When your group project is a movie: Film students go pro

Sandra Lee, assistant professor of film and digital media, shows off the 4K and 2K drives of her film "River House Inheritance," which she filmed last summer with her feature film production class. The rives can be plugged into any 4K capable theater to project the film. Photo credit: Charlene Lee

Hollywood is both an industry and a place. Though the iconic white sign might represent the place where movies—and dreams—are made, the industry can really be anywhere.

Baylor film students have learned that firsthand over the last year as they worked with Sandra Lee, assistant professor of film and digital media, on a feature-length and a short film. The students shot both films up to Hollywood’s standards, with all the equipment and crew that would be at home on a Los Angeles backlot.

Thirty students shot the feature film “River House Inheritance” for their feature film experience class last summer, and 25 worked on the short film “It’s Tea Time” for an independent study with Lee. From conception to execution, Lee entrusted the students with most filmmaking responsibilities. She wrote the script for “River House Inheritance” at the same time that she taught a screenwriting class, and from that point she shared the filmmaking with her pre-production, feature film and independent studies students.

“It was cool because Sandra really showed us how it would be in real life. I wasn’t just a student under someone, being told what to do by someone else,” said Eudora, Kan., senior Emily Durkin, who worked as a producer on both films.

Durkin did everything a producer would normally do, making sure her actors were where they needed to be, maintaining good relations with the owners of the house where “River House Inheritance” was shot and keeping the set running smoothly.

“For better or worse, I see students as fellow filmmakers, not students. I expect them to step up to their position and that’s it. They’re really not students to me,” Lee said.

Professionals such as sound mixer John Pritchett, production designer Lynne Mitchell, gaffer Greg Travis and sound mixer Nikki Dengel also stepped in to help on the project, but they too took the student filmmakers under their wings to show them how to do the best jobs they could.

“The goal on both of them was to work with professionals as well as students,” Lee said. “It’s a great learning environment because you’re really working with the pros.”

Richardson senior Cory Ewing, the cinematographer for both projects, said each student had the chance to fully inhabit his or her role on the set. Everyone, from set design to hair to makeup, was important, and everyone had to collaborate to complete the films on time and on budget.

“I learned that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life, no matter what,” Ewing said.

While the project encouraged Ewing to dedicate his life to cinematography, others changed course after filming. Bellaire senior Andy Sharp said working with Lee helped direct him to what he really wanted to do in movies.

“Before this film, I really thought I wanted to be an editor. But there was a moment when I was working on color and Sandra Lee looked over and said, ‘I think you’re a colorist.’ And that’s when it all clicked,” Sharp said.

A colorist has the ability to alter the look and feel of a movie by adjusting its color settings in post-production. Sharp had the opportunity to work with the colorists at TBD Post in Austin, a post-production house that is among the best in the industry.

Lee said working with the highest-quality technology throughout the project was particularly important for her and her students. The crew was actually the first at Baylor to complete films using lenses donated to the project by Canon and ARRI. Lee said working with such cutting-edge technology was one of the most exciting parts of the experience for her, as well as the best possible learning opportunity for her students.

“We finished them both in 2K and 4K, which is the highest resolution you can finish in,” Lee said.

While the Baylor Film and Digital Media department owns the camera both films were shot on, Ewing said it would have cost thousands of dollars to rent the lenses if they had not been donated for the project. Most of the budget was dedicated to technology to ensure that the students were making authentically high-quality films.

“It was back to the idea of seeing how much of this film we could make like in the industry,” Lee said.

While Lee wanted to bring the film up to the industry’s technical standards, each project actually counteracts some of the industry’s worst tendencies. Lee said both “River House Inheritance” and “It’s Tea Time” feature predominately female casts, an unusual phenomenon for Hollywood films.

“I think it’s important as a female filmmaker to put your feminism where your mouth is and make female movies,” Lee said. “The men that read the script [for “River House Inheritance”] couldn’t stand that. They really noticed. They gave me notes on the male characters, and I’d be like, ‘Yeah, no. It’s not about the male this time.'”

“River House Inheritance” features two sisters who compete over a home left for them on the Brazos River. “It’s Teatime,” whose script has already won prizes at the European Independent Film Festival, Beverly Hills Film Festival and Vail Film Festival, also features a female-driven family relationship, this time between a mother and daughter. In the short, completed by Lee’s students in February, a young girl sets up her tea party and waits for her mom to join her. When she never does, the girl loses the sense of imagination that once made teatime so special.

“It’s about how you can kill your children’s dreams and imagination if you don’t play with them at a young age when they need you,” Lee said.

Lee has submitted both films to a range of festivals, and now she and her students can only wait to see where they go next.

In the meantime, Lee, unlike the mother in “It’s Tea Time,” will continue to encourage her students’ creativity, whether in Waco or in Hollywood.

“I think why I like the way I teach the best is because I really make it a set where the students are actually doing the role, and I literally treat them in that role,” Lee said. “I learn to make movies from my students just the same way that they learn from me.”