The FI Video Collective Project was a huge undertaking that my team dove into Spring of 2016. Spearheaded by the tireless Molly B., the FIVC started out as a special Faculty Learning Community (or FLC) meant to provide an opportunity for VCU’S Focused Inquiry instructors to teach beyond not only their individual classrooms, but also the normal constraints and expectations of what is, essentially, Writing 101. Inspired by the work of HITRECORD (particularly a short piece called “First Stars I See Tonight“), the goal was this: enlist the talents of Focused Inquiry students to fully write, script, perform, and produce a short film.
Simple enough, right? Here’s the catch: unless they’ve already earned college credit for writing, every freshman student at VCU is required to take Focused Inquiry. Knowing that VCU’s average incoming class caps at roughly 4,000, the idea of collaboration at that scale is pretty insane. Within the group of instructors who joined this FLC, the count of students we knew would be participating came to about 200 (though of course, it would end up being more).
200 unacquainted, largely undecided college freshmen creating a short film. Collaboratively. Remotely.
That idea is still kind of insane. But in Spring 2016, it was just insane enough to work.
The process began at ground zero: writing. Using Lauren Redniss’ gorgeous book, Radioactive, as inspiration, our team of faculty set out assigning writing exercises to their students. Each instructor brought a unique flavor to to their class – some drew out narratives about every day life, while others drew out students’ thoughts on history, privilege, and philosophy, it goes on… – and this was evident in the countless short essays, personal statements, small works of fiction, and other samples that students created. From these samples, students were pressed to refine. They made short split scripts, frankenstein-ed together from what they deemed the most interesting, well-written, or film-worthy writing samples.
After students provided their input, the FLC flexed their own creative muscle to parse down the samples into one, massive script that would then be used to guide production. Imagine taking the assignments from 6 different writing classes and compressing them into a single Google Doc. Now don’t imagine it, pretend it’s actually there, sitting in your Shared Drive to this day. Myself, Molly, and our VCU Department of Cinema friend Danny Caporaletti took on the brunt of this process. After much coffee and musings on common themes in college freshman angst, we had a script.
This process ended in early February, and was Part One of what we call pre-production. Part Two was where the real work began.
In addition to scripting the entire film, we were also putting the burden on students to produce the dang thing. This meant acting the characters’ performances, providing drawings, videos, illustrations, and other graphic assets to be animated (by me!), and scoring.
I drew a rough storyboard of the script which was put up on the Call For Submissions page of the FIVC website. This was the guideline by which students could choose to submit their contributions; if they really liked a certain shot, they could access it to see which things were needed in order for it to come together. I tried to leave each board with as little detail as possible – it was important to us that no one get hung up on ideas of how things “should” look or what the style “should” be. The collage-y nature of this piece was part of what made it so attractive and obviously sourced from multiple contributors; it was an important quality to maintain. I think the freedom of choice was really nice for students, too – it only added to the open nature of the project.
This call for submissions lasted until mid-March. Looking back on it now, you can kind of consider SXSWedu to be our last, semi-self-destructive act of freedom before settling into what would become the 6-week maelstrom called production.
The GIF above gives you the breakdown of how every shot in the piece came together. For 6 weeks, our team ran around various production spaces filming student actors, downloading files upon files of submissions, collecting soundbites, and locating every bit of media needed to bring these students’ script to life. Understanding the ebb and flow of the college semester, trying to accomplish this during the craziness of finals was where the “insane” quality of this project really started to show its face. I want to make a special note here of the immensely talented McKinley Dixon who solely took the lead on scoring and providing the musical cues for the entire piece during this hectic time. His talent and artistry brought the entire film to a new level of polish.
Where Molly was the project director and Max took the lead on perfecting our production spaces, I was largely responsible for script supervising, animating, compositing, editing, and correcting the final product. To give you an idea of the amount of media we were working with: it was so immense that assets were still being added just an hour before the short was set to premiere – and I am NOT a “last minute” type of worker.
I harp about how crazy this project was, but I should make it clear — this process really was wildly ambitious, creative, challenging, and ultimately very gratifying. This way of putting effort towards breaking out of what’s expected, using a creative medium to generate ideas and bring people together, and chasing a goal with no guaranteed final outcome was a new experience for methodical me. I’m thankful this project pushed me into new roles of directing and provided personal insight that helped me grow as an artist and collaborator.
This project opened my eyes to the potential of large-scale collaborations. Collectives like HITRECORD and Blender Foundation take the same idea that sits at the core of the FI Video Collective, but bring a greater level of structure, refinement, and access to resources. How could we emulate them in another iteration of this project? This undertaking also highlighted the importance of time management during all phases of the production pipeline. What would this project look like with a full 9 months of work? A full 9 months of just pre-production? What would this project look like as a multi-year undertaking? What sort of partnerships could be formed by a project with that deep of an investment? What special advantages do we have with students and academics that professional productions don’t have? There are a lot of questions to ponder.
What I also gained from this project is a deeper understanding of my own views on auteur theory and the benefits (and shortcomings) of having a single creative vision guiding the production process. At the end of the day, I do feel that having a single person in the director’s seat is a benefit — if only for ease of communication and project management. However, having a singular voice guiding the creative vision is something that I have come to see more tied to ego than to any true insight. I’ll be the first person to vouch for autonomy and owning one’s ideas with conviction — but it’s a thin line that’s tread when you start to believe that every decision must be arrived at independently, in the vacuum of your own creativity. The feedback and ideas of every person who participated in the FI Video Collective (whether those ideas were thrown out or not) shaped the final product – without it, the project would never have evolved into the unique piece it is. I believe this idea holds true not just for creative work, but for any environment where looping process of ideation and iteration and re-iteration are a critical to creating a final product.
This short film isn’t perfect. There’s wonky transitions and oddly placed lines and weird feathering on masks that I didn’t have time to key and a lot of other things I could point out because I look for them. But I’d be amiss if I focused on them because perfection was never the objective (and frankly, I think the idea of perfection and perfectionism are so full of assumption and flawed in and of themselves. But that’s a conversation for a different blog post).
Originality was the objective. Scrappiness was the objective. Heart and sentimentality and a small glimpse of how hundreds of young adults view the world was the objective. In that sense, I call this project a huge success.
I won’t forget the feeling of standing in the theater before the premiere and seeing the number of students raise their hands and lay claim to their participation in the project… and I won’t forget the their laughter, gasps, and cheers at seeing their own contributions appear on screen. I definitely won’t forget the sound of their applause, proud of themselves and each other when the credits began rolling into an inky, watercolor sky.