Film Schools Brace for Virtual Classes and New Production Protocols

“What the industry will end up doing is probably not something that’s going to be feasible at an educational institution,” one film school dean tells TheWrap

Film schools will spend the summer anticipating what a fall semester trying to shoot student films will look like amid a pandemic.

Hollywood, meanwhile, is trying to establish new production protocols for the industry, but what works for Hollywood may not necessarily work for all students.

Universities across the country will have the added complication of trying to juggle those demands, while also educating remotely or in socially distant conditions. Each college has its own challenges depending on its size, location and access to technology.

“We want to give the students the opportunity that they would get and that they paid for,” Henry Grillo, the interim dean for the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA) said. “We have to walk a balance between what we feel is the smart way to do production and being certain that we don’t deny students that opportunity they have hoped to have.”

Because UNCSA is a smaller institution with just 360 students in the filmmaking department, they’re expecting to be back on campus with a hybrid virtual and in-person experience. USC is doing something similar, with roughly only 950 students who need to be back on campus, including those studying production. Students in the cinema studies department, for instance, are unlikely to return. UCLA is preparing for the possibility that classes will be fully remote, with some exceptions given to film production students.

And while in many cases no formal decisions have been made at UCLA and at other institutions, administrators will have to inform students within the next few days of what to expect this fall, with the caveat that even those decisions could be tentative as the world changes.

“We are aware that it needs to be fairly soon. … We’re not going to let people go all the way into the summer wondering,” Brian Kite, interim dean at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television said. “It’s complicated! We’re trying to give students a great experience, and the way we thought about classes is, what’s the learning outcome that we want with this course, and is there a way to deliver that? It’s probably not the way we’ve taught this course for the last 20 years, but we’re figuring out a way to get there.”

The film school deans who spoke with TheWrap have all encouraged students to find ways to simplify their film scripts to need fewer location shoots and rewrite their projects to remove crowd scenes. But that won’t be all.

Stephen Galloway, the new dean of Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, has already sent a note, obtained by TheWrap, to Chapman students about a number of plans the university is proposing.

“We’re looking at a whole combination of different possibilities, and we’re actually asking our students for feedback before we commit,” Galloway said. “This is a very expensive education, they have a right to be heard and weigh in for the options that they like.”

Chapman is targeting a planned Aug. 31 reopening, and in the note to its 1,600+ film students, Galloway wrote that 25% of classes in the film school may remain remote, potentially larger lecture hall classes among them, while the rest are expected to resume in person.

Those classes, though, may be broken in two, with students rotating on which day they come to class and which days they’re able to have hands-on time with gear. While nothing has been set in stone, some options could be Saturday or evening classes or even staggered start times to avoid swarms of students in the halls or bathrooms at once.

If students need to be split up and spread out, how do you find enough large classrooms to house them, and will you need extra faculty to meet those demands? What’s more, if dozens of production students are using the same limited amount of equipment to make movies, sterilizing all that equipment will make the usual turnover students have come to expect much longer.

“A film school is in a strange position of being a hybrid studio and a hybrid university. You’re dealing with both sides,” Galloway said. “We are investing in online technology and in getting simple things like masks and disinfectant, so a mini studio is equipped. Because you know there’s going to be an avalanche of those things.”

In that sense, Chapman is also considering financial incentives to film students who can demonstrate how they’ve altered their shooting scripts or those who would be willing to complete their student films as far out as into the summer.

USC Dean Elizabeth Daley George Lucas

USC film school dean Elizabeth Daley (right) with George Lucas/Getty Images

Elizabeth Daley, the dean of USC’s film school, said that 75 students from last semester still need to finish their final projects and were within 24-48 hours of shooting those student movies. It’s a reality not unlike that faced by professionals in Hollywood. And since then, they’ve been working to put production protocols in place, dictating how many people can be in a crew, what stages will be allowed for use and how to enable working remotely, all of which is preparing students for careers in a coronavirus landscape.

“Life will never be the same again. There won’t be crafts services table again. We are preparing students to walk out and work in this new environment,” Daley said. “We’re all working remotely. Let’s make sure skills we’re teaching are skills you’ll use and develop in future careers.”

UNCSA, meanwhile, is anticipating starting classes earlier and concluding by Thanksgiving to avoid students traveling back home. Other schools that are on the quarter system — like UCLA — have the luxury of pushing classes that will require in-person attendance to the spring or beyond while students take classes that can more easily be done virtually this fall. That might also help international students, who may not be able to be present in-person this fall at all.

Galloway, though, says Chapman is limited in two other ways: by the California governor and by the Screen Actors Guild, with whom many film schools have a relationship. Depending on what guidelines they put in place for the industry at-large could have a major impact on what colleges do.

“Are we able to use actors? Do we have to have some kind of medical person on set? That will potentially disrupt production. So a lot of this is very uncertain,” he said.

UNCSA is a conservatory that often has students from the acting and music departments collaborating with film students, and Grillo says those departments also have questions about how their students will be used.

“It’s pretty clear to us that what the industry will end up doing is probably not something that’s going to be feasible at an educational institution,” Grillo said. “First of all, you can’t take an entire crew, actors and above the line and below the line people and put them in a hotel for 30 days. These kids have lives outside of the movies that they’re making. That kind of company quarantine, it’s expensive, and it’s not really feasible in our environment.”

While there are many concerns, universities are also finding new opportunities for students as a result of the added preparations.

At UNCSA, the film school has been looking into providing software like Cine Tracer or to students that can bring some production digital and allow for virtual communication between directors and cinematographers. They’ve also partnered with effects wizard Douglas Trumbull in using some of his technology to reinvent the online learning portal.

SCAD Dean Andra Reeve-Rabb

SCAD film school dean Andra Reeve-Rabb/Photography by Justin Chan/Courtesy of SCAD

At the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), the film school’s dean Andra Reeve-Rabb says all students will be “boots on the ground” in Georgia. The school just completed its fully virtual quarter last week, and Reeve-Rabb said the hope is that students will still be invited to work on local Georgia productions like “Florida Girls” or “Council of Dads,” should they resume production soon. In the meantime, though, SCAD students have also participated in virtual writers’ rooms with Hollywood showrunners while production remains shut down.

“Students, when they come back, are going to be kind of in a microcosm of what happens outside the classroom, because our classrooms are a microcosm of what happens in the industry. So that transition is seamless for them,” she said. “It’s extraordinary that that moment would not have happened if not for this moment.”

At USC, students have participated in webinars with Jeffrey Katzenberg and Kevin Feige. And Daley said that USC even hosted a virtual festival of student-made films while in isolation — or “films from the pandemic” — and students have really run with it.

“The big message is: This is a time to get really creative and invent things. It’s a generation that will come out with an amazing set of skills,” Daley said. “In the long run, I don’t think they’ll lose much; it’s not a permanent situation. If we were facing five years it would be different.”

Cori Graves is an incoming senior at SCAD, who previously worked on “Council of Dads” in Georgia as a PA and just completed a fully virtual quarter. Graves said that she thought the transition to a fully virtual setting was “seamless” and praised the university on its preparedness for returning to campus in the fall, adding that the school has done a good job mirroring the safety measures seen on a real film set.

Cori Graves + Council of Dads

Student Cori Graves with the cast of “Council of Dads”/Photography Courtesy of SCAD

“I was still able to get just as much out of my learning environment as being in-person,” Graves said. “I’m excited to see what SCAD puts out this summer in terms of guidelines for coming back and how we’re all going to adapt and change to that.”

She’s already developed a second, simplified version of what will be her senior thesis film and is making preparations for a live sitcom episode SCAD students will shoot in the fall. And in terms of finding jobs down the line, she feels as prepared as ever.

“I’m not worried about the possibility of being able to work in this industry again. Entertainment, food and fashion will always exist. I think it’s just going to be a lot different than what we’ve seen before, and it’s just about when it’s going to happen as opposed to a matter of whether or not it’s going to happen,” Graves said. “I’m not necessarily concerned about whether or not I’m going to be able to get a job in this industry since coronavirus hit. I’m just waiting for them to get back into action.”

Sharon Waxman contributed to this report.

Brian Welk

Brian Welk

Film Reporter • [email protected] • Twitter: @brianwelk


The news
you need now,
more than ever.

See Subscription Options
Try PRO today