“These are very strange times:” remote learning disrupts student films, RTVF classes


Daily file photo by Allie Goulding

Annie May Swift Hall, which is home to the Radio/Television/Film department. With remote learning lasting until at least April 27, RTVF students and faculty are unsure of how to proceed with film shoots on campus.

Eva Herscowitz, Reporter

For over a year, Communication senior Mega Dafiaghor has been working on a short film called “Neutral Good.” The movie is her project for the Radio/Television/Film department’s two-quarter Advanced Directing class. The class — an application-only, small seminar reserved for RTVF seniors — is competitive and time-intensive: As the film’s director and writer, she assembled a crew and post-production team, organized production, and planned to color the film herself.

Throughout the process, what she was looking forward to most was the film’s June 4 premiere.

“What everybody is really excited for, always, is premiere,” she said. “Through being in RTVF for four years, it was going to be a really great show of all that we had mastered in our time being here.”

Now, Dafiaghor may lose the opportunity to premiere “Neutral Good” in-person. University President Morton Schapiro announced March 11 that classes will be held remotely until at least April 27 due to the rapidly spreading COVID-19 outbreak. For some RTVF underclassmen and juniors, remote learning means postponing filming until Fall Quarter and attempting to edit from home; for some seniors, it means modifying long-anticipated projects or cancelling them entirely; and for some professors, it means quickly assembling new plans for production-oriented classes.

Communication Prof. Clayton Brown said faculty and staff are “brainstorming daily” to devise a plan for remote instruction. Like the School of Communication’s Department of Theatre and the Bienen School of Music, RTVF’s production classes and Northwestern’s student-run production companies are extremely hands-on.

For now, questions remain.

“How do you hold acting for the stage and screen from home instead of on a set?” Brown said. “How do you demonstrate lighting techniques and how to load film into a magazine from home? How do you direct actors and film a class project without people or equipment?”

Plans for production, post-production uncertain

Although filming for “Neutral Good” is mostly complete, Dafiaghor won’t be able to film pickup shots, small shots or scenes filmed after principal photography has ended to correct mistakes and add material. The absence of additional footage will “affect how people comprehend the film,” she said.

Remote learning will also affect the post-production process of numerous student films. Provost Jonathan Holloway announced March 18 that the University’s Evanston and Chicago campus library buildings are closed until April 17. Many RTVF students use University computers, which are loaded with Adobe Premiere Pro, color-correcting program DaVinci Resolve and other video production software, to edit films. Adobe announced that it will offer free at-home access to Creative Cloud apps to students through May 31 to aid remote learning.

Brown said the RTVF department is “making arrangements with Adobe and with the School of Communication IT staff to make that happen.” Still, internet access and connectivity remain barriers.

“I don’t have the software I need to color it,” Dafiaghor said. “And even if I did, my computer’s too slow for me to use it.”

She plans to pursue post-production remotely. The film’s sound designer can edit remotely, and Dafiaghor lives within driving distance of the film’s composer. Coordinating with her team will be difficult but manageable, she said.

“It doesn’t get to be as precise as you had planned for,” she said. “It’s just kind of like, ‘Okay, well, this will be done and it’ll at least be finished.’”

Communication freshman Anna Skillom won Studio 22 Production’s New Student Grant for her film “Get Over Me,” which Skillom wrote and planned to direct with Communication freshmen Caroline Bates and Tanya Herrmann serving as producers. They planned to shoot the film during Spring Quarter and spend the $1,000 grant on props, costumes, filming permits and food for their team.

Bates said the three had been working on pre-production for several hours a day beginning halfway through Winter Quarter. Their plan was to film the third and fourth weekends of Spring Quarter. After Schapiro’s announcement, she said she was initially optimistic the team could continue with filming.

“It was right at the point where we were kind of on the fence, thinking maybe we’ll be back,” Bates said. “Coronavirus hadn’t developed into what it is now. At one point we thought, ‘Well, let’s just do it. Let’s all come back to campus and film this.’ How crazy does that sound now?”

But as health precautions increased and universities nationwide announced classes would remain remote through the end of the semester, she said the group now hopes to film in the fall. According to the “School of Communication-Specific COVID-19 FAQs,” the Cage, which supplies students with editing equipment and editing facilities, will close March 21 for Spring Break. The School of Communication will evaluate the timing of their reopening based on University recommendations.

Studio 22 co-president Sarah Evans, a Communication senior, said the student-run production company awarded grants to three filmmakers who planned to shoot during Spring Quarter. Plans for those films remain uncertain, though she said she hopes students will be able to shoot in May.

“We just have to see what’s happening with the University,” Evans said. “Unless the University cancels production, we’re not going to cancel it. We don’t want to make any decisions without knowing that because we just want to figure out how it’s possible for the students to get their films made. As students who voluntarily are on this board, all we ever want is for our films to get made.”

Students devise collaborate solutions

Despite losing access to equipment, some RTVF students are conceiving of creative solutions to keep projects afloat.

Evans created a Facebook group for women-identifying filmmakers to share and receive feedback on screenplays, rough cuts and other projects. Soliciting peer feedback on long scripts during a typical school year is often difficult, Evans said, and she hopes the group, which currently has around 20 members, facilitates collaboration.

“This is the perfect time for us,” she said. “We actually have time to read each other’s things. We have all these conversations about wanting to go into the film industry together and what it’s like to be united as female-identifying people who want to go into this industry. I think it’s really important for us to be able to support each other.”

Communication junior Adam Present is a producer for this year’s Applause for a Cause feature film, “We’re the Marvels,” which wrapped production March 15. Executive members decided to go through with the group’s final day of filming, which took place four days after Schapiro’s announcement, calling to set only a “barebones crew” to reduce health risks.

Applause, which produces a film over the course of the school year and donates ticket sales to a local charity, has a plan for remote post-production: Present owns Premiere Pro and shared the software with the film’s editor.

“We’re the Marvels” is scheduled to premiere May 24 and 29, though Present expects to delay those dates until Fall Quarter. Sales from the premiere will benefit the Howard Area Community Center.

“Our whole mission of Applause is to be able to raise money for our beneficiary,” he said. “If we can’t have that, then it kind of defeats the purpose of what we’ve been working towards. We’re going to work toward having a premiere as soon as we are on campus and safely able to do so.”

Fate of production classes unknown

Brown said professors can teach “non-hands-on” aspects of production classes early on in the quarter. But he added that if the University extends remote instruction through the end of the quarter, production classes will be “difficult to imagine.”

“The situation is so new and fluid that faculty, staff, IT technicians and everyone else in RTVF and the School of Communication are faced with finding solutions to problems not anticipated, so not all of the answers are figured out yet,” he said.

The department faces unique challenges, which remote learning will likely compound. RTVF students can only check out equipment from the Cage if they have been trained to use it in a production class — but with small class sizes and limited sections, these production classes are notoriously difficult to get into. Now, plans for production classes are up in the air.

Still, Brown said RTVF students and faculty will navigate logistical challenges together.

“These are very strange times,” Brown said. “Nobody wants to teach or learn this way. But this is the reality that we’ve got, and I want students to know that we are doing everything we can to make the very best experience possible. If we all come at this with an open mind, we’ll get through it, no matter how hard it seems.”

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