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Young Filmmakers Brave A Changed World in 2020

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Graduating college is supposed to feel like standing in front of myriad open doors, embarking on the next phase of a lifelong journey. But what happens when you graduate in the middle of an unprecedented global pandemic that requires you to stay six feet away from everyone outside your household? For film students, it's a mixed bag. Sometimes, it's just flat-out disappointing, while other times, there's motivation to make the best of it and not put a career, or a life for that matter, on hold.   Depending on their chosen medium, some have found they can accomplish more remotely than you might expect. In a recent two-part panel during Film Independent’s Forum, industry experts focused on what could be done now and what comes after.

Katie McNeill, VP of Production at Hunting Lane, said now isn’t a good time to get financial commitments from studios as they “don’t want to get bogged down with films with no real sense of when they’re going to make them,” but it’s a great time to work on scripts. It’s also good to reconsider things that might not work right away when production resumes, like party scenes or scripts that require large budgets or extensive travel.

Producer Amanda Marshall echoed that saying, “It’s looking at, okay, well, what is possible to actually do in the next couple of years?” Likewise, some recent film school grads are using this time to take an artist residency, write, read and otherwise prepare for life after COVID-19. We spoke with three "Fine Cut" finalists to find out what they've been up to as fresh graduates in a changing world.

Animation's Upper Hand

Collin Schuster graduated from USC with a B.A. in animation and digital arts and a minor in screenwriting. His thesis project was "Low-Key," an animated short about a young man who uses a special key to access memories involving those important to him. With a friend's help, the protagonist realizes that his memories may be coated in personal bias and not accurately reflect reality.

The pandemic hit as Schuster was completing his senior year. In March, he moved back home to live with his family in Dallas, where he wrapped  "Low-Key" remotely. The finished product is almost exactly as he'd planned it. He'd recorded voice actors and pickups before the pandemic, and most everything else could be done online.

“Thankfully, with a digital medium like animation, talking with people and getting artwork from other people wasn’t incredibly difficult because other people were able to work from home,” he said.

Three animated figures revolve around a key ring in a frame from "Low-Key" | Still from "Low-Key" Fine Cut Season 21
Three animated figures revolve around a key ring in a frame from "Low-Key" | Still from "Low-Key" Fine Cut Season 21

However, the music isn’t quite the same. Composer Kion Heidari-Bateni intended to score the film using his MIDI keyboard, then hire musicians to record all the parts after Schuster approved the tracks. The pandemic prevented Heidari-Bateni from assembling live musicians, so the resulting score is done entirely on a computer. It’s the sort of thing you wouldn’t know hit a snag unless someone told you.

Though Schuster had anticipated staying in L.A. and looking for a job, he now finds himself in Texas working remotely on freelance projects, including title sequences for a web series, storyboards and animation. Sometimes he’ll create his own personal work, which he posts to social media. He’s been lucky in that a lot of animation work can be done remotely, though notes that friends in animation career report missing in-person interactions, especially in the creative writing process — something he experienced for himself when his screenwriting class moved online earlier this year.

“We had to do table reads over Zoom. It worked okay, but it wasn’t quite the same,” he said. “It’s not quite as lively and not quite as sharp as if we were in person.”

While Schuster admits the pandemic has made it harder for him to find a full-time job, he thinks it’d still be hard to get hired as an artist in a world without COVID-19. For now, he’s keeping optimistic, honing his craft, staying both active and social — even if it’s online — and “trying not to use the pandemic as an excuse for why I don’t have a job.”

"For a couple of months in the summer, I felt like I was putting my life on hold," he said. "But really, I don't know how long this thing's going to last. So I have to get started now, get more on top of job applications, but also maintain relationships, even if I can't talk to people in person."

The Power of Collaboration

Allison A. Waite studied film and TV at USC and created the documentary “The Dope Years: The Story of Latasha Harlins.” The film explores the murder of Latasha Harlins, a Black teen who was shot and killed by a Korean store owner in 1991, a year before the L.A. Uprising in 1992.

Because Waite's focus is directing and cinematography, she would usually need to be on set physically. She worried she'd be unable to create during the pandemic at all.

 “As the class of 2020, this is the time where you’re putting yourself out there, promoting yourself, promoting all that you learned in your program, and getting your first job or internship. To know that those opportunities would not be there was definitely scary,” she said. “But then I think we all realized that within each other, we had work to do.”

Allison Waite and her crew filming "The Dope Years: The Story of Latasha Harlins." | Courtesy of Allison Waite
Allison Waite and her crew filming "The Dope Years: The Story of Latasha Harlins." | Courtesy of Allison Waite
Allison Waite and her crew interviewing someone for "The Dope Years: The Story of Latasha Harlins." | Courtesy of Allison Waite
Allison Waite and her crew interviewing someone for "The Dope Years: The Story of Latasha Harlins." | Courtesy of Allison Waite

So, Waite has turned to her classmates and friends for collaboration, saying she's busier than ever. She's producing a thesis film and directing an advanced project at USC while developing two television concepts with classmates and writing a feature film she hopes to produce in Senegal. A lot of the pre-production work they've been able to do online over Zoom, and sometimes they'll scout a location together with masks and the smallest possible crews.

Still, because every production is also limiting crew sizes, Waite’s found paid jobs few and far between save a few commercial productions she’s been on — now with increased safety and sanitization teams. She’s also been unable to shadow cinematographers, something she had previously hoped to do to meet people and learn more about the trade.

While she was able to finish her film, releasing it has been trickier. Screenings have been canceled, and the film festivals her team entered have been delayed or moved online, limiting their ability to travel and network. Online screenings work, but they don’t have the same impact.

“The biggest thing for me was I wasn’t able to get an audience reaction. After the screening, I’m used to people coming up to me and then talking about it, but it was weird because…online, you have no idea. It’s anti-climactic in a way and also, you don’t feel connected,” she said.

And given how topical her film is to demonstrations against police brutality and racism happening across the nation right now, that’s been particularly disappointing.

"We made the film hoping it would create discussion, but in a way, the discussion is silenced because we have no access to the audience," she said.

So for now, she continues to take care of her family, including her mother who is at high-risk for COVID-19 complications and work on the projects she can.

“I think everybody’s just trying to work inwardly right now. To write more, to think about the trajectory of their own career, to really self-evaluate and prepare,” she said.

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A Shift in Medium

Reina Higashitani completed her MFA in Film and TV Directing at UCLA in 2019, and previously attended NYU for an M.A. in Cinema Studies. She’d completed her film “Frog Catcher,” a short drama about a transgender man who falls in love with a wealthy woman in 1876 San Francisco, prior to the pandemic. She left Los Angeles and returned to New York after three different jobs she’d lined up all canceled due to COVID-19.

A blindfolded man pokes at something while a woman looks on in "Frog Catcher." | Still from "Frog Catcher" Fine Cut Season 21
A blindfolded man pokes at something while a woman looks on in "Frog Catcher." | Still from "Frog Catcher" Fine Cut Season 21

"I could not sustain myself," she said. "I really wanted to stay, but it wasn't realistic. But then, I think in a positive way, now it's really easy to do everything remotely." This included a gig from one of the companies she had planned to work for over the summer, which, while different from her original position, she still enjoyed.

Higashitani entered an artist residency in upstate New York in August, where she's working on a podcast series, in part because it's less technically involved than a film. She had been thinking about the kinds of stories she could still tell while also thinking about who she is and her own identity as an Asian American woman. She's interviewing grandmothers, mothers and daughters in her local community.

Reina Higashitani working on her podcast series during an artist residency in upstate New York | Courtesy of Reina Higashitani
Reina Higashitani working on her podcast series during an artist residency in upstate New York | Courtesy of Reina Higashitani

“As I search who I am, I wanted to talk through those things with other people who experienced this before,” she said.

Higashitani said she would love to come back to Los Angeles, but she says it really depends on her next job and if it requires her to be there in person.

"I'd love to go back, but I don't think that it's a life and death situation. At one point, even before the pandemic, I was asking teachers about [about staying in Los Angeles]. Many teachers told me that the more important thing is that you stay persistent and tell more stories. It's not about where you are."

In conversations with friends who are still at school, she said she was happy to hear that professors and students were working hard to make things work while adhering to health and safety protocols. In particular, she noted that some teachers have been calling on producers, directors, and other industry professionals to use extra time caused by reduced work hours to mentor students.

"My friend was telling me she had a one-on-one matchup with these mentors. It was a short amount of time, but it was very inspiring, and she felt a real school feeling again, even though everything is online," she said. "So, I think both the student side and the teacher side are trying to do their best."

Top Image: The celebration of Victory Day, May 2020 in Moscow, Russia, during coronavirus pandemic time. Holidays in protective face masks. Young TV operator working in the city center. | Yury Karamanenko/iStockphoto

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