Jules Makes A Personal Narrative Film
One thing I did when I was touring liberal arts colleges was ask if I could see their media depot, where their cameras, microphones, lights, reflectors, and the like were stored. Like the super serious fifteen-, sixteen-, and seventeen-year-old that I was, I would then judge the likelihood of my applying to that college by how large their depot was (one school's was a tiny closet off to the side, and I was ready to jump off the tour after I saw it). Oberlin was the only school where this didn't really apply, partly because I knew I would apply because of its progressive history as the first college to admit Black Americans and then women, but also because I knew Jonathan Demme, a director I greatly admire for both his work and his involvement in cultivating a community of film lovers back home, had provided a lot support to the Cinema Studies department. If Jonathan Demme loved Oberlin's Cinema Studies program, then so did I.
Nonetheless, after I was committed to Oberlin with the intention of being a Cinema Studies major, I was very curious to hear about what production courses were like. I was ready for something more intensive than my high school video classes, as I learned roughly 78% of the stuff I know about film production now from a summer program I took when I was sixteen, with the International Film Institute of New York at Sarah Lawrence. I wanted a program where I would be given the freedom to pursue different styles of filmmaking, because I was getting bored with knowing the ins and outs of really normal video-making, for lack of a better term. As kind of goes with a lot of other art forms that I do, I feel that there's an opportunity for making really "nice" art, and by "nice" I mean like, Fleetwood Mac nice - stuff that's strictly made for enjoyment and being as least disruptive as possible. I'm not interested in that. But that's not to say that, as an artist, I'm always like, "W E M U S T F E E L S T R A N G E A T A L L T I M E S." Rather, I am interested in what my Video Production I professor, Rian Brown-Orso, has described: "perfection, but with a crack in it." I like to push the envelope with my work.
And this brings me to my video production class, also known as CINE 298, or just 298 for short. Perhaps the most visible part of this class to the rest of the Oberlin community is that there is a screening at the end of the semester where students project their personal narrative films on the big screen in Dye Lecture Hall in the Science Center. We began working on our personal narrative films the week back from Spring Break, and I would spend my Saturdays in the Apollo (the Cinema Studies facility located above the Apollo movie theater in town that has a green screen, recording studio, postproduction suite, animation suite, and editing lab) practicing rotoscoping and stop-motion. As work progressed on my movies, I would spend literally hours in the recording studio recording voiceovers, foley, and myself playing the score I had thrown together on my mandolin.
The Apollo is not a bad place to be for all those hours, in fact, perhaps the reason why I spent so much time there in the latter half of the semester has to do with how nice of a space it is. It's only open for Cinema Studies students enrolled in production courses, which means that there isn't a huge amount of people rolling through the space at any given time (besides the editing crunch time that hits everyone at the end of the semester). I get very distracted, and very irritated, by extraneous noises when I'm working on something creative, so I appreciate the aural serenity of the Apollo. Also, it helped to have some quiet when I was getting used to animating in Photoshop using a Wacom tablet, something I had never done before taking 298.
What's also great is that it's almost brand-spanking new. Danny Devito (yeah!!!! The guy who played a really terrifying Penguin in Tim Burton's Batman!!) and Rhea Perlman gave the money that has made it possible for it to have its state-of-the-art equipment and resources, and I'm continuously in awe of how nice a space it is. Having interned at an architecture firm last summer, where I spent the majority of my time cataloging and organizing the material library (which is everything from carpet samples, stone samples, wood samples, textiles, metals, tiles, anything that you can find in or on a building), I can say that the architectural materials of the Apollo are *Bill and Ted voice* Most Excellent. I don't know who chose the carpeting or the lab chairs, but they did an amazing job. One of the main points of my Oberlin architecture documentary was that architecture has an incredibly psychological effect on us humans, and so working in such a new space like the Apollo is important because the space doesn't feel tired or worn out. Instead, there's this element of youthful energy that I think is quite conducive to creativity, collaboration, and learning.
In addition to the Apollo is the shooting studio on the fourth floor of Mudd Library. Mudd! I keep returning to this building and discovering more of the amazing things that are inside of it. Yes, there's a full-fledged sound stage in Mudd, with a giant green screen wall and a PLETHORA of amazing camera rigs, lights, and other cool things that I hope to use one day. The shooting studio of Mudd might be slightly larger than the one in the Apollo, which is understandable because the Apollo is the top floor of a historic building downtown. It also doubles as a screening room with a sizable screen that we watch movies on in the first half of the semester in 298.
While the facilities of the Cinema Studies department are super great, perhaps the best part of 298 was the small class size and everyone helping each other out with their movies. In my experience outside of Oberlin, friction can occasionally arise between people who are working on a short film together, but because everyone was working on their own personal narratives, there wasn't an opportunity for that tension to exist. That's not to say that I'm opposed to working with others on a movie--it's the opposite for me. But given the subject of the project as a personal narrative, I'd rather lone wolf it myself, and I was glad to have the space to do that. Even though my process for making this movie wasn't so different from how I've been making the majority of my movies the last few years--writing, shooting, recording, composing, and editing everything on my own--I still strongly relied on the feedback of my peers. I depended on them to provide a window into how an audience would later view my movie, and the things they would gather from it, as well as suggestions for directions I could go with it. I had a very specific vision for what I wanted my movie to communicate about the histories and complexities of the diasporic communities I come from, in addition to the difficulties of also being indigenous but geographically and culturally disconnected from the place I am indigenous to. I had never really spoken to anyone about some of the family stories I included in my movie, so I wanted to make sure that the way that I spoke about it would be coherent and accessible to the viewer. In doing small group critiques and larger class critiques with drafts of our films, we were able to give feedback to each other and provide support in the dizzying circus that is producing a movie in a month.
I was pleasantly surprised with how my movie turned out, as it marks a change in the type of work I do. Most of it was one continuous shot where the camera didn't move at all, which was an unexpected decision on my end, considering that I am a huge fan of the Mexican cinematographer Chivo Lubezki, who has championed elaborate, moving one-take shots that you can see in Children of Men, Birdman, Gravity, The Revenant, and many other movies he's done. There is no conventional dialogue in my movie, either, so the hours and years of experience I have as a screenwriter went completely unused! I have a feeling I will go back to normal dialogue again sometime soon.
As I was editing it (which ended up being much more a creative process than I was expecting it to be, primarily through my diving into the different effects in Adobe Premiere), I noticed I was thinking more in terms of how I approach making visual art, as opposed to movies. It was nice to be able to flex my visual arts muscles and think in terms of "I have this particular theme or idea I want to explicate, so what are ways that I can visually and aurally assert this?" because I feel that I've become more well-rounded as an artist and filmmaker. Given all of the wonderful surprises I've had in 298, I'm looking forward to additional, future production courses I'm going to take at Oberlin.
A Personal Narrative film I made for the Video Production I course (CINE 298) at Oberlin College.
Named after Jing Ke, who famously tried to assassinate the future first emperor of China (Ying Zheng) and was portrayed in Zhang Yimou's adaptation "Hero" by Jet Li as a nameless protagonist, Jing Ke, or Nameless is an exploration into the importance of names from historic, diasporic, and emotional standpoints. Using pieces from my own family's histories, as well as from larger Western and Eastern cultural and artistic canons, constructions of race and issues of multiracial identity come to the forefront of this discussion.