SCA students face challenges returning to in-person activity

Student filmmakers say they’ve experienced a disconnect in production and directing experiences since returning to in-person learning.

Student filmmakers at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts have faced several challenges during the fall semester’s return to campus, largely due to a disconnect between what students learned remotely and their hands-on experiences in filmmaking.

Willow Cai, a senior cinema and media studies major, said that during the production of her short film “I Just Want Things to Work Out,” maintaining COVID-19 precautions made filming and producing more difficult than in previous years. Their COVID-19 protocols included having everyone masked and vaccinated, but because of their shoot location and the natural bustle of a set, Cai said the crew had to put in significant effort to maintain social distancing during filming.

As a media studies major, Cai already had less of a background in production compared to her peers in the Film & Television production major. Their major involves more coursework on finalizing scripts, casting, and the building of a film, she said.

“I don’t have a production education,” Cai said. “Everything I know about filmmaking and beyond that is from my previous experience of making movies.”

Cai said she wants to work in the industry, but by not having a production-focused major, it was harder to access the resources and equipment available for SCA students during the creation of her film.

She also said she felt an added pressure to ensure one’s cast and crew are safe. In the pandemic era, this meant checking vaccination status and ensuring social distancing, all during a tightly scheduled pre-production. As a student filmmaker, a lot of the work fell on her shoulders.

“You can’t afford to pay anyone else. You just kind of have to take [on] everything yourself,” Cai said.

Not all film students suffered equally. SCA screenwriting Professor Mark Shepherd believes students whose majors focus more on production and directing than writing took a much greater hit during virtual learning. On top of COVID-19 protocols and precautionary measures that have to be in place, he said young filmmakers’ stress is now exacerbated by their lack of firsthand experience.

“The actors would set up their own cameras and the director would be off on Zoom, talking through a video monitor and moving lights,” Shepherd said.

Shepherd noted that filmmaking on Zoom seemed restrictive because of students’ lack of experience, either with equipment or with general production and directing, due to the requirements of the pandemic.

“There’s this sort of artistic, qualitative nature of SCA that I think is always both inspiring and kind of lends to a little bit of insecurity,” Shepherd said. “‘Do I have enough time, did I give the actor the right instruction?’”

Shepherd said the insecurity many student filmmakers have been facing was present before quarantine began. “What we do is difficult and challenging,” he said. “They [students] really want to do well, there’s always this insecurity when it comes to, you know, ‘Have I learned enough?’”

He said the insecurity students face is a constant as students are unsure whether they are prepared to enter the field. With remote learning and production, students have become more apprehensive about the possibility of success.

Marco Bizio, a SCA senior majoring in cinematic arts, film and television production, said that as a new filmmaker, last year being virtual led to a learning gap, especially with filming on Zoom.

“The difference between doing COVID filmmaking at home, connecting our cameras to our computers, using HDMI for it, and being so limited and trying to make the best of it, tell a story as simply as possible, as clearly as possible, is definitely a challenge,” Bizio said.

Though Bizio has been interested in filming since a young age, the lack of hands-on knowledge due to remote learning has been difficult. He said professors have been expecting a lot more from their students since their return to campus, and that students are willing to take on extra work because of the reduced expectations last semester.

Many SCA professors, Bizio said, encouraged their students to take a break from film over the summer after so many months of filming via Zoom. But, students like Bizio were more than eager to get a head start, and in a positive light, the return to campus for everyone fostered a much closer community for student filmmakers to return to.

“The strange part was I expected [that] after coming back, everyone would be socially awkward and weird, and it was totally the opposite,” Bizio said.”I’ve never been closer to this community of filmmakers ever in my life, and that’s been a beautiful surprise. I’m really happy about that.”