Lights, Camera, Action—and Where to Find Them

A student's perspective on filmmaking with Fire Escape.
Kathryn Vandervalk and Atticus Ballesteros act in "Only the Best"
Having Fire Escape as a resource meant that...I ultimately wasn’t going it alone.

My first movie premiere didn’t involve a red carpet interview with Ryan Seacrest or a sponsorship deal with SoBe Life Water. It didn’t involve a People Magazine “Who wore it best?” feature, nor did it involve paparazzi. Instead, it involved nine student films, a couple hundred audience members, and one very nervous me.

Before last quarter, I didn’t know what ISO meant, I didn’t know how to attach a camera to a tripod, and I had no concept of how much storage space video files take up. A couple short months later, I almost feel comfortable calling myself an amateur filmmaker.

This bold assertion is possible because of Fire Escape Films, UChicago’s student film organization. The club, one of the biggest on campus, gives students the opportunity to try their hand at all aspects of filmmaking: writing, acting, directing, camera work, sound, editing—anything that’s involved with taking a screenplay from someone’s brain to the screen.

I first got involved with Fire Escape fall quarter of 2014, when I acted in one of the terrific Fire Escape intro projects (Doesn’t Matter, directed by Addie Baron and Maha Ahmed). Then, during winter break, I got an email that Fire Escape was looking for script submissions from first-time directors who wanted to emulate the work of a specific director. I’d just watched the movie Submarine, directed by Richard Ayoade, and I liked it a lot, so that night, I wrote a script loosely inspired by it, called it Only the Best, and submitted it.

The script is, basically, the story of a first date between two characters named James and Jenna that goes poorly. It involves the Facebook page UChicago Crushes, a long conversation with a mirror, a vanilla bean frappuccino, and the game Trivia Crack. It’s pretty silly, hopefully a little funny, and about six pages long. I spent about an hour and a half writing it.

That six-page, seven-minute movie took 90 minutes to write and countless hours to make.

After weeks spent waiting, I was informed that my script was chosen for production! Soon after that, my official directorial hours started with choosing excerpts from the script to use during auditions, getting to know my awesome crew, and then watching all of the auditions so I could choose my two main actors. While I was watching auditions, which had been recorded beforehand, then sent to me in a video, it started to dawn on me that something I typed into a computer was soon going to exist as a finished product on screen.

It was weird.

There are a lot of hard parts about making a movie. Sometimes the lighting in a room is irreparably strange, sometimes you think you broke the Logan Media Center’s camera but then thankfully you didn’t, sometimes you can’t quite get the audio footage to line up with the video footage. But probably the hardest part, and the part that I liked the least, was casting the movie. As exciting as it was to watch everyone’s auditions, the decisions themselves were incredibly tough—but that difficulty was truly a blessing. I knew that I had a lot of terrific options for my movie. None were bad, but my decision depended on which path I wanted to choose.  

At last, the casting decisions were made. I cast second year Atticus Ballesteros and third year Kathryn Vandervalk to play the main roles of James and Jenna. Then, it came time to plan and schedule our shoots.

When you watch the credits of a movie, it’s easy to be amazed at how many people are involved–and I finally understood the length of the credits when I started planning for the logistics of filming my movie. The locations we needed were few and easy to access, and we didn’t require a lot of props, but even so, there was still a lot to coordinate; I started to imagine what it must be like making a big-studio feature film. I started to get overwhelmed.

It’s easy to give up on a creative project when things get tough, when something just isn’t workingbut I knew that on March 12th, Fire Escape Films would hold  its winter premiere event, and that my movie was expected to be at it. This deadline, as well as the opportunity to screen my movie, kept me on track and motivated.

We shot my movie in three separate shoots, over the course of two weekends. Every shot was filmed multiple times, from a huge number of angles, so that I could go back and figure out which shots looked the best while editing the film. While this gave me a lot of options during editing, and meant that the film ultimately turned out better, it also meant that the shoots were extremely tedious. Movie shoots are a lot of repetition. During this tedium, I was constantly impressed by my actors’ patience as we struggled with the camera, puzzled over what exactly was going on with the lighting, and made sure everything was in exactly the right place. It takes a village to make a film, and I was lucky enough to have an incredible village.

My crew membersand Fire Escape as a wholewere indispensable. Having Fire Escape as a resource meant that I could feed my crew and actors for free, that I had a support system of more experienced filmmakers to call upon in times of trouble, and that I ultimately wasn’t going it alone. As a first-time director, that was extremely valuable. At weekly meetings during winter quarter, in order to help inexperienced directors, Fire Escape hosted workshops with directors from the past quarter. I took notes madly during these meetings–reminders to keep the ISO at a reasonable level, to make sure sound recording isn’t disabled, and to remember to color correct. The help didn’t stop at meetings, though–during one of my shoots, second-year Fire Escape member Luke White, an experienced cinematographer, volunteered to come and lend me a hand, giving me some invaluable tips about camera settings and shot composition.

After I finished filming, I knew I still had a lot of work to do–but I don’t think you can ever really be prepared for the frustration (and payoff!) of all the hours spent editing. In the basement of the Logan Center, there’s a room filled with computers, and those computers are filled with Final Cut Pro, and I filled Final Cut Pro with over 40 GB of video and audio files. I borrowed a very necessary external hard drive from my friend Jake (who has a cameo in the film), went down to the basement, and taught myself how to use Final Cut Pro.

Once I got the hang of the basics, it was remarkable to watch my movie take shape. During one of my visits to the Logan basement, in the blink of an eye I’d spent six hours editing without even realizing. The frustration was real, but so was the sense of accomplishment when something worked right.

On March 9th, three days before the premiere, I knew I had to put the finishing touches on my film. I watched it over and over again, and I knew there were things that weren’t perfect. There were things I could have done a lot better, there were shots I should have gotten but didn’t, there were moments when the audio might not have completely matched up with the video. I did a lot wrong. But after editing for long enough, and after watching it for the umpteenth time, I realized I didn’t need to watch it again. I wouldn’t see anything new: I’d memorized my movie. I could envision and hear it with my eyes closed. I realized that what I heard and saw made me happy. So I saved the file and submitted it.

The next time I watched it, so did hundreds of other people. With Fire Escape’s help, I’d made something I was proud of, and I’m profoundly thankful for that opportunity: for the opportunity to struggle, to feel like giving upbut ultimately, to reach the light at the end of the tunnel. To create.

If you want to watch my movie (pictured above), and all the other amazing films students have made with Fire Escape, it’s available on Fire Escape’s Vimeo page!

Tagged: student life