Graduate students push to complete films amidst global pandemic

The struggles of creating films while social distancing could be a glimpse into larger shifts for the entertainment industry.

Matthew Mitchell’s coloring sessions begin at 9 a.m. It’s the only time he can adjust the image and hue of his student film with his colorist, who Zooms in from a workstation in India.

Normally, Mitchell would use the facilities provided by USC. But those rooms were shut down along with the rest of campus earlier this semester. Faced with no other option, Mitchell scrounged USC’s alumni network for a colorist with their own setup until finding someone nearly 8,500 miles away. The 12-and-a-half hour time difference isn’t ideal, but neither is finishing a film in the middle of a pandemic.

“It’s pretty crazy,” Mitchell said. “You have to extend your days because you can’t be working in the same place at the same time.”

Mitchell is a member of USC’s Peter Stark producing program - a specialized degree course for graduate students at the School of Cinematic Arts. His film, “Till It Comes True” captures the moment a defiant jazz singer refuses to perform for a segregated crowd at a ballroom in 1950s Las Vegas.

Like Mitchell, dozens of graduate film students at USC are working under quarantine to finish their final films. These projects are the summary of their work in the production program, and often are submitted for festivals and competitions.

As the campus lockdown has pushed most post-production efforts online, these students work in a microcosm of the new realities facing the entertainment industry.

“Everything takes more time, iterations are extremely tough,” said Mitchell Graham Colley — another student in the Stark program.

Colley’s short film, “Hurricane,” finished shooting just before the novel coronavirus became a national emergency. The film was written by Colley and co-produced alongside fellow graduate student Shardé Sargeant. It follows the story of a young girl who befriends an older woman grieving the loss of her son. He recalls filming at the March Field Airbase in late January at the same time a group of passengers were flown in from Wuhan, China to be placed under quarantine. Even then, the virus wasn’t much of a concern.

“We were like, ‘Alright, that seems safe,’” said Colley. “At that time, it hadn’t been classified as a pandemic.”

Now in post-production, things are much different. Instead of working with an editing team and sound mixers in a shared booth, Colley coordinates the post-production process over Zoom. The video-chatting platform is designed to compress audio and avoid background noise for conference calls, which has been an impediment to creating surround-sound audio for a film meant to be experienced in theaters.

“With Zoom, you don’t have the same ability to listen in real time because of the quality of sharing things - it doesn’t work,” Colley said. “At the same time, I’ve been happily surprised with how well I’ve been able to use it.”

While there have been setbacks, many of the filmmakers are sourcing help through USC’s robust alumni network of industry professionals.

“For Rosa” is a short film created by graduate students Ashley Flores and Catheryn Boyd-Batstone. It is inspired by the story of “the Madrigal 10”—a group of Latina women who were forcefully sterilized in LA County Hospital.

Much like Colley, their film finished shooting before the pandemic hit. All that was left was sound mixing and editing, but they knew they would need extra help to get it done.

“I decided to reach out to professionals,” Boyd-Batstone said.

After a string of cold-emails, she managed to get in touch with the sound designer of the Oscar award-winning film “Roma,” who continues to help the team finish mixing while at their home studio in Mexico.

“We decided that we had to pivot given that most of the festivals are going online,” Flores said.

Meanwhile, these graduates are producing under circumstances that are likely to become a reality for the entertainment industry at large, currently undergoing what has been called “the greatest economic calamity to ever hit Hollywood.”

“Everything that we needed to do could pretty much be done digitally,” Flores said. “Some of these changes, at least with editing, are going to have to be streamlined for the future - because we don’t know when this pandemic is going to end.”

Not all students have been able to be as flexible, however. KJ Booze, another member of the Stark program and producer for the film “Ting Tang,” had to pause post-production indefinitely until he and his team can access USC’s facilities again. Whenever that may be is anyone’s guess.

“Finishing the film on personal computers has been kind of impossible,” Booze said. “If we went in and tried to do that, it would compromise the value of the film.”

While Booze is waiting to complete his film for a future where in-person editing sessions and festivals will be allowed, others are making a pivot to digital along with the rest of the industry.

Many of the graduate filmmakers were given extended deadlines by USC to finish their films, although they still have sights set on digital releases and premieres. Flores and Boyd-Batstone, for example, anticipate that “For Rosa” will be streamed on YouTube Live, while Colley plans on submitting “Hurricane”for the Student Academy Awards by June 1. Mitchell also plans on sending in his film for festivals after wrapping production in May.

The artistic drive, they say, is what keeps them going.

“What a shame it would be if, because of the pandemic [“For Rosa”] doesn’t get to be seen,” Flores said. “It’s such a beautiful film.”

“It’s been a huge emotional journey to get this thing done,” said Colley, who has been working on his film since writing it’s early draft in 2018. “It’s reflective of the resilience of the industry.”

Correction: A previous version of this article said that Colley co-wrote and co-produced “Hurricane” with Shardé Sargeant. This was incorrect. Colley wrote the film, and co-produced it with Sargeant.

Annenberg Media sincerely apologizes for this error.