects outside of class.
“It’s like writing a book,” says Guzzetti. “It takes a long time to make a movie. There’s no way of speeding it up.”
Given the time-consuming nature of the class, it is not surprising that students who take VES 50 are very dedicated to it. Many students are or will be VES concentrators, and those on a different track nevertheless possess a passion for film. Instead of taking Veteran’s Day off like the rest of the College, Williams’s class chose to meet for two hours to get extra feedback on their projects.
“There’s a sense of fulfillment knowing that you built something from the ground up,” says Williams.
“When my family came up to visit, I was able to go and project film,” says Palumbo. “Being able to see the stuff on the screen and be like, ‘I made that, and now this is a permanent thing that exists that I created’—I thought that was awesome.”