Michael Sparks, a senior who serves as vice president of the Carolina Film Association, was working on multiple projects when campus closed in the spring, including one that was being shot in a cast member’s sorority house full of cast, crew members and other residents.
Months later, that house is no longer a viable filming location.
The statuses of films such as “Tenet,” “Mulan” and “Wonder Woman 1984” have been among the biggest stories in the COVID-19-ravaged entertainment industry this summer. However, student filmmakers at UNC have dealt with many of the same issues, having to delay or cancel several projects due to the pandemic.
While Sparks has been unable to complete that project up until now, the pandemic has not prevented him from continuing to create by posting short films, reviews and cooking videos that he could make by himself on YouTube. He said these projects have helped him become better at planning his films before shooting, instead of improvising on set.
“Sometimes, with a crew, you want to have a plan, but you can make things up sometimes in terms of trying a new thing because you have people there to support and facilitate that,” Sparks said. “When you're doing everything on your own — setting up focus, sound — you don't have the luxury of saying, ‘I want to put the camera here and do this.’”
Instead of posting short films every few months, Sparks was posting videos every week or two, helping him to connect with his viewers.
“It was nice because through making things on my own, it did connect me back with people in a very rewarding way,” Sparks said.
Sparks has also been working with fellow filmmaker and senior Katia Carmichael on a new project entitled "Connections," which follows two people in a long-distance relationship after graduation.
When Carmichael learned one of her principal actors wouldn’t be returning to campus this semester, she rewrote the script so the actor could participate in the film through FaceTime.
“There are a lot of instances of using media in shows and movies and it never feels right having that clear-cut video on a phone,” Carmichael said. “It doesn't work and it takes you out of it. I'm hoping that actually using the technology will have a different effect, and I wouldn't have been able to explore that without COVID making it completely necessary.”
In addition to her rewrites, Carmichael has been following Los Angeles’ production guidelines to ensure a safe set for cast and crew alike.
“Our crew size has gotten smaller, our cast is very small and I, as the producer, will also go through and disinfect everything that has been touched,” Carmichael said. “Everyone who isn't being filmed wears a mask at all times.”
Carmichael said “Connections” deals with how people can stay in touch no matter how large the physical distance between them.
“A lot of our relationships right now are online, unless we have the good fortune to be living with our friends,” Carmichael said. “We can still have these deep, emotional conversations and still have it matter as much virtually as it would in person.”
Senior Ellie Baker was set to make her directorial debut last semester with “Prom Night Bridge,” a film about two people who offer to drive a ghost home after a trip to the movies. Instead, Baker is still trying to find a way to finish the film under the same production guidelines Carmichael, Sparks and others are following.
In her time away from shooting, Baker watched films such as “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and “Schindler’s List” for the first time, an experience she said has helped her as a writer and filmmaker.
“Recognizing structural elements of movies wasn't really something that I had a feel for before, but after treating it like homework for two months, you start to see more of the rhythms and methods of storytelling,” Baker said. “It's kind of helped with my film writing to recognize how long a chase should last or when to isolate the characters so they can grow with each other.”
Baker said she is used to working through adversity on film sets and that keeping her cast and crew safe is just one more thing to learn from on set.
“It's so much to juggle,” Baker said. “You grow when you're in the crucible, so this is part of the learning process. It's one more thing to compensate for.”
After so many months away from the film and away from socializing, Baker said returning to set has given her something to look forward to amidst these difficult times.
“I think it's been a big motivator,” Baker said. “So much of my time and I think everybody's time right now is spent behind a screen for class, homework, entertainment and our social lives. Now, I finally get to do something with my hands and feel productive, like I'm doing something for myself and other people.”
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