Creativity in a Dire Situation | A Look at Student Films Throughout the Pandemic

Creativity in a Dire Situation | A Look at Student Films Throughout the Pandemic

People have been struggling financially since the Coronavirus outbreak began in March of 2020. Retailers have seen a severe drop in sales and many small businesses have been hit so hard that there is little chance of them bouncing back anytime soon. However, some of those who have been hit the hardest are those working within the film industry. While life has indeed come to a halt for nearly everyone, it could be argued that the rules, restrictions, and impact of the pandemic have been some of the most severe for those working within the entertainment sector.

It’s hard to miss just how much has changed for film in the past year… Countless cinemas have had to close their doors for months at a time, many of the blockbusters we hoped to see in 2020 were cancelled or delayed (including: Black Widow, A Quiet Place Part II, and Avatar 2), while streaming services have been more prevalent than ever, with a number of major stay-at-home releases receiving more attention than could have ever been expected.

Yet in this dark time for film, where multimillion dollar blockbusters are scarcely in production and people are left hungrier for the silver screen than ever before, there has been one small sub-genre of film that is still alive and well: The Student Film.

Without the need for funding, and the ability to be made anywhere, at any time, and without preconceived expectations, student films had no reason to stop during the pandemic.

The appeal of student films come in many forms, and one is how accessible they are becoming. With the advent of video sharing sites like YouTube and Vimeo, it has never been easier to get your content distributed and seen by millions.

The actual filmmaking process has never been so simple either. At one point, the need for expensive cameras and an excess of film (alongside the hell that was early home editing) made for an exclusive and expensive hobby. However, nowadays all you need is a phone with a camera, and you can already shoot, edit, and distribute a film that would have been impressive for a blockbuster in the 1980s.

So, it’s no wonder that with all this free time and resources that a creative young adult would pick up a camera and shoot something, whether to help them vent their emotions during this difficult time, keep themselves busy, or have something to show once things go back to something resembling normality.

To help my argument, it only seemed appropriate to get some insight from real life student filmmakers who had to make do with what they had in a time when so many felt like doing so little.

One such student I spoke with was fellow Mouthing Off team member and writer, Sam Barrowcliffe, about his short thriller Delivered. As his first film to come to fruition, Sam was able to provide a detailed insight into the production, as well as the trials and tribulations that came with making a short film.

Going into this interview with Sam, I had wanted to gain a deeper understanding on how the process of making a student film might be affected by the pandemic – whether it made it easier or not, if it affected the final outcome of the film – and if so, was it for better or for worse?

Sam had set out to create a film that explored the human condition, how people often struggle to reach out to others (especially during the national pandemic), and the anxiety associated with leaving one’s comfort zone – something that I’m sure many of us can relate too.

With the pandemic comes many hurdles for the filmmaker to overcome, as I’m sure one can imagine. When asked how the pandemic affected the process of making a short film, Sam helped to provide a unique outlook. One of the biggest issues was managing to find the time to actually shoot the piece. What should have been a relatively short process (a few days at most) turned into a month and a half long process of scheduling and rescheduling days to shoot. Slowly but surely things were becoming more and more complicated due to lockdown restrictions getting tighter and tighter.

It wasn’t only the length of the shoot that changed for this first-time director, but the actual production of it too. When it came to shooting on the few days that were available, things only got more complicated. With social distancing measures in place, it became tricky to direct people efficiently. Having to film in a room not much bigger than six feet made it convoluted when trying to get closer to the subject or develop more cinematic shots.

However, not everything was all doom and gloom. The restrictions, in an oddly ironic way, would actually help the production become more efficient and may have helped the overall quality of the project as a whole. Likening it to the experience of shooting on film, Sam thought that by having such limited time to make the movie resulted in a better product. When on set they knew that this could be the last time for at least good few months, and so ensured that the time spent was as productive as it could be. No hours were spent socialising or going down the pub to ‘chat about some ideas.’ Every moment was dedicated to getting the film done, and getting it done well.

However, Sam wasn’t the only one who picked up a camera during this pandemic.

On the other side of the filmmaking spectrum, several students have been making short documentaries. Documentaries can greatly differ from a drama in many aspects; with no script or any real way to plan the day, they offer a whole host of different problems that a fiction filmmaker might not even consider. To get perspective on this particular issue, I reached out to UWS filmmaking group, DMG Productions, to ask about the process of making a documentary.

As Television students, making a documentary for a class, there was an emphasis on paperwork and ensuring that every step was taken to maximise safety. This included the usual maintenance of six feet and wearing face masks, but also extended to dealing with things like: having as few crew members on set as possible, sanitising every piece of equipment and touch point, filling out risk assessments, and even completing an online assessment to earn a certificate in Covid-19 set safety. This host of cautious steps that had be taken weren’t particularly intrusive and were ultimately for the best.

This didn’t translate to the outcome of the film, however. The group felt that, unlike Sam, the pandemic definitely had a negative impact on their piece. With the threat of another lockdown and a deadline slowly creeping closer, they felt like it would be for the best to conduct the documentary in one shoot. This meant that they got very little coverage and could not follow their subject properly, which resulted in (at least in their eyes) a documentary that was lacking in content and was little more than a glorified interview.

Despite this, DMG still felt proud that they had come together regardless of the odds stacked against them. They did feel that the pandemic was their biggest setback; when asked if budget or crew size affected their production, they felt like this wasn’t the case. The trio was under the impression that aside from a slight upgrade in camera, sound, or lighting, budget would have had little to no effect on the actual content of their film.

This past year has been a strain on many people, businesses, and industries. A very public emphasis, however, has been that of the film industry – it’s hard not to notice, with so many films having been delayed. Yet, despite such major companies being unable to produce content, it didn’t stop passionate and talented young creators from bringing their projects to life.

Even though not everything we did over this pandemic was as successful as we hoped, whether it be a new health routine, a new hobby, or even the screenplay that would eventually get made into a film when this ‘whole thing blows over’. We should all be proud that we got through these difficult times. The people who did manage to fulfil their goals are now evidence of the great things that people can achieve no matter the circumstances.

Whether we follow in Sam’s footsteps and manage to use the bad to create something better than before, or if our story is more similar to that of DMG, we can still be proud that we tried. That is the take-away from this past year – making do with the lot that we have and striving for the best, no matter the pushback.

Written by Matthew Cowan | Film by Sam Barrowcliffe | Illustration by Sanni Pyhänniska.

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