This week, I decided to try something different: Instead of talking about broader concepts pertaining to filmmaking that come up in my weekly studies, I am going to offer an in-depth behind the scenes look at the inner workings of a student production, specifically, my own end-of-the-year project in my production class. As I often preach, doing is the best way to learn, and I hope this inside look will shine a little more light on the day-to-day challenges of production.
At NYU, freshman year is divided into two semesters: Audio and visual. The entire incoming freshman class is split into two, and each half is assigned to either audio or visual semester, switching around in the spring. I completed my visual semester in the fall, and am currently nearing the end of my audio semester. Each semester has one central production class: in audio semester, this class is “Sound Image”, a sound production class in which we learn about the fundamentals of sound, the relationship between sound and image, and also both theory and practice of sound recording, production and editing. The big, final project in this class is to produce a group “radio drama” – an audio-only scripted drama in the tradition of old radio dramas and more recent ones such as A Prairie Home Companion. My group decided to take on a particularly challenging endeavor: We set out to write and record an original musical.
This seems like an extremely difficult and daunting task, especially with only five weeks to complete the project, but luckily, film school provides a particularly supportive environment to take on an adventure such as this. My group included a very talented music composer as well as two extremely gifted singers; together, we all wrote the lyrics and our resident composer composed six original songs. Film school attracts people of all talents; as I have mentioned before, one of the biggest advantages of NYU is that it does not require prior experience in film in order to apply. Rather, NYU asks to submit an “artistic portfolio” that can consist of anything from a short film to a script, a short story, a short play, paintings, photographs, songs, or any form of artistic expression. This helps to create a very rich melting pot of artistic talent, with people excelling in a multitude of artistic mediums in addition to film. It worked out perfectly, since we ended up with a very talented music composer in our class. Within a week, the songs were written and ready to go.
At the same time as the composition process, our producer began sending out casting calls and arranging audition times and rehearsal spaces. I can’t stress enough how important it is to have a good producer on any of your projects. Many of my friends chose to forgo specific role delegation and trusted the group as a collective to organize all of these things. But by designating one team member to be exclusively in charge of the behind-the-scenes logistics of the project and ensuring that everything runs smoothly and that everyone has everything they need, the production runs much smoother and everyone has more time to focus exclusively on their designated tasks. The producer is not only in charge of scheduling casting sessions, rehearsal space and recording studio time, but also responsible for ensuring that all cast members and crew know of all rehearsal and recording times, arrive on time to sessions, find their way, are fed, provided with water, and generally happy. All of these things are extremely important for a smooth, successful production; otherwise, there is chaos.
Casting is an interesting process that seems daunting at first, but if handled correctly, can be extremely rewarding. Once again, luckily we are in an environment rich with untapped talent, including a large group of musical theater majors as well as an entire city of aspiring singers, actors and Broadway performers willing to do work for free for the experience and exposure. I am constantly surprised at the amount of aspiring actors in the city willing to do work for free – but it makes sense; since they are not established names yet, the only way they can get lead roles and truly show off their talents is if they take on student projects for free. Student projects allow them full room to breathe, explore and really showcase their talent; the only paid jobs they can get at this stage in their career are bit parts or background roles. But with a strong reel and resume, they can hopefully land higher profile paying jobs. For our musical, we sent out a casting call for two lead vocalists and eight chorus members, and got a very large turnout for auditions. Some auditions were embarrassing and made us feel like we were judges on American Idol, but most were very great and extremely impressive. Now that our musical was written and cast, it was time to rehearse and record.
One of the most important roles the producer has is crisis manager when something falls apart. Luckily, nothing too major happened during our production, but it was a relatively small project (at least in comparison to very large student film shoots, which we will all be doing in the upcoming years) and thus didn’t have much room for trouble. We had trouble scheduling rehearsal sessions with the full cast and ended up having to forego them completely, which was a risk because we would have only heard all of the performers together for the first time on the recording day itself. That’s one of the biggest challenges with student productions – when people are working for you for free, most other things take precedence, including classes, work, or other responsibilities. We also had two chorus members drop out on us at the last minute, but our tenacious producer managed to get two others in the nick of time.
Another perk of film school is all of the facilities at your disposal. Yes, tuition is unbelievably high, but considering the top-of-the-line facilities we get to work with, it’s easy to see where all the money is going. We got to use our sound center’s recording studio – I was the sound engineer for the project among other things, and thus, was in charge of setting up the microphones, the recording session, getting levels and ensuring that we get the smoothest, highest-quality recording. We held our recording sessions last Thursday and Friday, and they went very well, without a hitch. Thanks to our talented cast, our assured musical direction and our dedicated producer, we got extremely satisfying results and even managed to finish recording ahead of schedule.
It’s a good feeling, the feeling of having accomplished something difficult. When we set out on this adventure four weeks ago, we had no idea how well it would turn out. But now, deep in the editing/instrumentation process and a week away from the due date, it’s all starting to come together. Being this close to the end is one of the most exciting stages in a production – that feeling that, with a few more little tweaks and adjustments, this could turn out to be something truly special. I will provide a link to the completed project in two weeks, after we hand it in.